Telling tales


Did you ever hear yourself telling a well-practised story? It might have  been at a party, or at a job interview. You knew every line off by heart, you’d told the tale so many times before.

The stories that we tell to ourselves and to others are designed to direct attention to certain aspects of who we are. Like any metaphor, stories give a selective, partial view, not the whole picture (just listen to any politician, and you’ll see what I mean).

We do the same when we select the facets of our story about why I quit that job, why I didn’t move to Canada, write a book, become a brain surgeon … We condense a complex tangle of strands – context, emotions, motivations – and package it into a simplified version. Easy to retell and polish over and over again. A shorthand version of events.

After a while, we begin to believe our own stories. They become ‘true’ for us. Sometimes this is unhelpful: I’m no good at … I could never … I always fail at … etc. Maybe these stories were true, once upon a time, in a particular context, at a specific time. But are they definitively true for you in every situation, at all times, for ever and ever, amen? Or are there exceptions to your home-spun rules? Have you got evidence which disproves your theory, if you dig for it ?

I told myself that I was “hopeless with numbers” for years. I just don’t have a feel for numbers, I can’t do maths. And yet (with a huge helping of blood, sweat and tears) I managed to get through the large proportion of statistics necessary to get a degree and an MSc in psychology. I had to revise my story in the light of this new (and somewhat surprising) evidence. But old stories die hard. I still catch myself retelling the tale that I’m useless with numbers. I’m not. I just have to work really, really hard at them.

New stories can be very powerful devices in the process of change. As Rob Parkinson puts it in his book ‘Transforming Tales’:

“When an image connects with experience, it can unlock learning in that experience and show how it is relevant in other areas of experience. When the imagination is engaged, new behaviour can be rehearsed metaphorically.”

Through stories, new possibilities open up. We just need to practise them.


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