Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on February 6, 2019.
If you could watch a movie of all your self-talk over the past seven days, what would be the main themes?
What kind of character are you portrayed as? Confident, happy, grateful or insecure and unhappy? If someone else could watch your self-story over the past week, would it show someone who is positive or negative?
This micro skill reviews the power of self-storytelling. The stories we tell ourselves can be both helpful and hurtful.
Our self-talk is our interpretation of what we’re thinking or experiencing. It’s how we process these experiences and information and how we solve problems, ponder options, make decisions and judge ourselves and others. The collection of our self-talk influences our self-story, which defines what we believe about ourselves, our potential, our abilities, our current circumstances and our past and future.
We experience our self-talk in the moment; it can influence our mood and state of mind. Positive self-talk can boost our mental health and negative self-talk can strain it.
The degree we’re in tune with our self-storytelling can be important for our mental health and self-confidence. Ultimately, our self-stories are what we tell ourselves as to what’s true about us. They can program our belief system to what is and is not possible for us.
Who we are today is not just a result of luck or what others have done to help us get to where we are in our career and life. Much of what we have is based on the stories we’ve told ourselves.
The origin for our self-storytelling varies and depends upon the interactions and experiences we have in our social, professional and personal lives.
Positively influencing our self-stories requires that we listen to them and become aware of the kinds of stories we’re telling ourselves.
We’re the director of self-storytelling, not just an actor playing out some script. If our self-stories are not positive or of no benefit to us, it’s up to us to change them.
Once we believe that we’re the director of our self-storytelling, we’re in position to take charge and develop the skills to cut stories we don’t want and to focus on writing a new, positive self-story.
Learning how to write our own stories requires not only the belief that we can but also the willingness to make a commitment to monitor our self-stories and to do what’s necessary to change them for the better. This may require getting professional help to learn how to change some limited belief or thinking. After 30 years of doing therapy with individuals, I know that once a person learns how to take charge of their thoughts they’re free to believe and become who they want to be.
If we want to run a marathon but today can’t run a kilometre, it’s logical to expect that it will take several months to develop the fitness required to run 42 km.
With patience and persistence – like learning to run a marathon – we can learn to impact and shape our self-storytelling if we’re struggling. Our self-storytelling influences what we believe about our potential, worthiness and happiness.
There are things you can do for yourself to help create positive self-stories, and when needed to edit and change them.
Coaching tips for positive self-storytelling:
1. Lock down your self-talk ground rules – Define what kind of self-talk you will and will not accept, as well as how long you will allow yourself to loop in negative self-talk. It’s unrealistic to think we will eliminate all negative self-talk. However, it is realistic to set a boundary for how long you will accept any negative self-talk (for example, a 24-hour rule). If after the defined period you can’t change yourself, you can take a proactive step toward taking charge by talking with a trusted friend to help you change your perspective.
2. Define the kind of self-stories you want to tell – This principle requires the self-discipline to take a moment at the start of each day to set your expectations for the kinds of self-storytelling you want for the day. This is an opportunity to create the self-talk of what you will be successful at as well as acknowledging the challenges you’ll face (for example, I’m prepared and will do great in my presentation; I’m going to be patient with my daughter and not get frustrated).
3. Each week close a self-story chapter – Each Sunday night, take a moment to close a chapter. This moment of reflection can be an anchor for positive self-storytelling (such as being a patient partner, productive employee, resilient person who can push through moments of adversity). This action can anchor the kinds of stories you feel good about and benefit from and what stories you want to stop.