We humans

What old story about yourself are you still believing? Here’s how to find it and change it

Jan 24, 2019 /

Many of us hold deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves that are simply not true. You can start to free yourself from them by editing your narrative, says psychiatrist John Sharp.

Every weekday for the month of January, TED Ideas is publishing a new post in a series called “How to Be a Better Human,” containing a helpful piece of advice from a speaker in the TED community. To see all the posts, click here.

There are many things in our lives that we have little control over — the news, the weather, the traffic, the soup of the day at our local café. But among the things that we can control, there’s a big one: our story.

This narrative is not the one that contains the objective facts of our lives; instead, it’s “the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are and how everything always plays out,” says psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor John Sharp.

And he adds, “If you want to change your life, it needs a re-edit.”

The problem with this story is that too often, it’s not accurate — writer Marilynne Robinson calls it “a mean little myth.”

Sharp, the author of The Insight Cure: Change Your Story, Transform Your Life, explains, “Some emotionally difficult scenes are way over-included — just think of all the things you can’t let go of — and other scenes are deleted, such as times when things did go well. The worst part about the false truth … is that it becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy, the basis of what we expect from ourselves in the future.”

To begin revising your narrative, Sharp recommends doing the following:

1. Identify where your narrative diverges from reality.

For Sharp, his parents divorced when he was young, and he says, “the false truth that I held to so dearly was that just … as I couldn’t be effective in keeping my parents together, I probably couldn’t be effective at much of anything else, and this left me feeling very insecure.”

Since you’ve long accepted your false story as the official account, it may not be super-obvious to you. If you’re not sure what it is, try filling in these blanks, says Sharp:
“If I break a promise to myself, I feel ___________.”
“When someone ignores me, I feel _____________.”
“When my partner or best friend and I have a big fight, I feel _____________.”

Why these prompts? Our inaccurate narrative tends to be one that we default to when we’re faced with difficulty or disappointment.

Another way to help you identify your old story is to listen to your self-talk and notice when it includes statements that begin with “I always ______,” “I’m always ______,” or “I never ______.”

After you find your ingrained story, think back to your childhood and try to look for the experiences that helped feed it. And if you end up identifying multiple false stories, choose the one that’s had the most impact on your life. Sharp says, “While I know there are many stories and many possible revisions for all of us, I truly believe that there’s one underlying story that you deserve to identify and rework first.”

2. Question your beliefs.

Let’s say your deep belief is no matter what you do, it’s not enough; perhaps your parents were rarely satisfied with your achievements, even when they were stellar, and fixated on your next report card, exam or accomplishment. So, ask yourself: While that might have been the case when you were younger, is it really true now that what you do is never enough?

“When you view it from an adult perspective, you can see that it’s not fair or just to ourselves,” says Sharp.

Your story doesn’t have to have been caused by your parents, but it’s typically the result of a relationship we had when we were young. Explains Sharp, “It happens at a time before we know the difference between a healthy and and unhealthy reaction to something that really scares us, so we hold on to the wrong conclusion.”

3. Don’t beat yourself up.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged when you realize how long you’ve been telling yourself a false narrative. But know you’re far from alone — many of us walk around with these stories, says Sharp. “We need to be compassionate with ourselves about how this came into being.” Most people come up with them for what he calls “understandable reasons” — the need to maintain a sense of control and the tendency for kids to take specific circumstances and generalize broadly.

4. Introduce positives into your narrative.

Think about all your strengths and talents, and appreciate them. While the situations that led to the false story have made you into who you are today, they’ve probably affected you in positive ways as well. Maybe they’ve made you more resourceful, more responsible, more empathic, or more ambitious. These positives, whether they’re big or small, deserve a place in your story, too.

5. Leave behind the old story.

“Cut away what no longer serves you,” says Sharp. “Identify and gather up all the many exceptions … and accept that it’s safe now to move on. You no longer have to hold on to that false security.”

One of Sharp’s patients was a woman who avoided all challenges and adversity. Upon reflecting about her past, she realized “she suffered from the false truth that when she fell, she couldn’t pick herself up,” says Sharp. “Now she knows she can, and her future looks entirely different and better.”

Sharp is a fervent believer in the power of editing one’s story. “If I hadn’t cut away from my ‘mean little myth,’ then I’m confident now that I wouldn’t be here with you today,” he says in his TEDx talk. “In my 20 years of clinical practice, I’ve seen this kind of transformation over and over again.”

Watch his TEDxBeaconStreet talk here: