Living your life, or living your story?

Each of us has our own story. A narrative web of intertwined and interconnected experiences – and our perception of them – complete with stories between stories, and stories within stories.

Unless we’re careful, the stories can become our identity and become our lives, rather than being stories about our lives.

As the unique individuals each and every one of us are, the stories of our lives will each be different, and yet at the same time there’ll be common ground. That’s one of the reasons storytelling is such a powerful means of connecting with others. Compelling stories resonate, they touch hearts as well as minds.

Our stories can develop and grow as we journey through life. Ongoing experiences, and lessons learned, potentially providing a deep, rich, ever-evolving seam of knowledge and understanding from which to draw from as we navigate the terrain of life unfolding before us. Stories can be self-empowering: building and sustaining self-confidence, self-belief and self-determination; and they can also empower others by offering hope, inspiration and motivation. Stories of challenge, triumph over adversity, success against the odds, all being common themes in best-selling books and films.

Although our stories can develop and grow, and our ‘selves’ along with them, that’s not always the case. For many, their stories become final and as a result limiting. Their past experiences forming fixed beliefs which influence moment-to-moment experience, those fixed beliefs becoming rigid filters through which their senses interpret the world and their responses (reactions) to it. Filtering in anything that fits with their beliefs and filtering out anything that doesn’t. Life and living becomes less and less determined on the basis of what the world presents before us and more and more on the basis of what we project onto it.

Past experience, stories, fixed beliefs and filters, can become our ‘reality’. Essentially our interaction with the world becomes a process of identification and projection of familiar patterns and conditioned, unconscious responses to them. Experience (and ‘reality’) is no longer a process of curiosity and discovery based perception, instead experience (and ‘reality’) is determined by what we believe we know about the world – a result of active and passive learning, conditioning and influence. Without any awareness of the process, our past and everything that came with it becomes the structure or model of the world we take to be reality, and we mistakenly take our personal reality to be THE reality. In the words of author Anais Nin: “we don’t see the world as it as, we see it as we are”.

The basis of many of the problems we experience in life, the reasons why we become stuck and the numerous challenges we struggle with, are rarely because of a situation we’re in and more often due to our thoughts about the situation. The stories we tell ourselves.

Such stories can and do limit us, and limit our lives. They can become barriers to growth, defences against making difficult decisions, reasons for not taking personal responsibility, evidence to support our arguments, beliefs and behaviours.

Then there are the stories of perceived lack that we repeat to ourselves. Stories of inability or inadequacy, of being less than perfect, unlovable, unable, incapable or unworthy. All are common themes in the stories people share in consultations. Stories from or about our past that we believe determine who we are and what our lives can or cannot be about. Stories about identity. Stories that become identity. Yet all too often these are not stories of our own making, they’re stories imposed upon us by others, when we were young, impressionable or vulnerable. It’s worth remembering our past has the power to influence, and not determine, our present or future. Unless we choose otherwise.

If I asked you to share your story, right now, what would be the story that you shared? Would it be a story of adventure, a story of challenge or change, a story of following your passion, or a story of why you can’t do or be what you want to do or be? Would your story be about never having enough time to do all of the things you have to get done in a day, never mind the things you’d really love to do with your life (my friend’s story recently)?

Would it be a story where you’re so much a part of someone else’s story that you no longer have a story you can call your own? A story where you’re happy to not, or not have to, live your own life? Is your story a story that keeps you trapped in a loop of past experience, an experience or experiences that keep you stuck, prevent you from letting go and moving on?

Or is yours a story that drives you forward, motivates, sets you free?

The mistake we all too often make is in believing our stories are who we are, and also all too often and without being aware, we become trapped by them. In a similar way to the elephant who, despite its incredible strength, has been conditioned to believe the thin rope around its lower leg prevents it from moving from the spot it stands in, our stories can bind us to a place in which we exist and survive rather than evolve and thrive.

Some years ago I worked with someone whose years of involvement with mental health services resulted in a story, and an identity, of a ‘mentally ill patient’, and the many limitations that went hand in hand with both. Believing himself to be as much a part of the mental health system as the fixtures and fittings in the buildings he received treatment in, his day-to-day life became one determined by the conditioning and interactions with the system rather than any personal choices he could make outside of the system, or things he could’ve done for himself. The point is, as with the elephant, he wasn’t aware. He was the perfect, passive patient. That was his role, his identity.

And it isn’t unusual for the complex story of anyone’s life to be distilled into a story of role identity. What might be called an ‘I am’ story: ‘I am a nurse, I am a service user, I am a consultant, I am a therapist, I am a mum, I am a manager, I am a carer’. All are common responses when I ask the question ‘tell me a little about yourself’.

Again, back to your story, is it mainly familiar, flat and final? Or is it mainly flowing, evolving and alive? Did there come a point when your story no longer evolved and grew, when you settled into living the story… instead of living the life you wanted to live? As echoed in the tearful words of a participant on a recent workshop (and not for the first time…) “I didn’t come here to be reminded of all of the things I wanted to do with my life and which I have not”.

I don’t do what I do with the intention of bringing people to tears, but it isn’t unusual when people have a moment of realisation or recognition.

What about you? Are you living the structure and routine that frames almost each and every day in the same, safe and predictable way? On the same repetitive and mundane yet superficially comfortable path? A place that feels familiar and secure, but when you take a few moments to examine it, is in fact anything but? Living a life of hoping, hoping to live the life longed for at some point in the future?

Or are you instead living life now, in the present, with the curiosity and excitement of a young child or with the wisdom of an ageing adventurer, a mind open to the many possibilities inherent within each new moment: exploring, discovering, creating, enjoying? When we lose our curiosity about life, and consign our interest in living it fully to the ‘some other time when we have the time’ shelf, we forgo our opportunities to engage and evolve and learn and grow. We lose out on opportunities for happiness, joy and fulfilment.

If it seems as if you’ve adopted an acceptance to life being the way it is, of things being the way they are, of you being who you always were…and things forever remaining that way. If you feel you’re unable to avoid the negative consequences of anything you want to do, that everything is beyond your control, that you’re resigned to some thing or things being unchangeable and unavoidable, it may well be you’ve reached the position or place that renowned positive psychologist Martin Seligman refers to as ‘learned helplessness’.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Perhaps due to the ever increasing pace of ‘modern’ life it seems more and more people are waking up and deciding enough is enough. They want to engage, or re-engage, with living the kind of life they want to live. Often as a result of the stress and emptiness of the life they’ve been living many have made a conscious choice to become the author of a new story. For others it’s been something of a forced choice, with a wake up call such as a health crisis, relationship breakdown, loss of the job they loved (or perhaps didn’t), the ‘job for life’ which paid for all of the things they didn’t need and also gave them an identity. “Now it’s gone, who am I?” asked one recent client who was experiencing depression shortly after being made redundant.

All too often we become trapped inside the illusion of the story we’re living and the perceived reality it’s created. Recognising they’ve stopped engaging fully in the precious gift of life, and the limited time they’re given to live it, many are also waking up to the fact our lives have sell by, best before and use by dates. And they’re choosing to do something about it.

They’ve decided the stories they’ve been living will no longer be their fully finished narratives, but the stories of their lives so far. Not for them the stories you’ve heard a thousand times before: stories of the daily grind, of the employer who treats them badly, the job they no longer enjoy (or even worse, hate), the relationship that stifles them (and it’s all the other persons fault). And not for them either the stories of dreams left behind in the dim and distant past, of goals they never got around to having a go at, or the deferred happiness that will (hopefully) be realised at the weekend, or when they take a holiday, or when retirement comes, or when this…or that…or the other, happens.

Is it possible to wake up, at any time, no matter why, when, where, who or how, and write a different story? The next chapter? A new book? A new identity? A whole new way of living even?

Absolutely.

How? Well, it’s your life, not mine, and not for me to tell you how to live it, but if you were asking for a suggestion my response might be to think about what it is that brings you joy and begin, or continue, your story from there. Or think about those unfulfilled goals, dreams and aspirations. Or those things you’ve never done and always wanted to. Or the life you always wanted to live but never have. Or the person you wanted to be but never were because you were afraid of what others would think and say.

But, and here’s the bit that results in many bottoms remaining on the oh so comfortable sofa, you have to be willing to take action.

And when might you do that? Again, it’s your life not mine and therefore not for me to decide, but I’d say now is always a good time to get started on anything you really want to do.

But only if you really do want to of course.