By Leo Babauta
Most of us don’t realize how powerful stories are in our lives, because we don’t even notice that we’re telling ourselves a story.
But stories shape everything. For example, the stories you tell yourself is the reason you feel:
-Resentment toward a loved one or coworker
-Guilty about what you haven’t done
-Overwhelmed by all that you need to do
-Anxious about the uncertainty of the world
-Stuck in your old habits
-Avoidant of your difficult tasks
-Bored or lonely
-Nothing in the basic reality of life makes us feel these things. It’s our stories about our reality that creates the feelings.
Let’s look at how this works in our lives, then how we can use the power of story to change everything we want to change.
How Story Shapes Our Lives
If someone you know says to you, “Would you like some of this salad I’m making?” What kind of reaction would that provoke in you?
It depends on how you view the situation—what your narrative or story is of the situation:
- If you see this as a generous act of kindness and this person is contributing towards your healthy life, then you might feel grateful.
- If this question is seen as a part of a narrative of hundreds of times this person has criticized your weight or criticized you personally, then you might feel hurt and angry.
- Or maybe you have a narrative that salad is terrible, and you might feel disgusted and insulted, or you might feel oppressed by diet culture.
- These are three very different reactions to the same act. And they’re determined by your view of things, your narrative or story.
Every day, our lives are shaped by the story we have of ourselves, of others, and of the reality around us. We have feelings about politics, world crises, our community, social media, our work, an upcoming meeting, a conversation we had this morning, how good we’ve been at keeping up with new habits.
If you miss a day of meditation or exercise, depending on your story about yourself, you might feel that this is no big deal and just start again the next day. Or you might feel that you’re terrible at this and you’ll never get it right and your life is meaningless. Very different reactions and results from the same act, and it’s all dependent on story.
I invite you to reflect: What results are you getting in your life right now, and how are they shaped by your stories? What is your relationship like to others in your life right now, including yourself, and how is that shaped by your stories? What is your relationship to food, exercise, meditation, self-care, rest, work, play and how are those relationships shaped by your stories?
Once we can become aware of our stories and how they shape our lives, through the kind of reflection I’m inviting you to do right now—then we can start to reshape things through new stories.
Take a few minutes to reflect.
How to Use Story as a Change Tool
You can completely change how you feel, change the results you’re getting, and change your relationship to anything, by changing your story.
You definitely don’t have to change anything. If you want to keep resenting someone, want to keep feeling guilty or powerless or overwhelmed, you can keep your usual story and there is no problem.
But if you’d like to change, consider using story as a tool for that change.
Here’s how it could work:
-Identify the feeling, result or way of relating to something that you’d like to change. Examples: I eat a lot of junk food, I am constantly frustrated by people, I can’t stop looking at social media.
-See if you can identify the story that is responsible for that. Examples: Junk food comforts me when I’m stressed; people shouldn’t act that way; I need social media apps on my phone to stay connected.
-Identify a new result, feeling or way of relating to something that you’d like instead. Examples: I want to eat more vegetables and love healthy food; I want to see the good in people and be more accepting; I want to read books whenever I would normally look at social media.
-Draft a new story that will help you get that. Examples: Veggies and fruit nourish my body and make me feel amazing; there’s a loving heart behind every person’s action; when I have downtime, I treat myself to reading a good book.
-Remind yourself to tell yourself this new story every time it would help. This takes a lot of practice, so create a story that you don’t need to be perfect at this, but that you’ll be persistent because you care deeply about this.
Create a new story for yourself, and practice.
Here are some examples of stories that have helped me recently:
Every moment is sacred and has something to teach me.
I look for the light in each person.
I need only simple, nourishing foods.
I can be with any fear or emotion.
I am deeply committed to the results I want to create.
Movement and the outdoors light me up.
I care for my life by tending to finances, my health, and messages to people I care about.
I savor stillness and quiet.
What stories would cause a powerful shift for you?
Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
This article was originally published on Zen Habits and re-published with author’s permission.
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