Create A New Story
The ability to choose your own story, with intention, is a gift of being human
Last week I wrote a career tip about recognizing your inner voice and the story it’s telling you, so you can identify it when it pops up, and choose instead to tell yourself a new story. (If you missed it, you can read it here.)
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that’s easier said than done!
In fact, the newest brain research tells us that we can’t undo old “wiring.” It will always be there.
But your brain is constantly re-wiring itself, so what you CAN do is create new wiring that will supersede the old story. The fancy name for this brain feature is “neuroplasticity.”
Fancy names aside, the ability to choose your own story, with intention, is a gift of being human.
Once you’ve made the choice, here are five tried-and-true practices for strengthening those new neural connections, so you can put that old negative story behind you for good.
Practice #1 – Realism
Are you a worrier? Worry only exists because of the story you’re telling yourself. The next time you find yourself “awfulizing” as soon as there’s a glitch, try these realism exercises.
Most Likely Outcome
After you’ve identified the worst possible outcome (your brain will have already done this for you, right?), ask yourself what the best possible outcome might be. Then ask yourself what the most LIKELY outcome is. Focus on THAT.
Make a list of the things that are in your control and those that are not. For those that are in your control, have you done everything you can? If not, focus on the actions you can take.
Once you’ve done everything that’s in your control to do, look at the list of things that are outside of your control. One by one, let them go. (If you believe in a higher power of any kind, this is a good time to call on it.) Unload that burden.
BTW, if your motto is “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” congratulations – you’ve already figured out how to focus on what’s in your control.
Practice #2 – Positivity
It takes a positive mindset to craft a better story for yourself, and even more positivity to hang on to that story when life gets difficult.
There are endless ways to build a practice of positivity in your life. Here are a couple of especially powerful ones.
Assume Positive Intent
Our natural tendency is to assume ill intent by others. That’s because the most primitive part of our brains is always running on autopilot and trying to keep us safe from threats. (Unfortunately, it hasn’t evolved past the days of the saber tooth tiger.)
Most of the time the assumption of ill intent is wrong. But even if it’s not, those negative thoughts don’t serve you well. They tie you in knots and keep you from being your best self. And to make matters worse, they can even become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
You can rewrite that negative story into one that will serve you better by assuming positive intent.
Decide to believe that the person in question is a reasonable, rational human being who is doing their best to make good decisions and get through life as well as they can.
Use your worst-case, best-case thinking skills to lay out the full spectrum of possible motives. Choose to discard the worst-case scenario and believe the best-case until proven otherwise.
( By all means, if you have access to the person and it makes sense, ask them why they did or said what they did. You’ll be able to deal with facts instead of assumptions, good or bad.)
I’m a junkie for information about how the human brain works. It’s a proven fact that you can’t hold negative thoughts and thoughts of gratitude in your mind at the same time.
That makes gratitude one of the best hacks for rewiring around those nasty old stories.
A gratitude practice is any method of building gratitude thoughts into your daily life. Some people use a gratitude journal. Others literally count their blessings during prayer or meditation, a 10-minute walk, or as they’re falling asleep. You can build a daily habit to go out of your way to thank others. You can even turn a gratitude practice into a family activity, with a bedtime routine where each person lists three good things from their day.
We’ve all been hurt by others. It may have been something as minor as criticism by a loved one or a major trauma such as physical or emotional abuse. The natural reaction to wounds like these includes anger, sadness, confusion, bitterness, perhaps even vengeance.
How long have you been holding on to some of those feelings?
How are they serving you?
How are they impacting the other person?
At some point during this self-examination you may realize that continually stewing in those negative feelings is harming you. Meanwhile the other party probably isn’t even aware of your feelings, much less feeling contrite about their part in the situation.
It’s been said that holding onto resentment is “like taking poison & expecting the other person to die.”
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the harm done to you or making up with the other party. Forgiveness is an accepting, a letting go, a way of reaching a more peaceful inner place.
Forgiving is also a way to shift your focus to the future, “giving up all hope for a better past.” (You’ll see more about focusing on the future in the next section, on Perspective.)
Practice #3 – Perspective
I wrote a blog a few months back about the gifts of perspective in my life. Here are a couple of great approaches for shifting your perspective on your own life.
Humor and playfulness
Humor generally invites us to see the absurdity in reality. In other words, it gives us a chance to see our lives or the people and things around us from a completely new perspective.
Playfulness is tougher to define; it’s closely related to humor yet not quite the same. It can help you frame or reframe everyday situations – choosing to see them as entertaining, intellectually stimulating, or personally interesting.
Sometimes playfulness is described as light-hearted or whimsical. Whatever it is, we all know it when we see it. And we know whatever else it is, it’s enjoyable.
Taking time for playfulness can help you override those negative thoughts and voices that are hard-wired in your head. It can also help you make novel connections and see possibilities that you missed before, foster better relationships, relieve stress, learn new skills, and expand your self-definition – all of which can help you wire in a positive story of your own choosing.
Helping others is a great way to put your own life into perspective.
Human beings are full of surprises…even when you’re ostensibly helping those “less fortunate,” you’re likely to find people with amazing strength, or an indomitable spirit, or a perpetual sense of fun and humor that defy explanation in light of their life circumstances.
Do you remember learning to drive? No doubt you quickly realized you needed to focus far down the road instead of just beyond the hood of the car.
Focusing on the future works on your brain in many ways. In addition to broadening your vision, it
- Helps you make better decisions by anticipating future events
- Makes you (and those around you) more flexible by seeing today’s change as just an adjustment
- Keeps you purposeful, consciously and intentionally focused on your goals
- Reframes stumbling blocks – huge up close, they don’t look so insurmountable in the bigger landscape
- Helps you see progress, noting how far you’ve come
Mindfulness is purposely focusing your attention on the present moment – and accepting it without judgment.
It is the conscious practice of “be here now.”
Research shows mindfulness can help you stop repetitive negative thoughts that can loop continuously in your mind. (Cue those sleepless nights.) It also enhances self-insight and intuition and helps with controlling fear – all of which will increase your ability to rewire your brain for the positive story.
Practice #4 – Learning
Learning programs your brain. But research has proven the process of learning also physically changes your brain, strengthening synaptic connections and growing new ones.
So essentially, you can think of learning as both software and hardware.
The brain growth happens throughout your life, not just when you are a child. We now know that intelligence is not fixed at birth but will continue forming and developing when you continue to learn.
And studies show that having a growth mindset (just being aware of this research!) will improve your ability to learn.
Curiosity is key to learning. It makes your brain more receptive to new information and makes the learning enjoyable. Variety helps as well.
To boost your brain power and ability to learn, try any (or all) of these approaches.
- Eat for your brain – replace trans fats with healthy fats from fish and nuts
- Practice your positive storytelling
- Try something new and different – mental, artistic, physical – any kind of novel stimulation will build new neural pathways
- Make simple changes to your routine – break out of your comfortable habits
Practice #5 – Connection
Human beings are wired for connection. We NEED to be connected with others.
When you connect with another human being, your brain lights up in a special way and releases powerful feel-good chemicals. It boosts your mood, reduces stress, and improves self-esteem.
And brain research also reveals that our brains react to social pain exactly as if it were physical pain.
The lack of human connection in our lives is so dangerous that prolonged loneliness has been called the new smoking (a recent study by the National Institute on Aging shows the health risks are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day).
It’s not only the strong ties in our lives – the small number of close relationships we each have – that have a positive impact.
Weak ties also play an important role. These are the people you don’t know as well, or maybe interact with only once in a while. Think of the other parents at your kid’s activities, the neighbors down the street, and the co-workers you only see in the lunchroom.
Interactions with weak ties impact your brain in the same positive manner as your close ties. (Yes, even if you’re an introvert!) In fact, interacting with complete strangers as if they were weak ties works just as well.
Those people who always chit-chat with the grocery store clerk and the person behind them in line? They’re happier and healthier than the ones who don’t.
Having a diverse network of strong and weak ties has been shown to protect your physical and psychological health throughout life.
If you need to improve your connectedness, try one or more of these approaches – several of which have already been mentioned!
- Join an interest group that meets regularly – book club, hikers, photographers, etc.
- Sign up for an activity you’re interested in – common interests are a great way to bond
- Form a habit of smiling, making eye contact, and saying “good morning” to the first three people you see every day
- Practice random acts of kindness
- Stay in touch – or get back in touch – with friends
Many of the practices I’ve mentioned here have a long list of additional benefits to your health and well-being beyond helping you reframe your life to write a new, more positive story.
Remember, the ability to choose your own story, with intention, is a gift of being human.
Choose to put that old negative story behind you for good.