Does your story of who you are and what you can do make you stronger — or hold you back?
Anyone who knew Maggie Fazeli Fard while she was growing up might be surprised by her current career as a fitness writer and editor.
“I was the least active kid,” she explains. “I was shy and uncoordinated. I hated getting dirty or sweaty. I got it into my head that I wasn’t good at sports or exercise-related things, and therefore I wouldn’t even try.”
Her story was this: I can’t be physically active. Fitness is for other people.
“It wasn’t a choice I was giving myself,” she continues. “I wouldn’t even try because I kept thinking, I can’t.”
Like most identity-forging stories, Fazeli Fard’s was reinforced when friends and family started repeating it back to her. Her lack of athleticism became a sort of inside joke she and her friends would laugh about. But inside, she knew it wasn’t funny.
She secretly wanted to be stronger and healthier, but she didn’t know how. She was afraid of trying and failing, and because of her ingrained story, even experimenting with fitness conflicted with her identity.
It wasn’t until Fazeli Fard went to college that she got a chance to rewrite her reality. Nobody knew who she was. For the first time, she had easy access to a gym. Free to try new things, she tagged along with friends to a yoga class. There, she found a safe place to explore movement without feeling like she was on display, or that she had to be competitive.
And just like that, the story she’d been telling herself for years — I’m not the active type — was replaced by a question: Or am I?
That question launched a journey of self-exploration. The more Fazeli Fard exercised, the more she realized how much she loved it.
Today, at 31, she has run 5Ks and even a half marathon. She’s competed in a Strongman competition and is an RKC-certified kettlebell instructor. She craves daily activity.
As the fitness editor for Experience Life, she’s made the study and pursuit of physical activity a central part of her identity.
So what changed? She stopped believing an old story she had been allowing to define her.
Anyone can change his or her story. The first step is realizing you have one. The next step is learning to challenge your beliefs about it. The final step: reauthoring your life.
Retell Your Tale
Each of us has a story about who we are and why. Often we have several. These stories express what we believe we can do and who we believe we can be. They define who we think we are.
Stories can be positive. Narratives like “I’m great with numbers,” “Kids love me,” or “Music is my calling” can inspire us to develop and give our best gifts; they encourage us to show up confidently and authentically in our relationships with others.
Often, though, our inner accounts have less-salutary effects. Stories like “People always let me down” or “I’m terrible with money” become self-fulfilling prophecies. They convince us that we’ll never have what we want.
Worse, they’re absolute. Because they imply (falsely) that the way things are is due to who we are, they leave little room for change.
Generally speaking, we don’t craft our stories-of-self intentionally. They are typically formed when we are children, often as coping mechanisms.
“We all create stories to explain the events in our lives that felt traumatic or even just difficult,” explains psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, in her book Becoming Real.
For example, if a parent dies or leaves the family, she explains, a child might create a story that he deserves to be abandoned. Or if a child is caught stealing a candy bar and is labeled a juvenile offender, she might be inclined to adopt that trouble-maker status as a central element of her character.
Children aren’t rational in their storymaking; they’re just trying to make sense of difficult situations. But these stories can stay rooted in our unconscious minds and have a direct influence on our behavior as adults.
Many beliefs that were useful, logical, and arguably true at the time they were formed can become huge limiting factors later in life. For example, a belief like “Anger is dangerous” can help a child lie low and stay safe in a volatile household.
Once that child’s an adult, however, the same belief may prevent him from having honest, healthy relationships and become part of a story that says, “I can’t handle conflict.”
And it’s not just trauma and loss that shape inner stories. They also stem from experiences like having a supremely talented sibling and consistently feeling like a second-fiddle disappointment by comparison.
Such experiences, in and of themselves, need not define us, says Christopher Hall, PhD, a University of North Carolina Wilmington associate professor and expert in narrative counseling.
“Events don’t inherently contain meaning,” he says. One person might interpret her father’s expert cooking as proof that she’s not kitchen material, while another might feel born to cook because her parent was so gifted.
Hall believes it’s the meaning we give our past that matters. This is how our stories get created. And when we choose to reinterpret past events so that our role in them becomes more powerful, things change.
“A divorce or any other kind of painful event offers you the opportunity to define yourself as a victim or a survivor,” says Hall. “You have the ability to choose. We all have that power.”
See Your Story
Our identity-generating stories are made visible mainly through their effects. Look at the life you’ve created and the patterns that have played out. Notice the scenes within your autobiography that seem the most meaningful and defining. Write them down or speak them aloud, and begin listening for elements like these:
Habitually putting yourself down or focusing on your weaknesses can signal that you have an inner story of unworthiness. Even seemingly innocuous remarks like “I’ve never been organized” or “I’m just not cut out for [fill in the blank]” can indicate you have a story that’s limiting or disempowering you.
“If you’re saying things like that repeatedly,” narrative counseling expert Hall says, “it has probably become habitual thinking — and that suggests you’ve adopted a negative story about yourself.”
Pay close attention to when you lose your cool over small frustrations, advises Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, clinical psychologist and the author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. If you flip your lid because your partner failed to do the dishes, she says, it’s likely you’re attaching some bigger meaning to a small disappointment. And that’s a sign some inner story has been triggered.
That story might be that “your partner really doesn’t love or care about you,” she says. And if that story connects to a bigger one about how no one will ever really love you, or that you don’t deserve to be loved, she notes, even the tiniest infraction or sign of neglect will function as “proof” that such stories are true — which will make dirty dishes far more alarming than they have to be.
Our external circumstances almost always reflect our stories about what’s possible. This is why we can end up playing the same role in all of our friendships, or experiencing the same work dynamics even when we change jobs.
“If you’re constantly attracting relationships where you’re being hurt or abandoned,” says Christine Hassler, MA, a life coach and author of Expectation Hangover, “then you may have an inner story like ‘People leave me.’” If you’re always struggling with money, you may have a story that money’s bad or that you don’t deserve material abundance. “What’s happening externally is always a reflection of what’s going on inside,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to regularly explore and update your beliefs.”
Noticing that you have a story is the first step to breaking free of it, but until you explore the inner workings of your storyline, rewriting it can seem beyond reach. Journaling can be a remarkably effective way to dig into unconscious thoughts and reveal the stories that drive us.
Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is and teacher of a method of self-inquiry known as The Work, recommends that we write down our judgments about our current reality, and then systematically challenge them as a means of unearthing underlying beliefs that are holding us captive.
“The way to end our stress is to investigate the thinking that lies behind it,” writes Katie, “and anyone can do this by himself with a piece of paper and a pen.”
Once you’ve identified what feels like a core belief in your journaling session, sit down with another piece of paper and answer the following questions about it:
Katie then suggests “turning your story around” — retelling various contrary versions of it. After trying on some alternative realities, you may find that your old story is less accurate and non-negotiable than you assumed. You might also discover there are other stories you could tell, ones that set you free to enjoy a life of your choosing. (For more background and detailed instructions on Katie’s method, see TheWork.com.)
Change Your Story
The field of narrative counseling provides a model for revealing and reworking stories that may be messing with your mind, your identity — and your life.
Here’s how it works.
Take a step back: One of the first objectives in narrative counseling is to “externalize” inner stories, which allows us to examine and challenge them. This is not a quick fix. It requires time and space for reflection, and permission to see the events in your life differently.
Narrative counseling expert Christopher Hall calls this “definitional space.” At core, he says, it’s about realizing “there are lots of different ways to see things,” and that you can have a say in how you’d like to see them.
In many cases, therapists like Hall help clients see a more empowered and compassionate version of themselves and their choices.
“There’s a very Western idea that through constant self-criticism, we get better,” says Hall. But when we minimize or marginalize our accomplishments, and overemphasize our perceived failures and traumas, we reduce the faith we have in our future capacities.
Revise your story incrementally: Small, steady actions are more effective at changing negative stories than big, dramatic affirmations.
If you swing too far on the pendulum, cautions life coach Christine Hassler, going from something like “I’m terrible with money” to “I’m great with money!” you’re likely to go back to your old story when things don’t magically change.
Her advice: “Create a reasonable story that you can grow into, like: ‘I’m committed to becoming better with money, and I’m as capable as anyone else at managing a budget.’”
This might motivate you to take a class or read a book about budgeting, which can get you the practical skills you need to support a whole new narrative.
Seek sustainable sources of motivation: Often, it’s negative experiences — breakups, bankruptcies, self-betrayals — that lead us to investigate our stories initially. But it turns out that positive feelings and desires provide far better fuel for lasting change.
That was certainly Fazeli Fard’s experience. In recasting herself as an athlete instead of the anti-athlete, she had to move beyond the negative feelings that kept her tethered to that old self.
“My feelings of insecurity, fear, and vanity were powerful initial motivators for change,” she acknowledges. “But they carried me only so far.”
The key to shifting into her new athletic identity, she says, was “finding a sense of fun and empowerment in my activities. Exercise became less about something I was supposed to do and truly something I wanted to do.”
Change your environment: Since our stories are often reinforced or triggered by familiar people and places, a change of surroundings can provide a powerful setting for your new story to begin.
Part of the benefit of new environments is that they give you some leeway for trying on new versions of yourself, as Fazeli Fard did when she went away to college. But you also benefit from putting distance between yourself and a whole lot of ingrained habits and triggers.
“When I joined a new gym, I committed to spending three hours a week there,” explains Fazeli Fard. “I wasn’t just in the gym for those three hours — I was also not at work, at home, at happy hour. As a result, I wasn’t being exposed to the same old habit-triggers, influences, and temptations.”
She may not have consciously chosen those situational changes when she set out to exercise more, but Fazeli Fard now recognizes the important role they played in changing her story.
Notice the effects of stress on your story: Pressure makes us more vulnerable to negative thinking, and more likely to slip into old patterns. Lombardo suggests that the moment you notice an old story rearing its unhelpful head, ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how stressed you feel. If you’re at a level 6 or higher, put on the brakes.
“Stop listening to that story and do something helpful and healthy,” she says.
“It could be taking some deep breaths, doing some pushups, going for a walk, watching a video that makes you laugh, or hugging someone. Something that will dial back distress so that you can start to redefine your reality. As in ‘Oh, I didn’t get this job, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a job.’”
Stand tall: Research suggests that simply changing your stance and posture can have a dramatic effect on your point of view.
Amy Cuddy, PhD, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School who studies nonverbal behavior, found that by standing in a “power pose” — wide stance, broad shoulders, hands on hips — a person’s testosterone and cortisol levels can change in just two minutes. These hormones are associated with feelings of power and stress, respectively, and in her studies, high-power posers did much better than low-power posers in mock job interviews.
Cuddy advises adopting a power pose for a couple of minutes prior to any stressful event. You might also try this tactic whenever an old-story reel starts playing in your head.
The goal, ultimately, is to enjoy your life, free and in the moment, without the need for any story at all.
“Reality,” writes Byron Katie, “is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.”
Photography by Chad Holder