The story people tell themselves about who they are is usually more influential than they realize, because experiences are so often filtered through a lens that is based on a particular personal narrative. These narratives can be constructed around any number of “facts” that may indeed be factual but do not need to define. Some examples:

Significant personal limitations can be imposed by a past event: a fifty year old client recently told me that he’s always felt like a failure because he flunked out of business school….twenty-five years earlier! This despite having achieved a reasonable level of success, earning a six figure salary as an engineer working for a government contractor. He is working with me to find a more fulfilling career, but his feeling of being a failure naturally impedes the degree to which he is willing to explore alternatives: since he thinks of himself as a failure he is timid about considering new options.

A similar dynamic is at work with another client, who has been out of work for a year but who has made it to the finalist stage three times in that period. She has constructed a negative and discouraging narrative about her abilities based on her not having landed a job, rather than seeing that making it to the finalist stage, ahead of dozens if not hundreds of other applicants, suggests that she is in fact an outstanding candidate. Of course it’s reasonable for her to be disappointed about not having found employment, but that doesn’t mean she has to view herself as fundamentally flawed.

A third client, a thirty-six year old with a sterling track record came to me literally in tears because he had been let go by a blue chip company where he had been serving as “chief of staff” to the CEO. Unfortunately, the CEO had become ill and essentially unable to provide the leadership necessary in his position, and so was removed in a “coup” that also resulted in the dismissal of my client. My client’s narrative about this was that he’d “blown the opportunity of a lifetime” (even though there’s nothing he could have done to have prevented what occurred).

Narratives can also be structured around more general evidence. For example I too often hear people say “I’ve never been good at (fill in the blank…..getting organized, technical things, expressing myself, etc.). While self-awareness is certainly valuable, I don’t think there’s sufficient appreciation of how these definitions can be limiting. Telling yourself that you’re no good at something is going to hinder your ability to get better at it.

I also hear a lot of narratives that are based on comparisons. “My siblings (or classmates or neighbors or co-workers) are all doing better than I am.” First of all, can you really know that to be true? Just because someone has climbed the ladder faster than you, or is living in a bigger house or driving a nicer car, doesn’t mean that he or she has a better life. Secondly, look at the group you’re comparing yourself to; I sometimes hear clients who earn a quarter of a million dollars bemoan the fact that they’re not keeping up with their peers, ignoring the fact that they’re earning more than 97.4% of their fellow Americans.

There’s another type of story that dramatically narrow the scope of future possibilities: people who have been diagnosed with a specific condition, whether physical or psychological. Take, for example, ADHD. While I’m sure that a large number of people do in fact fit the criteria for this condition, I am equally sure that it need not be viewed as an affliction, but can instead be viewed as a distinctive way of operating in the world, with its own set of advantages as well as disadvantages. If someone is working at a job that requires a lot of consistent focus and attention to detail, ADHD is going to be problematic. But in other, more creative or multitask-oriented positions, rapid shifting of attention can be an asset.

Narrative also has a huge impact on relationships. If the story you tell yourself about your spouse, friend, parent, child, partner, co-worker, etc., is negative you will be quick to notice behaviors that support that narrative. “She only thinks of herself,” “he’s always complaining,” “she’s so critical,” “he’s so uncaring,” etc.

The story you tell yourself about your life, your successes and failures, the people in your life, or your fundamental nature are determinate of your emotional state and of the likely trajectory of your future. Next week, I’ll be writing about some ways to shift an unecessarily negative narrative (BTW, I’ve yet to encounter a negative long-term narrative that is valuable).