Note: Get a cup of tea or a glass of water before reading, this is an especially long one.
What kind of stories do you tell yourself on a regular basis?
I’m not talking about the fairy tales or TV episodes or mystery novels you might read or watch on a regular basis, although those stories are useful, too. I’m referring to the ways you create a story about who you are and what you are like. How you make things make sense for yourself when things happen to you. How you explain to yourself why you did certain things or why you did them in a certain way.
You may not think of those types of thoughts as stories but framing them that way can help you see them more clearly AND it can help you learn to reshape the ones that don’t serve you well.*
A lot of the time, these stories are automatic and almost subconscious. And they are usually a mix of things people told us, things we picked up for ourselves, and little bits of information we stitched together to explain something. We throw all of that stuff together, often uncritically, and then use it as a guideline to proceed – choosing our actions and activities based on that information.
My (old) Internal Story
I am not a naturally sporty person and my family is not particularly sporty so while I did lots of climbing and running and other little kid things when I was small, I didn’t get a lot of practice playing sports or doing things that would train my body and mind to work well together. I wasn’t always the last one to be picked in gym class but I was definitely in the last few. I struggled with understanding the rules of games in gym and I often took them too literally so it frequently seemed to me that the rules were unevenly applied. My efforts to try and figure out what was going on tended to lead to me being told that I wasn’t a good sport, that I was uptight, and that I really needed to learn to ‘roll with the punches.’**
I was often told not to worry about my physical skills, or lack thereof, because I was smart so I didn’t need to be good at sports. (Let’s all just roll our eyes right here at yet another pointless binary in our world) I began to think of my body as just a carrying case for my brain.
My internal story was that I wasn’t good at sports or ‘things like that,’ I wasn’t coordinated, and I was a bad sport. So, I definitely didn’t try to get involved in any sort of group sports where I would be letting the team down with my lack of skill and causing a disruption by being a bad sport. And even when I wanted to try a new fitness practice on my own, I struggled because when I hit one of the setbacks that are inevitable with learning a new thing I didn’t have the experience to know that it was part of the process. Instead, I would fall back on my internal story that I just wasn’t good at these things.
I didn’t realize that I was dealing with an internal story. I thought I was dealing in facts.
I did keep trying fitness things that appealed to me but when things went awry I added more details to the story of ‘Christine isn’t good at this.’
My internal story started to change when I read Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset‘ and realized that part of the issue was how I was approaching learning new things.
Then, I started Taekwon-do with my son. I felt like I was terrible at it but my instructors didn’t seem to think so and I trusted them. (Now I can see that I wasn’t terrible, I was just doing my techniques with an appropriate level of skill for a white belt.)
And, eventually, I was diagnosed with ADHD and realized how it had been affecting me my whole life. Including things like struggling to understand rules and how to put them into practice. And finding it challenging to start and continue new practices.
And because I was learning about storytelling at the same time as all of this, I realized that my internal information was a story I was telling myself.
And as every writer and storyteller knows, stories can be revised.
I’m not going to pretend that that realization wiped away all of the challenges and everything has been easy ever since. However, recognizing that I was working with a story helped me to proceed differently.
I was open to learning that my ADHD made it challenging for me to pick up on the skills for various sports by just playing. And because my lack of skill kept me from playing often, I didn’t get enough experience to get any better. And learning that that led me to the fact that coordination can be learned.
So, all along, I was telling myself a story based on bits of information, some facts, and some opinions (from myself and others) and I was shaping my approach to physical activities based on a faulty story. I was using inaccurate information to make decisions and subconsciously creating limits for myself.
Letting go of the idea that the story was a fact meant that I could expand my idea of what I was capable of.
It didn’t make me more coordinated but it changed my thoughts from ‘I’m just not coordinated’ to ‘How can I become more coordinated?’ And it changed my perspective from ‘I’m just not good at physical things’ to ‘What physical things are important to me? What do I need to learn to get better?’
Recognizing the story you are telling yourself won’t give you immediate access to skills or abilities. We all have different bodies, capacities, and physical capabilities and those factors will affect how we move through the world. However, identifying your internal story (or stories) will help you ask questions about your own skills and practices and help you start to discern when your beliefs about yourself are based on incorrect information.
Now, Back To You
I wish I could wave a wand and show you the stories that you have been telling yourself. I would love to be able to wipe away all of the old tangles and give you a fresh new brain approach to your habit-building.
But since I can’t do that, I’m inviting you to gently poke at your own assumptions to help you find the stories you are telling yourself. If those stories are serving you, please hold them tight. If they are obstructing you, please question them, talk back to them, or get stubborn with them until you can shape them into something else.
And please, please, please, don’t be hard on yourself because these stories were in there in there in the first place. Our brains love stories. They want everything to make sense. And they will be so sneaky about weaving everything into a narrative and we won’t even realize it is happening. You can’t blame yourself for an automatic brain function like that one but you can work to reframe and reshape that function so it tells you a more useful story.
Here are some questions to help you recognize some of your stories:
What do you tell yourself when stuff goes right?
When things go the way you have planned, do you see that as just lucky? Or do you recognize that your planning ability, your choice to scale things to the time you had available, your combination of skill and experience also played a role?
If you think of it just as lucky, consider what that thought is based in. Is there a reason why you don’t acknowledge the effort you put in toward that result?
No matter what the answers are, see if you can start to coax yourself to recognize the skills you employed in making things go well. At the beginning, that might mean having the ‘it was luck’ thought and then adding to it by saying something like ‘Yes, it was lucky AND I was well prepared to make the most of that luck.’ Gradually, you can begin to include other aspects of your skill and preparation as you celebrate things going right.
What do you tell yourself when stuff goes wrong?
When things don’t go as planned, are you quick to blame yourself and/or some inherent aspect of your personality? (seeing yourself as ‘just unlucky’ counts here) Or do you recognize that while you may not have been as prepared as you thought, sometimes things just go awry?
Obviously, we aren’t equally skilled in everything we attempt. Sometimes, we don’t have the skill we need to do what we are trying to do. Sometimes, we think we have the resources but we don’t. Sometimes we underestimate the effort required, sometimes we overestimate the time we have. These things happen to everyone on occasion.
If they are happening to you on a regular basis, that’s not a sign that you are flawed or unlucky or bad or undeserving. It’s a just an indication that there was a mismatch in your plan and your process. It means that you need to have another look at your approach and your techniques, it doesn’t mean that YOU are a problem or that YOU are broken.
If your brain is telling you a story about things going wrong that is based on the idea that there is something wrong with you, I hope you can question that story. If your brain is telling you that you can’t build this habit because you never get anything right or because you always fail or whatever, definitely question that story. See if you can figure out where it came from and why it has stuck with you. It’s definitely untrue but you’ll want to make sure you pull out its roots not just cut off the top. Note: While we’re on this topic, I love this post from Karen Walrond that offers a great way push back against internal stories about never and always.
You are a unique combination of skills and experiences and you are doing your best to apply them to the task at hand. If they can’t help you complete the task, you can ask for help, you can change your approach/thought process, or you can change the task.
When that self-blaming story pops up, try to counter it with evidence as Karen Walrond suggests in the post I linked above, or try to say something like ‘Oh, I have struggled with this is in the past and I am going to give it another try.’ or ‘Yes, this has gone wrong before but there were extenuating circumstances, this time I have a new plan.’ Acknowledging the current story and taking it in a new direction can be a great way of creating a whole new tale.
How do you see yourself in the story?
(This could be a detailed and complicated post in itself but I’ll just touch on a few things here so this post doesn’t become a novel.)
When you have those automatic response to things going wrong or things going right, what role do you see yourself playing in the story that pops up for you?
Do you have agency? Are you in charge of anything? Or do you see yourself as the hapless person who needs rescuing because they are buffeted by fate?
In reality, we play all kinds of different roles in different situations at different times in our lives. Those roles may serve us well sometimes and they may impede us at other times. But, overall, it’s good to know which role we feel like we are playing at any given time.
I know that I have sometimes gotten overwhelmed and felt like I was a victim of circumstance. And sometimes it was true and just trudging along to the other side was the best approach. Other times, even though I felt like that, it was the overwhelm talking, and once I recognized that, I could take action and start to feel more in charge.
Other times, I have thought I was in charge of things but I had misunderstood the scope of the situation or the contributing factors. When things went wrong, I blamed myself and I felt terrible. When someone was able to gently inform me that I was taking responsibility for a situation that was far beyond my control, I felt better and I was able to reset my brain to focus on the things I was able to act on.
What does this have to do with your habit-building?
Well, if you are seeing yourself as the victim of circumstance, unable to take charge of anything, it is going to be hard for you to establish a new habit and make the changes you want to make. If you notice yourself telling that story, try to reframe it as something like ‘Yes, all of this crap is going on AND I am going to take 5 minutes to meditate in the car before I go into the office.’ Or, if things are too challenging for that, reframe it as a choice, ‘There is so much crap going on right now that adding something new would be too stressful so I am going to let that go for right now and come back to it another time.’ Making statements like that can help you to reshape the story and give you a better sense of your own power.
And if you are seeing yourself as the person in charge, responsible for everything, who is to blame if things go wrong, you will be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes, have to start over, or if you can’t follow through on your plans. You can reshape the story of you as invulnerable superhero into a story of you as an ordinary person by reminding yourself that you are not in charge of everything and that some things are beyond your control. Even something like: “Yes, I can get a lot of things done in a day but I don’t have to do everything. It is ok for me to do something for myself or for me to choose to sleep instead of doing my practice.” can be helpful in letting go of the sense that you are responsible for everything.
What story are you telling yourself about your practice?
Another way that your internal stories could be affecting your habit-building involves the story you tell yourself about your practice.
Do you see your practice as enhancing your life? As part of your self-care?
Do you see it as worth the effort? Do you consider it energizing?
Do you feel that your practice is making you stronger? Or giving you ease? Or adding calm to your life?
Do you see it as something you should (shudder!) do? Do you see it as another obligation?
Do you see your practice as too hard for you? As impossible? As energy-draining?
Do you see it as pointless? A waste of time?
If the story of adding your practice into your life is a positive one, it will be a lot easier to incorporate it into your schedule. If the story of your practice is negative, you will find it hard to include it in your day to day.
I’m not suggesting that you ‘just’ need to be positive about your practice and everything will be easy. I’m suggesting that recognizing the story you have around your practice will be a factor in how you incorporate it into your life.
Identifying the ‘mood’ of the story of your practice gives you information that you can use to make it easier to build your habit. Maybe you need to change some aspect of your practice, maybe you have started too big, maybe you have started too small, maybe you need a different practice, or, maybe you need more time to get used to it. And, in some cases, you may need to find ways to adjust your attitude towards it but that does not need to be your default assumption, not everything is an attitude problem.
This whole post is a long invitation to think about your internal stories and consider how they are contributing to your habit-building process. Ideally, you want to find ways to practice self-kindness and to reshape your stories to support the changes you want to make. You are not responsible for the initial formation of your stories but you can take action to reshape them to serve you better.
And, as always, here is your gold star for your efforts, whatever they may be.
The emotional labour described in this post is hard work. It counts toward your practice.
And anything you do can count toward your practice if you say it does.
You know what you need today and I celebrate your efforts as you seek to meet those needs.
*Again, I want to stress here that my advice in this post is about the sorts of day-to-day struggles that crop up again and again, ones that are frustrating and challenging but are fairly limited in scope and intensity. Guiding you through the process of identifying and navigating internal stories that result from trauma or other life-altering events is far beyond my expertise. I’m not trying to abandon you to your fate here, I am trying to make sure that I don’t cause any further harm.
** For the record, I love that as a martial artist I have learned to evade punches and I have learned to block them but I am never told to roll with them. Do I know that ‘roll with the punches’ is metaphorical? Yes. Do I find it irritating all the same? Also yes.
About the Go Team! posts:
For the second year in a row, I’ll be posting a Go Team! message every day in January to encourage us as we build new habits or maintain existing ones. It’s cumbersome to try to include every possibility in every sentence so please assume that I am offering you kindness, understanding, and encouragement for your efforts right now. You matter, your needs matter, and your efforts count, no matter where you are applying them. You are doing the best you can, with the resources you have, in all kinds of difficult situations and I wish you ease. ⭐💚 PS – Some of the posts for this year may be similar to posts from last year but I think we can roll with it.