We all have stories we tell ourselves – stories are what make us human. We have an infinite capacity to create and recreate ourselves though our past, present and future narratives. The vehicle for this is language.
“Language is this extraordinary ability – not just in a spoken or written form, but in how we speak to ourselves,” says ontological coach Alan Sieler.
As human beings, we have the capacity to be engaged in dialogue with another and at the very same time be involved in completely different dialogue in our own mind. “We are constantly engaged in an internal dialogue with ourselves. Some of these conversations are happening in the moment, but a lot are often conversations that we learned over time, years and years ago, often without realising.”
The stories we tell ourselves stem from beliefs that can be both helpful and harmful. Sieler refers to this process as the random acquiring of self-beliefs that come from two major sources: our lived experiences and surrounding communities.
“As we grow up, we learn to take on beliefs about ourselves and we characterise ourselves without realising it. Someone might receive praise for their dancing and go on to think, ‘I’m a good dancer because my parents or teacher told me’, which is great. But, unfortunately, sometimes people have managed to develop negative beliefs about themselves, such as not being good enough, and that becomes part of their linguistic makeup.”
The stories that have shaped our self-belief must face the harshest arbitrator – ourselves. What we choose to be is as infinite as the stories themselves.
We are also born into the stories of our family and communities, adds Sieler. “These are shared stories that contain fundamental views of the world – for example, the implicit possibilities or opportunities available to someone born into a lower socioeconomic environment will differ from someone born into a higher socio-economic environment.”
The stories we tell ourselves become like one-sentence scripts that we rehearse in our minds over and over, shaping how we see the world and what is possible for us.
Ontological coaching inspects both the philosophical and biological basis to the conversations we have with ourselves in an attempt to uncover what aspects of our lives may be hindering us, explains Sieler.
“On the surface, someone may appear to be social and happy, but within themselves there is quite a substantial unhappiness and emptiness because the language is generating suffering.”
THE PLOT THICKENS
There are several common core negative self-beliefs that form central parts of stories: I am not worthy; I am not good enough; I don’t belong; I am not loveable; I am not a good learner; I’m not valued; and so on.
“These beliefs are fundamental existential issues that may not always be present, but linger in the background of people’s lives,” says Sieler.
While we may not always be aware of our negative beliefs, stories, or the mood we are carrying in the background with us, the good news is that like any learned behaviour or belief, our stories and beliefs can be unlearned.
“I’ll often ask someone, were you born with this belief that you are unworthy or not good enough? Most of the time people say no, which is great because if you weren’t born with it then you can unlearn it and relearn something else. You can to develop another script for yourself,” says Sieler.
Sometimes this may be as straightforward as flipping the script from “I’m not worthy” to “I’m worthy, because I am.” Simply being human is reason for worthiness, but such a switch in beliefs can be difficult to accept when a story is deeply ingrained.
If so, Sieler often suggests interchanging a negative belief for another narrative that may not be at the forefront of your self-talk – for example, swapping “I’m not worthy” for “I am a good learner” if that is something you can readily accept about yourself.
“You are the only person you have got to convince,” adds Sieler.
Such an exercise may sound a lot like repeating positive affirmations in the mirror, but when it comes to letting go of negative self-beliefs, there needs to be an equal participation of the language, body and emotion.
“It’s not a matter of fake it till you make it – it’s a shift in every fibre of your being to ‘I am worthy, I am a learner’ that eventually becomes a different compass for someone to live by.”
To really feel a shift in “every fibre of your being”, Sieler recommends recording yourself with the new script in video or audio and playing it back to yourself to check if your tone sounds convincing, or your body looks solid and confident.
Another practice is standing in front of the mirror, keeping your eyes fixed on yourself as you say the new script.
“Our body and emotions are just as important as language. It doesn’t matter how many times you speak the mantra behind the toilet door, it is not going to change for you.”
While talking to ourselves may feel ridiculous, studies have proven that talking aloud helps people solve problems – from preparing for job interviews and alternative reactions to an experience to helping to find misplaced keys.
Gary Lupyan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, found that naming what you’re looking for out loud – for example, “keys, keys, where are my keys?” – helps us to keep the visual representation of the object in mind.
“The name helps you visualise the object, enabling you to actually see it better,” he says.
Such a phenomenon shows how powerful our internal and external language can be, helping us to first visualise and eventually find something in reality.
SELF-KNOWLEDGE AS POWER
Our stories can often serve as self-protection and enable us to find order in the chaos of our everyday lives.
Yet conversely, escaping the stories may require embracing the disorder of the world around. As filmmaker Shekhar Kapur details in his TED Talk ‘We are the stories we tell ourselves’: “… the first thing about storytelling that I learned, and I follow all the time is: Panic. Panic is the great access of creativity because that’s the only way to get rid of your mind. Get rid of your mind. Get out of it, get it out. And let’s go to the universe because there’s something out there that is more truthful than your mind, that is more truthful than your universe.”
He continued: “Out of the emptiness comes a moment of creativity. So that’s what I do.”
Be it confronting our panic or emptiness, facing our emotions and confronting our core beliefs is what can help us to change them – rather than habitually running from them or using them as an armour against reality.
“When we’re under threat, we run,” writes researcher Brene Brown. “If we feel exposed or hurt, we find someone to blame, or blame ourselves before anyone else can, or pretend we don’t care. But this unconscious storytelling leaves us stuck. We keep tripping over the same issues, and after we fall, we find it hard to get back up again.”
While researching her book Rising Strong, Brown spent time with a variety of people adept at recovering from setbacks, including Fortune 500 leaders to long-married couples, and discovered one common characteristic: an ability to reckon with our own storylines.
“[Resilient people] can recognise their own confabulations and challenge them. The good news is that we can rewrite these stories. We just have to be brave enough to reckon with our deepest emotions,” she writes.
A useful metaphor employed by Brown is that of dead reckoning. “In navigation, dead reckoning is how you calculate your location. It involved knowing where you’ve been and how you got there – speed, route, wind conditions. It’s the same with life: We can’t chart a new course until we find out where we are, how we came to that point and where we want to go. Reckon comes from the Old English recenian, meaning ‘to narrate’. When you reckon with emotion, you can change your narrative. You have to acknowledge your feelings and get curious about the story behind them. Then you can challenge those confabulations and get to the truth.”
In this way, self-knowledge – knowing where we are and where we have been – gives us the power to challenge what may no longer be serving us.
We can then write a different story for ourselves. “The most effective way to become truly aware of our stories is to write them down, so get your thoughts on paper,” recommends Brown.
Similarly, writer and best-selling author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, recommends a writing exercise to a listener of the Dear Sugars podcast who is telling herself she is in a continuous rut.
“Take out a piece of paper and write a different version of your story, one in which you are not denying any of the bad things that have happened to you or any of the mistakes you have made or regrets you have about the decisions you have made, but instead putting it into a story about you taking agency and stepping into your life. What is the other thing you can call yourself if you can’t call yourself ‘girl in a rut?’ One thing I would call you is girl at the beginning of a glorious journey.”
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As storytellers, as humans, we have the ability to face our emotions, rewrite the script of what may be hindering us and believe it.