What's your story? How to break free from self-limiting narratives

Human beings are master storytellers. Stories and storytelling are proven to be far more than just a means of entertainment. They’re a crucial evolutionary survival mechanism.

Our unique ability to observe, reflect, mentally store and pass on experiences in the form of stories is at the heart of how individual identity and collective cultures form.

Our minds are formed and self-perpetuated by narratives. The narratives of others, yes. But even more powerful are the self-narratives we habitually form, solidify and subtly re-enforce within ourselves.  

And when it comes to our development, there are basically two main types of narrative that we fill our minds with:

  • Narratives that lift us up: thoughts that enlarge our perception of reality, possibility and achievement, acting as the mental wellsprings of self-belief and confidence.
  • Narratives that drag us down: the self-destructive thoughts that box us in, close us off from new possibilities, and keep our worlds small.

So if we wish to live an enriched life full of possibility, interestingness and high achievement, but our self-talk is dominated by narratives that drag us down and act as barriers to progress? Then we’ve got a problem.

In order to perpetually grow, have the courage to pursue our passions, and achieve things, the stories that boost us need to significantly outnumber those that weigh us down.

Easier said than done. But there's good news. The thing about any story is that it’s flexible. Especially when the story is a work in progress (for instance: the life we’re living).

As we approach the turn of another year, here are two steps to recognising the self-limiting stories we tell ourselves – and creating better ones.

Listen: Breaking Barriers Podcast

Notice the stories you tell

The first step to taking control of our stories is to notice – and note – what they are. Every day, our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions that shape our decisions, actions, and ultimately our deep-seated sense of identity.

And whilst we prefer to believe that we’re totally aware of and have control over all of that incoming data, the truth is, a lot of it is happening in auto-pilot.

It’s easy to see this in action (literally) with our physical routines and habits. Brushing our teeth, riding a bike, or playing a regularly practised sport are common examples of habitual activities: muscle memory reliably kicks in, and we just... do them. No conscious effort required.

Well, our minds are also constantly engaged in the same sort of automatic behaviours. And they’re not always that constructive, to put it mildly.

  • I don’t do public speaking – I’m terrible at it and it makes me so anxious.
  • I’d love to start my own business – but I’m not the sort of person who does that.
  • I’m not good enough for that promotion that’s opened up in my company.

When narratives like this solidify in our minds, they take a hold over us as if they were undeniable fact. They are not. They are stories. Stories we choose to believe.

Practice the act of recording such self-stories. Journal. Take notes. Practise mindfulness meditation. Make a list entitled ‘Things I tell myself that limit my potential’.

Once you have that list, you can get to work on editing it.

Create better stories: develop a growth mindset

In his popular TED talk, psychologist Dan Gilbert explains how most humans, as we grow older, are susceptible to the ‘end-of-history’ illusion. This is basically the belief that whilst in previous years we experienced rapid personal change, growth and evolution of tastes and interests – we’re now essentially ‘done’. That sense that we’ve ‘been there, done it, seen it all’ and there’s little scope for future significant change. Obviously, this is rubbish.

As long as we’re fit and able, opportunities for growth and positive change remain abundant. It’s only our perceptions and mindset that change. Our thinking becomes fixed, and therefore a little more willingly blind to opportunity.

Adopting a growth mindset is the best antidote to breaking down this barrier-building thinking. Popularised by psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset stands in direct opposition to a fixed mindset, which believes that intelligence, talent, skills and personality traits are unchangeable facts that ‘you’re either born with or you’re not’.

Instead, a growth mindset approaches the edge of one’s own capabilities as an intensely interesting and exciting challenge. If you’re someone with a growth mindset, you treat failures and lack of ability not as definitive states, but steps in an exciting journey to improvement and greater success in the future.

How might a growth mindset fundamentally alter the reality of the same types of self-limiting thoughts we outlined above?

  • I don’t do public speaking - I’m terrible at it and it makes me so anxious.
    I’ve never quite mastered public speaking – wouldn’t it be interesting to explore the defining attributes of a great speaker, and see if I can develop some of those traits?
  • I’d love to start my own business - but I’m the sort of person who does that.
    I’d love to start my own business – I’ve no idea if I’ll make a success of it, but I’m going to treat it as an interesting learning experience.
  • I’m not good enough for that promotion that’s opened up in my company.
    I wonder if I stand a chance at that promotion opening? Well, no use in wondering… there’s only one way to find out.

Here’s to a 2019 filled with opportunities for change, growth, and breaking down self-limiting narratives.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 


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