We have more power to change our lives than we think we do. Much of the unhappiness and frustration in life arises from the stories we tell ourselves---the conclusions that we draw and predictions that we make based on what has happened to us in the past. The events of the past lead us to form the beliefs and assumptions that guide the future.
Examples: No one in my family can handle money...I can't help it, I'm attracted to irresponsible mates...I'm just not a good communicator...I've always been overweight.
Most people view these beliefs as unchangeable truths. They remain unaware that they have "authored" their own stories. Meanwhile, the way they habitually talk about their lives---whether out loud or silently---continues to shape their circumstances. Because they have not taken responsibility for their stories, they keep gathering data to support the same beliefs...and they remain stuck.
Example: If you keep telling yourself the story that people are inconsiderate and selfish, you will focus on every instance of selfishness and ignore generous behavior, thereby gathering more evidence to reinforce your point of view.
You can have a more fulfilling life by rewriting the stories that hold you back.
How to do it...
WRITE OUT THE OLD STORY
You need to identify your stories before you can change them.
Pick an area of your life that you are not happy with---such as money, marriage, work, health, friendship or parenting. Then do a written "purge." Write out everything that bothers you about this area. Describe any hurtful incidents you remember in connection with this theme and how you felt at the time...how you feel now...whose fault you think the problem is...what you expect to happen...what you fear.
Example: A person who is having difficulty finding the love of his/her life may write a purge such as one of these--- Dating is tough...My last three relationships didn't work...Men are horrible at communicating...I'm never going to fall in love.
ANALYZE THE STORY
Now examine your story. You are not trying to change anything at this point. You are just getting to know your story better as a story, identifying the assumptions behind it so that you can better understand how your thinking functions. Your written purge has all the information you need for this step.
>Theories and generalizations.
These are statements you wrote that seem to explain why your problem exists.
Examples: No matter how hard I work no one ever appreciates me....I can never fulfill my career goals as long as I am taking care of my kids...Men (or women) are untrustworthy...I'm just not disciplined...No one will hire you if you're over 50.
>Contradictions with your life.
These are ways in which what you say you want is incongruent with what you actually do in your life.
Example: You say that you would like to be slim and fit, yet you avoid exercising.
This refers to ways that your own behavior reflects your family's traits and actions.
Ask yourself, how does this situation remind me of my father, mother, siblings, grandparents?
Lineage can be seen not only in similarity but also in dramatically opposite behavior.
Example: If your parents had a distant relationship with each other, you may have gone to the other extreme, acting intrusive or needy.
CHALLENGE YOUR STORY
Now that you have identified your assumptions, look for evidence in your life that could refute those beliefs. Two ways to do this...
1. Find examples of times you were successful in that same problem area, no matter how small the success or how long ago it occurred.
Example: Someone who struggles with debt remembers the time in elementary school when he saved for months to buy a bicycle.
2. Think of an area of your life in which you have been successful, and write down the skills that contributed to this success. Use that information to demonstrate to yourself that you have the ability to succeed...and then you can apply the same skills to the problem area.
Example: A high-powered executive in his late 40s refused to go to any doctor for years despite worsening dental problems and shortness of breath. When he wrote out his story, he described how his father used to claim that doctors were like crooked auto mechanics who would find all kinds of made-up problems that supposedly needed fixing. The executive realized that he had adopted his father's fear of doctors. He also had taken on his father's belief that that failing health was inevitable in middle age and that going to the doctor just made things worse.
Although the executive had not been able to manage his health care, he did know how to manage successfully in business. At work, he was confident and effective at evaluating risks and making tough decisions. He resolved to approach his health the way he would approach a management issue at work. He listed the results he wanted to achieve, the steps he needed to take and the doctors he needed to consult in order to reach that outcome.
WRITE A NEW STORY
On a new sheet of paper, write, The truth about me is... Then describe the positive outcome you long for.
Example 1: The truth about me is...I could manage my health as well as I manage my business.
Example 2: The truth about me is...I have mourned my late husband, and it now is time to find another love. There is someone for me, and I will find him.
Next write, What I will do about it now is...Ask yourself, If this new story were true, what actions would be consistent with it? List every action you would take if you really believed the new story.
ACT ON YOUR NEW STORY
Once a day, read you new story and do at least one action from your list of actions.
Tell your story to someone else who believes in you. Ask him/her to help make sure you follow through with the actions that you have committed to taking.
Keep rereading your story every day for a least 30 days---and longer, if necessary, until your actions generate momentum and you truly believe your new story without having to convince yourself.
Shifting your story happens remarkably quickly once you recognize that you are the author. *
Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman of The Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company based in Mew York City.