There is great power in the narratives we hold about ourselves, each other and the world. The words we share reflect our thoughts and beliefs. By extension, what we talk about feeds how we behave, and ultimately how we feel. But, our thoughts and beliefs don't arise from thin air. They are woven together, by the stories that have been "told" about us - all that we have heard, internalised, and then passed on.
We manifest the very best tales about who we are, and what we may yet become and we also have the power to destabilise all possibility and hope - not just for ourselves, but for others too. To illustrate, it's quite obvious that a child who is always criticised will grow into an adult who lacks self-esteem and confidence. A person who is overprotected, or constantly told to "be careful", will develop a view of the world as unsafe, such that he or she will move about with fearfulness and caution. Lacking in self-worth, or being frightened of our endeavours, becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. We become the very story that we were told. So much so, that the story is no longer just something we once heard, but becomes the internal narrative we tell ourselves.
Consider then, how you are represented. By whom? And how is the narrative told and retold? What is the impact of this process in your life, and how does it affect those you love and cherish? Is your book about YOU exciting, enthralling and full of possibility? Or is it limiting, defeatist and lack lustre? Whatever the story contained in your book, you don't have to keep re-reading or narrating it, especially if it does not serve you well. What's more, your life isn't over yet! There are pages sitting there, entirely blank and untouched. You could choose to keep rehearsing past losses and hurts, and fill more chapters with the same. You could offer the pen to someone else, and allow them to carve out the journey that lies ahead of you. Or, you could take charge of the writing, become the author and create the kind of life and experience that you would like. Isn't that an inviting proposition?
In the field of narrative therapy, this process is referred to as moving from a fixed history, to a preferred future. To be honest, the history is only ever as fixed and certain as you allow it to be. No two people will describe you in the same way. People who love you will always select the best stories about your life, and those who are indifferent or even cruel, won't help bringing up when you last messed up! None of us are perfect. But to be labelled by "thin descriptions" is a disservice to us. Whenever someone tells you that you're not good enough, or can't do something, make it your personal resolve to prove them wrong. It can be a life changing stance, and one that everyone should try.
So what are your internal conversations? Where will they take you? What if you could change the conversation, and arrive somewhere else?
This thinking in itself generates hope, and melts away the stuckness.
As an example, when you speak with a child who feels loved and empowered, just ask them what they want to be, or where they wish to spend their time. You'll be blown away by the child's creativity - there is no limit, no boundary. The world and all it's opportunities are completely open. We somehow lose that magic as we grow older. It gets knocked out of us by the "don't, won't, can't" narratives, which inhibit us in so many ways.
Our lives are defined not just by the stories we hold, but how those stories are told. But stories are not bound in stone, and can be rewritten - always. It just depends how much you wish to agree with someone elses report about your life. What about all the stuff they've missed, skated over or even misrepresented? Too often, others become experts on our story. Sometimes, that may even be our therapist, teacher or parent. So, take back the reigns! Navigate to where you wish to be. The possibilities are only as limited, as your thoughts and beliefs - those imposed (sometimes self-imposed) narratives.
To share a personal story, my father moved to the UK as an economic migrant. He had worked from the age of 11yrs, supporting a large family who were very poor. He had £5 in his pocket when he arrived, and someone even snatched that away from him! Those who had been asked to support and encourage, turned their backs and did the very opposite. This could easily have turned into a narrative of lack, of hardship, of limited opportunity and unfairness. That narrative could have fuelled anxiety, stress or depression. Yet today, this man has a happy family, he owns multiple businesses, has a property portfolio around the world and spends his rest days on his yacht, meandering across rivers and countryside locations. What he missed in financial capital and support, he made up with inner belief, ambition and graft. He refused to let anyone else dictate the story of his life! The reason I share this example is that no-one should limit what you can achieve, or who you can be - not even yourself!
When couples come to see me for therapy, they often begin with their problems. But what I am more interested in is their hopes and dreams! They have not come to therapy to drown in more problem experiences. What has brought them, I like to believe, is what they want to experience in their lives together. It is their hope that attracts them to therapy, less so than their despair. Clearly, both factors (hope and despair) are part of the motivation - but to stay in the story of despair can feel heavy and reduce movements forward. Problem talk saps energy, and should only be given just enough space in your life to set the ball rolling forwards. It's what follows the problem talk, that is exciting!
Try this exercise - just talk for 5 mins to someone about your problems and troubles, and have them talk to you in the same vein. Here one another out, with care and concern. Then, switch the focus of your story telling. Talk for 5 minutes in turn about your hopes, your dreams your ambitions. Sit back, and reflect on how you felt when you did the problem talk, and how you feel after the hopeful talk. See how the energy levels fell, and then rose. What I am saying is we are driven by our aspirations, not by our fears.
Every research paper you care to review will tell you that a happy workforce, motivated by rewards, is always a million miles more productive than a group led by anxiety and threat.
Yet we accept the "internal bully", allow that self-defeating and self-criticising narrative to keep on determining how we feel, and ultimately which course our life will take. By becoming a better manager of ourselves, and choosing to invest positively within our own sense of personhood, we can reap untold rewards and profits - emotionally, socially, in respect of family, work and personal fulfilment. Every aspect of our lives can be transformed, if we have the courage to change our inner narrative.
So...open up the book of your life. Consider what the next chapter should be, and start to write.
Dr Bobby Sura BSc Hons, PG Dip, DClinPsy, CPsychol
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist
Dr Bobby Sura is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist specialising within the field of lifespan and family based mental health needs. He has over 20yrs NHS experience and 13yrs in the private sector, being the proprietor of Clinical Psychology Direct and Partner for Solihull Well Being Clinic. Dr Sura is Chartered with the British Psychological Society (BPS), Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP), Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) with eligibility for registration with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and Association of Family Therapy (AFT).