That constant dialogue in our head… that’s not just background noise of your day-to-day thoughts. It’s also the basis for the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves.
And while some the chatter can be louder at times, all of the stories we tell ourselves matter.
It’s how we form our identities and make meaning in our lives.
To understand the identity formation process is to understand how individuals craft narratives from experiences, tell these stories internally and to others, and ultimately apply these stories to knowledge of self, other and the world in general. In an era of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, [research continues to show] how individuals look for meaning and spiritual depth in life [through narrative;]. (Journal of Personality 72:3, June 2004)
And these stories are not just limited to what goes on “upstairs” in our minds. Those stories can also literally change our bodies and how we feel.
And don’t just take my word for it.
From the experts:
This study is the first to demonstrate that self-talk significantly reduces rate of perceived exertion and enhances endurance performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2014, 46 (5): 998-1007
To those who choose to experience it for themselves:
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave” – Cheryl Strayed, Wild.
Here’s the challenge
When I read this, I’m tempted to just start telling myself a narrative that’s nice to hear but denies how I really feel. (I’m strong – when I feel weak. I'm calm, everything is cool - when I’m really pissed off.)
Well – we can’t fool our bodies. If we sense danger, anger or excitement, our bodies react unconsciously and automatically.
In fact, as the [neuroscience] research has drawn a stronger connection between our bodies and emotion, the consensus is developing that our bodies reflect our emotional state - whether that's sadness or joy, anger or calm - our muscles, viscera and connective tissue hold and reflect our emotional state. (Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness, 1999. pgs. 286-287.)
If there’s a disconnect between what we’re telling ourselves and what we actually feel – our bodies will call our bluff. That's why it's called body language.
St. Thomas does a pretty good job explaining this.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you” (Saying Number 70 from the Gospel of St. Thomas (The Gnostic Gospels))
but Seinfeld might do it better
Here’s what we can do about it
There’s nothing wrong with starting to change the narrative to what we want (saying I want to feel strong even when I feel weak), provided that we are honest with ourselves about how we really feel. Provided that we acknowledge where we actually are, and then are willing to engage honestly about how we can become what we want.
Cheryl Strayed changed her narrative ….. and I don’t know whether that change came before or after she started hiking the Pacific Coast trail. I don’t think it matters.
What I do know from the book and what I do think matters is the fact that she wasn’t just telling herself “Bravery now!” Jerry Costanza style and magically became brave enough and strong enough to solo hike the Pacific Coast trail.
Rather, her narrative shift was paired with both her past struggles and present reality of the hiking experience. She connected deeply with the fact that she felt unsafe, weak and scared AND used her experience solo hiking the Pacific Coast trail to reinforce the new narrative. Only by doing both could she move from just telling herself a story to embodying her new narrative of safety, strength and bravery…literally changing her body and behavior.
While Strayed had some pretty intense physical pain and emotional trauma, many can relate.
“I’m sick again,” “I’m broken,” “I’ll never feel well.” These aren’t just thoughts. They are the narrative – the story – we are telling ourselves and our bodies each day.
So how do we make sure we embody a narrative that reflects the person we want to be?
I think we follow Cheryl Strayed’s lead: (1) create honest awareness about how we feel and (2) identify what we really want. If we have those two in place, we can engage intentionally with experiences that acknowledge where we are and help us embody the narrative that we want to be.