Our internal narratives can hold us back. Changing them is tough but rewarding work | Modern mind

Storytelling plays an important role in every culture and society. It is through stories that we communicate, learn and grasp the multifaceted nature of human experience. Beyond their social function, stories play a crucial role in shaping our internal narrative – the ongoing story we tell ourselves about who we are.

This narrative, formed from our beliefs, past experiences, and mental frameworks, profoundly influences our self-concept, our expectations for the future and our responses to new situations. As the Canadian Indigenous author Harold R Johnson asserted: “We are the stories we are told and we are the stories we tell ourselves.”

The narrative is not static but tends to be self-perpetuating. Every new experience we encounter is interpreted through the lens of our existing narrative. For instance, someone who sees themselves as resilient and capable will approach challenges with confidence and determination, increasing their chances of success or attributing failure to external factors rather than personal inadequacy. Conversely, someone whose narrative centres around failure and defectiveness may avoid risks and view setbacks as confirmation of their self-doubt. This cycle underscores the importance of being mindful of the stories we construct about ourselves. They can be empowering or debilitating, helpful or harmful.

Recognising that both our sense of who we are and much of what we do is based on the stories we tell ourselves, rather than an objective truth, is a critical step towards allowing us to change them. This recognition enables us to more easily challenge our dominant internal voice and rescript our story to be more flexible and supportive. But this process is easier said than done. This is especially so since parts of our story may be out of our conscious awareness, often requiring the help of a therapist.

Storytelling is central to therapy, where we are invited to share our conscious stories and, in doing so, to hear them spoken aloud. This process helps us to gain a sense of the continuity and coherence of our stories, even as we find there are gaps in these stories and hidden layers beneath their narrations.

This helps us form new links, examine past experiences, identify patterns and gain insights into what aspects of our narratives may be limiting and what may be helpful. Therapists collaborate in understanding and empathising with the genesis of these stories as well as helping to deconstruct unhelpful narratives and co-create new stories with greater potential for growth.

Consider the case of Maria*, a talented 35-year-old artist who sought therapy for chronic anxiety. Maria’s internal narrative was dominated by a story of defectiveness, stemming from a childhood marked by pressure to achieve unrealistic goals and being overshadowed by siblings who were more academically accomplished. In therapy, Maria explored these early experiences and their influence on her internal script, in which she told herself she was “a waste of space” and was never going to amount to anything. Her anxiety would peak around exhibitions, sometimes causing her to withdraw or hold back artworks she deemed inadequate.

Through therapy, Maria began to gain a new perspective on her internal script, gradually feeling empowered to let go of elements that were not serving her well. She and her therapist worked together to construct a new narrative that included her many strengths and considerable artistic achievements. This shift enhanced Maria’s sense of competence and worth, enabling her to approach her career and personal life with renewed confidence, significantly reducing her anxiety.

While this may sound straightforward, in reality it is a process that requires time and patience, with many potential setbacks along the way. By adulthood our internal narratives are often deeply ingrained and resistant to change. Even when we see them for what they are, they continue to hold significant power. As therapists we encourage patients to approach this process with self-compassion, acknowledging the difficulty and the slow pace of change.

Our stories are challenging to change because they do not form in isolation. They are written within the context of our family narratives and the collective stories of our communities and societies. These broader stories can offer a sense of belonging and identity, helping us to understand our place in the world. But they can also marginalise those who do not fit within the dominant narrative.

Maria struggled to see her creativity as a strength in a family that valued academic achievement. Similarly, her identity as a gay woman made her feel like an outsider within a heteronormative cultural narrative. In examining and challenging our internal narratives, we also need to critically evaluate the family and societal narratives that intersect with and influence the stories we tell ourselves.

On a positive note, Maria’s success as an artist helped to shift her family narrative. In fact, her parents and siblings recognised the worth of her artistic talents long before Maria did, challenging their previous family story about what constitutes success.

Maria required the help of a therapist who could help her to see that her own story was lagging behind that of her family. We develop stories as short cuts to navigate our worlds and it requires energy and focus to re-evaluate how useful they are. Often narratives that on the surface seem unhelpful are unconsciously felt to be protective.

Maria telling herself she was useless allowed her to deflect the impact of someone else telling her this. Our narratives are layered but, for us to be mentally healthy they need to have some fluidity. They need to be able to change, whether at a personal, family or social level. Given the powerfully determining nature of our stories, we need to hold them lightly and flexibly and edit them liberally when required, not only for our own health but that of our societies.

*Maria is a fictitious amalgam to exemplify many similar cases that we see

Prof Gill Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship are co-authors of The Talking Cure. Gill also appears on the podcast Three Associating in which relational psychotherapists explore their blind spots


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