By Noreen Keesey

“I’m not a leader,” she told me. Then, almost immediately, she followed up with the comment, “Oh, that’s literally my job!” Mary (not her real name) had been telling herself a story about her work and the role she played. It wasn’t until she made that statement out loud that she recognized it.

We all tell ourselves stories. Sometimes, we do so to protect ourselves from a reality we aren’t ready or able to face. It isn’t necessarily bad that we tell stories. But if we are not careful, they can limit us or keep us stuck in an undesirable situation. They can stifle our dreams.

The stories we tell ourselves can be subtle. We might not notice them if we aren’t paying attention. One way to start recognizing them is to listen for extreme language. Statements like, “Things never go my way anyway, so why bother trying?” or, “Things that look promising always fall apart!” are signs that stories might be at play.

You could also be limiting yourself by believing that something cannot happen until a particular condition exists. If getting that job or losing some weight or meeting that partner will make life perfect, that might be a story you are telling to prevent you from taking action that feels scary.

Since it is sometimes hard to notice our own stories, it can be helpful to talk things through with a friend or a peer group. Let them know that you want help in identifying unhelpful stories, and give them permission to gently challenge you if they hear one. Whether you choose to examine your stories alone or with support, ask the following questions and see what answers arise.  

  1. What story am I telling? The story may seem obvious, but sometimes clearly stating what we think is going on sheds light on the fact that our thoughts might be getting the best of us. Once you have clearly stated what you believe to be true, make a case for it. Ask the next question.
  2. Do I know for sure that this story is true? With this question, you are looking for facts that support or disprove your story. Go beyond answering with a simple yes or no. You want to get beyond your beliefs and feelings about a situation and present evidence. Now that you have given the story a reality check, see if you can reframe the situation.
  3. Is there a better story I can tell? We have a choice about the stories we tell ourselves. Though we cannot just invent a story and have everything work out the way we desire, we can tell a story that is supportive and realistic. Our stories can affect our outlook, our behavior, and our well-being. Becoming aware of the unconscious stories we are telling gives us the power to choose better ones.

Neale Donald Walsch said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Now might be a good time to try getting a little uncomfortable. Challenge that story you’ve been telling yourself and see if another story will serve you better. You are the author of your life; pay attention to the story you are writing.   

Noreen is leadership and team development coach and trainer based in Bismarck.