When I was in high school, my English teacher told me that I’d never make it as a writer. The stink of red ink sat heavy in the air as he walked me through his edits on yet another one of my “C-” (or “below average”) papers. He turned the page to reveal more of my carefully chosen words scratched out and discarded. That’s when he dropped the bomb: “I just don’t think you have what it takes.”

My heart sank. I glanced at the speaker beside the clock to make sure the ringing in my ears wasn’t the school bell.

You can probably guess how this story ends. (You’re reading a piece I’ve written, after all.) But even today, there are times when his comments haunt me. Every time I have writer’s block or put a new piece out into the world, I think back to that conversation and fear he was right.

According to Kindra Hall, author of ​​Choose Your Story, Change Your Life, memorable moments like these often become our “self-stories” — the automatic thoughts that arise when we’re met with a tough decision, a problem to solve, or just a hard day at work. Our self-stories influence the voice in our heads, and if the plots are demoralizing, that voice may tell us we’re not good enough, that we’re imposters, or that we’ll never reach our goals.

Thankfully, we have the power to change the narratives that are not serving us. In an interview with HBR Ascend, Hall shared tips on how we can stop focusing on the negative, reframe our thinking, and actively identify and choose the stories that will help us move forward.

Tell me about self-stories. What are they and why are they so important? 

We often think that our day-to-day life is a result of our actions, behaviors, and decisions. That isn’t necessarily wrong, but we often miss the fact that our actions, behaviors, and decisions are based on the experiences we’ve had throughout our lives and the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences. Basically, our brains are programmed to make sense of the world around us, and it does that by creating self-stories.

Those stories build up a belief system that greatly impacts the way that we act, behave, and respond to the world around us. They ultimately determine whether our lives will continue to move in the directions that we desire or if our paths forward will be slow and arduous.

Can you give me an example?

Take imposter syndrome. Oftentimes, those with imposter syndrome will see themselves as frauds despite all that they’ve achieved. There is a disconnect between their inner stories and their actual experiences.

In a real-life scenario, this might manifest as someone telling themselves the story that they were hired for their dream job because they’re lucky, and not because they deserve it. That self-story is a recipe for disaster. What would happen if, instead, that person thought back to a time when they really struggled and had to work hard to get to this point? Telling themselves a more inspiring story can help change the way they show up and think about their achievements.

It sounds like you’re saying there are ways to change the stories you tell yourself. What does that process look like? 

In my book, I outline a four-step process for how to do this.

  1. Catch yourself in the act. This isn’t always easy to do because inner storytelling is an automatic process. We often don’t even realize that we’re doing it. Simply gaining awareness is a great first step. To catch yourself in the moment, use this knowledge to become more mindful and recognize clearly limiting beliefs when they pop up, like when you tell yourself, “I can’t do that,” “I’m too young,” or “I don’t have enough experience.” Anytime you hear yourself say a statement like that, it’s a sign that there may be a harmful story buried at the root of that belief. That leads us to step number two.
  2. Analyze your stories. Where are your stories coming from? Are they even true? I was recently on a podcast where the host brought up his struggles with perfectionism. When he looked back at his experiences, he remembered a story from his childhood. As a child, he always had a really hard time going to bed. To try and help, his parents made a bedtime chart, and every time he went to bed without getting up, he would get a literal gold star. If he had a perfect week, he could go to the local shop and pick out a toy. From a very young age, he had been taught that perfectionism is the goal. You need to identify where the stories you tell yourself originate. You can’t move forward and choose a different story without first taking this step.
  3. Choose a better story. For every story that you have about why you can’t do something, there’s another story you can tell yourself about why you can. Find that story and hold on to it. One thing to remember is that you don’t have to go looking for really big, life-changing stories. Sometimes, just one comment from someone who you respect carries much more weight than a negative memory from your past. It isn’t necessarily even the size of the story that matters. It’s the way that it makes you feel when you remember it.
  4. Install your new stories. Once you’ve chosen your new stories, you need to start telling yourself those stories at key and critical moments until they become your automatic thoughts. This will take practice, but over time, these stories will help you stop spiraling. It’s easier said than done, but when you start to catch your original story popping up, say to yourself, “I see you. But now, I have this other story, so you can sit down.”

So, what makes for a good self-story?  

There are four components that we as humans include when we’re telling a great story: an identifiable character, an authentic emotion, a moment, and specific details.

The same ingredients should go into the stories we tell ourselves. Get specific about a time and a place where you felt proud, powerful, worthy, or whatever feeling you want to remind yourself of in a difficult moment.

Part of the reason why our negative self-stories have such a stronghold on us is because feelings like embarrassment, shame, and rejection stick with us. We are biologically wired to notice the negative more than the positive. So we need to intentionally work on shifting this behavior, which is why it’s so important to hang onto stories that bring up more empowering emotions.

Another element is “specific details.” The more details you can remember, the more likely the story will be to stick. When we’re thinking about the past, recalling the nitty gritty can be difficult, which is why it can be equally, if not more, powerful to recognize a good self-story when it’s happening in the present. If you can tell a present moment will stick with you, try to capture it. Write it down, text it to yourself, or jot it down in an email draft. Capture it in its wholeness. Who were the people involved, what was the emotion you felt, what was the scene?

What’s the best way to use this framework for setting and following through on personal goals? 

At its essence, this entire process can help you get to know yourself better — who you are, where you came from, what you can do, and what you can overcome. If you really know who you are, you’re more likely to set goals that are aligned with your values and where you actually want to go.

In terms of following through on your goals, your inner stories can be huge fuel for the fire. Think about how your goals and achieving them would make you feel, and then tell yourself stories from your past that made you feel that way.

I actually put this into practice myself the past couple of years. In 2020 and 2021, my physical health took some hits. I was having a hard time even setting goals because the story in my head was: “Well, what’s the point? Why am I even going to try?” I had to get clear again on who I am and when I feel my best.

I started telling myself stories about when I feel physically my best — and I don’t just mean, “Oh, I always feel my best after I exercise, so I should exercise.” The story I relied on was of a wedding I went to after I’d been really consistent about exercising. It was a time in my life when I was keeping all the promises I had made to myself. I felt amazing. A woman came up to me out of the blue, and said, “You are just the most radiant woman!” When I told myself that story, I couldn’t wait to put my shoes on and move.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *