Storytelling is hard-wired into our brains. The ability to tell stories and experience them viscerally – to see ourselves in the story, identify with the characters and situations, and experience first-hand fear, suffering, and joy – is an innate, essential characteristic of the human brain.
Being told stories as children are hugely formative experience. We learn that storytelling creates a sense of order and purpose in a chaotic, random world. Stories help us make sense of senselessness, respond to danger, build relationships, and survive.
Unfortunately, storytelling also makes us perceive threats where none exist. We flatter ourselves that we are rational, logical creatures, but we are not. Our behaviour is mostly an emotional response to stories that we tell ourselves.
As a result, we denigrate others for their perceived differences, interpret others’ intentions negatively, create tribes and religions around shared stories, and wage wars based on misguided beliefs.
The stories that we tell ourselves can last for a split second – ‘that driver is a moron for running a red light’ or for a lifetime ‘my race is superior to yours.’
Our storytelling instincts are always on. By learning to understand that much of our behaviour is an unconscious response to the stories we hear and tell ourselves, we can start to act with true agency.
Suppose we can recognise that much of what we take as unquestioned facts are simply powerful and persuasive stories; we can choose to respond differently.
Instead of falling prey to our storytelling’s negative beliefs and emotions, we can learn to weave new stories about ourselves that motivate and empower us positively. We can learn to manage stress and anxiety and approach difficult life challenges with curiosity and creativity. We can communicate and collaborate more effectively with others – by understanding their own stories and helping them to understand ours. We can, essentially, rewrite the stories of our lives.
What is a story?
Every time we perceive something, a car on the road, a cat in our garden, an argument at a restaurant, we tell ourselves a story to explain what we’re experiencing. This story triggers a split-second response in structures deep in our brains to fire our autonomic nervous system: the hormone-producing glands responsible for our emotions. It is our emotions that make us act in response.
This process serves a critical evolutionary function. Our stone-age forebears wouldn’t have had time calmly to wonder about the cause of a rustling bush (since the reason might have been a sabre tooth tiger readying itself to pounce).
Instead, a story filled the gap in knowledge –’there’s a tiger in the bush’ and the amygdala, the pea-shaped organelle nestled under the brain, triggered an autonomic response: fight/flight/freeze. Of course, the rustling bush was often just that – an innocuous shrub swaying in the breeze – which the storytelling instantly escalated into a threat.
In today’s world, with the climate crisis, geopolitical uncertainty, rising inflation, pandemics and a host of other factors feeding a stew of general unease and anxiety, our storytelling frequently escalates into a worst-case scenario: ‘there’s no hope’, ‘people are vile’, ‘I have no power to change anything’, ‘no one likes me’.
The evidence for these beliefs seems so overwhelming (the modern equivalent of the rustling bush) that the stories we tell ourselves feel like the most self-evident and objective statement of fact. But of course, they’re not.
This is not to understate the existence of climate change, the depravity of military attacks on civilian populations, the cost of living crisis, or the uncountable number of personal but no less worrying crises that we experience.
All these things exist. But, critically, it is up to us to decide how we wish to respond to them and submitting to the negative beliefs created by our storytelling is the least useful thing we can do.
Rewriting your story
So, if storytelling is such a powerful inbuilt aspect of ourselves, fundamental to the way we operate and see the world, how do we take control of the narrative? And having decided to do so, what can we do instead? Like any valuable skill, rewriting your story requires practice.
The first step is to learn to recognise how ubiquitous our storytelling is. If you feel emotion, if you feel angry, pleased, self-righteous, indignant, or calm – the chances are that each of these feelings was preceded by a story you told yourself, a chain of images and ideas that would have unspooled in a few hundredths of a second.
Learn to interrogate these stories and separate the fact that something is happening from the story you attribute to it. This is a big step, but with perseverance, you will start to notice the speed and frequency of the storytelling and start to differentiate between the external experience (the fact, say, that the bush is rustling) with the internal story (the story-based interpretation placed on it and the resulting emotion).
Having ‘caught’ the story, the next step is a process called ‘labelling’, assigning a value to the emotion that the story gave rise to, such as ‘anger’ or ‘jealousy’, without succumbing to the emotion itself. The act of labelling has a circuit-breaking effect on the emotion, especially if you make it habitual. Explore how your feelings about the story change when you apply different labels, for example, substituting the word ‘acceptance’ for ‘anger’ and ‘curiosity’ for ‘fear’.
At this point, you can take control of narratives that would have previously been treated as unquestioned facts. What alternative interpretations are now open to you? How can positive stories be substituted? Explore these. And be alert, too, to how unwillingly your mind lets go of its preferred story. This part isn’t easy but is essential.
Our stories often take place within a visual mental landscape, like a cartoon, film or the panels of a graphic novel. Experiment with redrawing that landscape by changing the colours, flooding the images with sunlight, changing the expressions on the faces of people within the story and inserting new pictures.
Each of these steps helps to begin a process of literally rewiring the way your brain tells stories. It passes a greater level of control from the unconscious and default way you tell stories to your conscious self.
Storytelling becomes a positive, affirmative and resourceful way of behaving. You’ll know your story is good when you notice that the rustling bush is now a froth of cherry blossom.
Meirion Jones is a corporate coach and founder of Illustrated Coaching.
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