We all have a story we’re constantly telling ourselves. We also have a story we tell ourselves about the story called our lives. The story about our story consists of explanations, rationalizations, excuses, commentaries, delusions and often what we say is the “why” behind the “what.” Some people have a positive story about their story and others, not so much.
In the field of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism calls this story about our story our explanatory style. According to Seligman, the optimist tends to put a positive slant on his or her story. The pessimist explains things after filtering them through a darker lens, using a style that suggests things are permanent, pervasive and personal. And make no mistake, the story-telling style we adopt becomes a powerful habit, yet one that is still possible to change if we desire.
You might be wondering why it matters that much. It matters that much because if we habitually explain our story in terms that make it permanent, pervasive and personal, we give up or waste time looking for someone to blame or a knight in shining armor to rescue us. Example: If I decide that my story about not being good at math (something I did in 5th grade) is permanent, I will forever tell myself that I just don’t have the “math gene.” I will begin to look for evidence that this “truth” really exists. And I will subtly sabotage myself in situations where math is required and eventually give up on having a positive relationship with math forever. I’ve now used a story (that was actually planted by someone else) to limit myself unnecessarily.
How often have you done likewise with some personal characteristic or a life situation?
Don’t get me wrong, I know we all have natural strengths and weaknesses that we are wise to recognize so we can play to our strengths. But when our story-telling becomes a self-fulfilling negative prophecy that keeps us stuck or limits us, it’s time to wake up and smell the java!!
Then last week I saw a one of those wake-up stories that gave new meaning to what I’m talking about. Perhaps you saw the story too about a North Carolina high school student named Dawn Loggins. This young woman, who was abandoned by her parents a couple of years ago, after previously bouncing around to eight different schools growing up, certainly had a set of circumstances that could have led her to despair and hopelessness. But instead of using that unfortunate set of circumstances to limit her or define why it would be “impossible” to get her high school diploma, let alone think about college, Dawn Loggins chose a more positive explanation. Her positive explanations in turn set up positive expectations, which began a journey that culminated (at least for now) with her acceptance into the most prestigious Ivy League school in the nation: Harvard.
During the time she was literally homeless, she got a job as a janitor at her high school, working to earn money, which led to her being “taken in” by another employee, a janitor at the same school. She not only continued her studies but also supported a number of volunteer programs and has now started a non-profit to help homeless students finish school! Talk about changing the story about her story!!
If there is anything this story illustrates to me (and I hope to you as well) it is that we can choose to change the story about our story in our next breath. No doubt there are many difficult, even tragic circumstances people face today—ranging from job losses to health crises, financial disasters to marriage break-ups and more. But we ultimately decide the story about our story and how that story defines us. We can choose to write a new chapter that comes from a powerful, positive interpretation, like Dawn Loggins, or we can succumb to despair, hopelessness and self-doubt fueled by stories that paint a picture of permanent, personal and pervasive circumstances stacked against us.
In her words: “A lot of people use bad situations as an excuse, and instead I used them as motivation.” I’m still in awe.
As someone has said there is no failure in falling down. The failure lies in not getting back up, not learning from our mistakes (and those of others) and looking for either scapegoats or rescuers….none of which is helpful in getting on with creating more positive and powerful circumstances in our lives. Just ask Dawn Loggins.
So this week, no matter what story you’re telling yourself about your story, it can be changed. It’s only too late if you don’t start now.
Have an inspiring story kind of week.
Quote of the Week
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”