Change Your Inner Narrator, Change Your Life
A week after her latest breakup with a guy who has done this to her before, more than once, Chloe is still crying. She’s inconsolable. On the first day she was in absolute denial, begging him to tell her “why” and she’s still asking the same questions, though he won’t take her calls. She stayed home from work two days in a row partly because she couldn’t stop the tears and didn’t want to appear unprofessional, but mostly because she feels too despairing to lift herself from bed. She hasn’t eaten in days.
Chloe keeps telling herself that if only she didn’t suffer depression and had been more fun, if only she’d been nicer or more thoughtful, if only.… Her ex liked to tell her that she was “too negative” and she liked to argue back that he had no idea what it meant to experience depression or to have a father who was a schizophrenic. She’d resented him for having such a normal childhood in comparison to hers, though now she is berating herself for ever having taken him for granted.
Between the crying jags and too brief spells of sleep, Chloe’s inner narrator is castigating her for not seeing the end of a relationship she could not have predicted—he was cheating but had left no signs—and belittling herself for not having been a better girlfriend so that he wouldn’t have felt the urge to cheat in the first place. In the stories she tells herself, Chloe is always the dupe or the villain; she is never the heroine or simply the protagonist whose flaws she sees but still roots for.
So, What’s Your Story?
In her book How to Stay Sane, Phillipa Perry writes, “Our usual emotional, cognitive and physical response to the world—that is, our typical pattern for dealing with recurrent situations—will come from our own stories.” Our lives are shaped by story. From the first moments of our lives, we are listening for the stories of our families, the stories they tell and the stories that tell us who they are. Fairy tales, myths, fables, legends—these larger stories shape our understanding of self and the world. We learn the stories other people tell, our neighbors and teachers, stories on the news and in the media—the cultural story. And we begin to shape an inner story, a personal framework that tells us what we believe about our experiences and who we are in response to each of them.
These inner stories are ongoing and dynamic although the voice of our “inner narrator” can become rigid and fixed, preferring a pessimistic point of view to an optimistic one and vice versa. How we react to our experiences tells us everything about ourselves, less so the experiences themselves. Jane swam the full length of the pool in one breath and felt victorious and strong versus Jane swam the full length of the pool in one breath and was heaving so hard when she pushed to the surface she was certain she was terribly out-of-shape and needed to work out much harder. Which Jane are you?
Changing Your Inner Narrative
“If the script we have lived by in the past does not work for us anymore we do not need to accept it as our script for the future.”—Phillip Perry
Therapy that works nearly always incorporates helping clients to change personal narratives that aren’t working as much as stuck patterns of behavior. Perspective really is everything, and the magic is that while you might not have the power to change every one of your circumstances, you can change your perspective. And doing so can liberate you. When our inner narratives are self-defeating, self-punishing, or simply unrealistic, we can choose to lift ourselves up or bring ourselves back down to earth.
In Chloe’s case, she is stuck in a story that tells her she is the reason things go wrong, that her relationship ended because of something she did or failed to do. From the outside, it’s easy for us to see that Chloe is beating herself up unfairly. She was involved with someone who cheated repeatedly, and that’s never healthy. Rather than believing she is to blame, if she wants to heal and she tries hard enough, she can change her story: her relationship ended because she was with the wrong person; it was never going to work out and so it was time to be done, however it happened.
Even those of us who suffer mental illness or addiction can begin to change our inner narratives; in fact, of all people, we must. An inner narrator that tells us we are victims of brain chemistry (or any other kind of victim) or too weak to defeat dependence on substance or process is not only self-defeating, it’s simply wrong. The power to change our stories begins in the ways we choose to tell them, especially to ourselves. Examine your internal stories, and see which ones need shaking up.