The Stories You Tell Yourself Matter: Four Steps To Developing An Empowering Narrative

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are arguably the most powerful stories ever told in the world.

Why?  Because what we say about our selves impacts every part of ourselves–how we show up in the world, how we feel, what we think, the context surrounding experiences, how we experience things, the quality of those experiences–pretty much everything we do.

You and I become the sum total of our personal narratives.

And guess what?  You are the definer of your self.  That is, you assign all the meaning there is to your life and experience.  No one else can do that for you.  Circumstances cannot dictate what you feel or think.  No one else can determine what you think or feel.  You choose.

So clearly, it’s vital to assign the right meaning, to tell yourself the most accurate story about your self.

One of my clients recently was feeling very discouraged about the lack of progress in his life.  His goal is to change his business and professional mission.  There are a huge number of logistics and details that need to be addressed for him to exit his current career well and begin his new one strategically.  And each action item takes so long to fulfill.

He told me he felt like he was at a standstill.  He felt like his big strategic steps were simply going unfulfilled; that he wasn’t able to be strategic.  “I’m paralyzed, going nowhere.”

So what was his personal narrative?

He wasn’t moving forward.  He was failing at his goals.  Therefore he was a failure, unsuccessful at changing his life.

What did it matter what his personal narrative was?  He was burdened down with discouragement, a sense of failure, that was draining him of energy, hope, and enthusiasm about his journey forward.

The stories you tell yourself about your self do matter!  They can either empower you and move you forward to what you’re wanting for your life; or they can disempower you, draining your energy, and slowing your momentum.

After working on the narrative, talking together about what reality really was–that even picking the low hanging fruit (those small, easy steps that he could take) was being strategic because every step was creating forward momentum–my client developed a different story about what was happening.

“I am moving forward with every step I take, even the small, easy steps.  Momentum IS strategy.  Therefore I am being strategic and smart right now.  I am moving forward.”

Notice the radical difference between the two narratives.  One was disempowering; the other was empowering.  One was de-energizing; the other, energizing and hopeful.

The story you tell yourself matters!

So let me suggest FOUR STEPS to developing the right narrative.

First, identify your current story.

How would you describe the narrative you’re telling yourself?

What words are you using?  Are they emotionally charged words?  Are the words simply descriptive?  If so, descriptive of what?

What feelings are being generated from your story?

Second, evaluate the content of your current story.

Is what you’re telling yourself empowering you or disempowering you?  If you widened the context to a bigger picture, is your story true about you?  Or at its foundation is it a story of a limiting belief?

Notice my client’s story essentially was in the form of a limiting belief about himself:  I’m a failure; I’m not capable of success.  That content was debilitating to him.

Third, characterize the effects (outcomes) of your current story.

Be really honest here.  What does your story do to you?  Is it helping you?  Is it hindering your progress?  Is it empowering or disempowering you?  Is it serving as fuel to move you forward or is it draining you of hope and positive energy?  Is it paralyzing you from acting proactively or is it inhibiting you from momentum?

Does your story get you excited about your life?  Or is it contributing to discouragement, despair, depression?

Does your current story inspire you to love more deeply or to judge more critically?

Does your narrative cast you as the victim–everyone else is to blame for your predicament?  Or does it empower you to take responsibility for what’s within your control and move forward without judgment on yourself?

This third step is crucial for developing the motivation to change your narrative.  So be honest with yourself by looking as clearly as possible at the outcomes you’re experiencing.

Fourth, reframe your story via new metaphors.

This is not about simply telling yourself something that isn’t true to try to make yourself feel better.  It’s not about lying to yourself.

A new narrative must be authentic for it to be powerful and transformational.

So this usually involves being able to make a shift in your thinking about your situation–developing a new paradigm.  And what helps is to reframe by means of a new metaphor.

My client was telling himself a story based upon his limiting belief–“I’m a failure and incapable of success; I’m stuck.”

So all his actions were being interpreted in that light, in the context of that false, limiting narrative about himself.

But when he allowed himself a shift in thinking–to allow himself the opportunity to see his easy, small steps as in fact turning the flywheel of change, every step creating a subtle momentum–he could develop a new mantra for himself, a new narrative:  “Momentum is strategy; I’m am moving myself forward even incrementally; I am being a success even when I’m taking small steps.”

The metaphor that landed for him involved sailing.  Momentum in sailing is everything.  If you are going to tack (change direction) you have to have enough speed to make that turn.  So at times the only way you can build your speed (forward momentum) is to sail in a direction that gives you enough wind to finally turn into it.  And that direction may not be toward your final destination.

So you could get discouraged and think you’re failing.  When in fact, you’re making a strategic decision to chase the wind in order to build your momentum enough so you can tack toward your destination.   Momentum is strategy.

That new metaphor landed powerfully for my client.  He wrote it down in the form of a mantra to look at every day–to remind himself of his new story and his central empowering role in his narrative.

“I am being successful; I am being strategic by taking even these small steps that don’t always appear to be hugely significant.  Yet they are building momentum, energy, and positive focus that is moving me forward.”

What stories are you telling yourself these days?  Are they true about you?  Are they empowering you to live the life you’re wanting to live?  Are your personal narratives serving you or are you serving your personal narratives?  Do you have the courage and tenacity to change your story if that is what’s called for?

Here’s to honest, empowering story-telling!

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Looking for a Speaker or Coach?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in coaching for how to be an effective culture architect in your groups? Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.