The thing which traps most people is their sense of who they are: their personality. When we talk about our personality we often feel as though we are describing something objective: our inherent nature, something fixed. But as philosophers and psychologists have been pointing out for a century, our personality is little more than a made-up story. It only seems real because we keep repeating the it. Nonetheless its consequences are very real. Change your story and you can change your life. But how do you start?
You begin with insight. You pay attention.
The story you tell yourself becomes the story of your life. It becomes your fate, how your life turns out. Our stories can be self-invented prisons which limit, imprison, or even torture us. “I’m too weak to make life work.” “If I feel afraid of something, that means I'm incapable of doing it.” “If my attempt fails, I'm a failure.” "I need to feel good before I can take action." "I'm either wonderful or terrible." "If I assert my boundaries then I'm being selfish." "The shiny appearance of these people is real whereas I'm a talentless imposter." "If I'm self-effacing then people will be kind or at least not hassle me." "I should always play it safe and not aim higher or I will crash." So many stories that we whisper to ourselves, like a hunter quietly setting a trap.
As a therapist I spent years going deep with people into their mental life, examining their stories and helping change them. Often all it takes to shatter the grip of a bad one is attention: look at it, see it, and it's so ridiculous or poisonous that your soul spits it out. Your reaction is so strong that you stop repeating it.
The problem is that we walk though life half blind and half asleep. We tell ourselves these constant stories without paying attention to what we're doing. That's why self-examination can create such profound change. If we were more awake, it would not be so radical and powerful. So we need insight to recognise our stories and make choices about whether we want them to define us. But what do you do when you no longer want to repeat the old story?
The fact that you have invented and sustained your stories, that this is something which you do, means you can start telling different ones. Better ones. And you can tell them to others, who will interpret you according to your cues - the ways your stories show in your behaviour - creating a nice little feedback loop.
All of this might sound like pop-post-modernism, but it's not. Your new story will not be arbitrary if you tell it so often and so deeply that you start to act it out and become it. It will be no more arbitrary than the old one which you’ve been repeating and acting out for decades. It can become your new reality, your new way of being - “who you are.”
Of course I am not saying that you choose a new story today and you have changed. What if you choose the old one again tomorrow? How do you become the new story?
The old story is a habit and habits can seem stubborn if we're not skillful enough with our minds. In that case we need to practice, making a sustained effort not to repeat the old story and to tell the new story in its place. We will need to do this over and over, like somebody learning a musical instrument. This is how we create a new self. It stabilises over time through repetition. The work can be slow, steady, and incremental, or it can be exponential, a kind of positive upward spiral that feeds on its own energy.
The consequences of our stories are real. But consequences can be good and bad. If you stop telling yourself bad stories, things will improve. Bad thoughts and feelings and behaviours will disappear. You will stop damaging your relationships. You will stop creating negativity. But that simply brings you back to zero. What about telling better stories? Maybe even the best story you could tell, so you create the best life you can? "Life is full of opportunities if I keep my eyes open." "The world may be cruel, but it is also kind and abundant." "I have the ability to really change." "There is something to be deeply grateful for, right here, right now." "Life is beautiful for those with eyes to see it." "Fortune favours the brave." "I can choose how I interpret things." "I can take deep ownership of my head and heart and craft them." "If opportunity doesn't knock, I will build a door." "No matter what they do, and how I imagine being crushed, I make the choice now: I will be stronger." These are stories which turn you into somebody who sees all that is good, who takes leaps, who is energised with courage, who feels joy, who possesses gratitude, who feels and enacts their strength, who experiences and faces the world as an opportunity to be stepped into - even something to run toward. This can be your story. If you choose it.