We Believe the Stories in Our Mind
“I’m such a procrastinator. I put off everything,” Robyn (my wife) said.
She was talking to her coach and mentor.
“What do you procrastinate about?” he asked.
“Everything,” she said.
At that moment, she was sitting in her office at work.
“Let me ask you a question. Did you get dressed this morning?”
“Did you get your kids dressed?”
“Did you have breakfast?”
“Did you get yourself to work?”
“Have you been doing your work?”
The point was becoming clear.
She never has and never will procrastinate over everything. She’s not even a bad procrastinator. She’s motivated, focused, hard working, and fit. She exercises, reads, writes, and is emotionally available for her family and friends. She’s wakes up at 5am to do yoga, meditate, and plan her day.
She’s that kind of person. Yet, she suffers this belief that she’s not doing enough, because the stories we tell ourselves become our beliefs.
Beliefs become actions.
Actions determine fate.
We’re putting ourselves [and everything we love] at risk when the stories we tell ourselves become unconscious and automatic. Because it starts with a [seemingly] harmless story, but it ends with an action.
There’s something else you need to know about my wife: she’s always late.
It’s been the bane of my existence since we started dating twenty years ago.
Her habit annoyed the hell out of me because she’s so damned conscientious about everything else. It didn’t make sense.
“How come someone who has it together can’t seem to leave on time?” I would say.
Just like a compulsive smoker that can’t stop even though he stinks and wheezes, my gorgeous little wife couldn’t stop being late in spite of the repercussions. It was like she couldn’t see the pattern and how it affected everyone around her.
She believed she was a procrastinator, and her belief was reflected in her lateness.
[Note to my wife: I promise the next article will be about one of my many blindspots;)]
The great psychologist and researcher Daniel Kahneman pointed this out in his Nobel Prize winning book, Thinking: Fast and Slow.
Our brains don’t see the difference between a story and reality.
This becomes a problem when many of the thousands of stories we hold in our minds aren’t true. Kahneman also discovered that we rarely use the ‘slow’ thinking system to make rational decisions.
Stories are a kind of shortcut for the energy using process of rational thought. They allow us to make quick judgements and decisions.
Great. Everyone loves a shortcut when it works. But what if the shortcut leads you to a dead end over and over again every day for the rest of your life?
You would probably want to stop using the shortcut, or at least change the path.
Enter The Editorial Process
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” — Ernest Hemingway
In the personal development space there’s a lot of talk about transformation and starting over, but I’ve come to believe that self-editing is more effective than starting new.
Self-editing is the process of slowly changing our belief system by changing our story. Just like the process of editing written works, it is painstaking but incredibly important work.
ManTalks speaker, Philip McKernan says, “It doesn’t matter if you think big. You have to believe big.”
We execute and act on our beliefs.
I’ve edited my personal story several times and will continue to.
I remember when, four years ago, I struggled to wake up early. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get up before 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning.
I even remember saying to several of my friends, “I’m just not a morning person,” when they would ask me to do early morning things like go for a run or go to the gym.
In desperation I decided to try bringing in some accountability. I asked an early rising friend if he would mind texting me every morning at 5:30. He agreed, and I began waking up early. It was a massive struggle at first, but with every passing day it got a little bit easier.
A few months later when we moved to Jamaica, Robyn and I would leave our blinds open, and it was easy to wake up with the Caribbean sunrise every day.
I had become an early riser.
Then life happened. We moved across the world to Korea, and my old habits crept back. I hadn’t fully edited the story or cemented my belief.
Before I knew it, I was waking up at 8:00 again. I had created some powerful justification stories about getting up at 8:00.
“It’s not that late.”
“It’s one of the benefits of not working a 9 to 5.”
“I work into the evening.”
Eventually, I decided to get back to early rising. I clawed my way back to 7:00, then 6:30, 6:00, 5:30, 5:00, and finally today I wake up at 4:30.
Today I feel confident in saying I’m an early riser. It’s a part of my belief system.
This doesn’t mean those old stories will never come back or that I won’t have to continue to engage with the inner story. I will. That’s the nature of self-editing.
Take a look at any area you struggle [or succeed] with in life, and you’ll find a belief system based on one or many stories.
The 5 Keys to Editing Your Story [and Changing Your Beliefs]
1) Relax — The first thing to realize is that you’ll never get, “there.” Change to belief systems comes slowly. Many days it will feel like nothing is happening at all. Commit to the process forever.
Be wary of snake oil salesmen who offer a, “secret system to personal transformation.” You’re in this for the long haul, so chill out, do the work, and enjoy the journey.
2) Move Quickly — In total contradiction to #1 — it happens fast. When you self edit, you will be smacked in the head by truth.
When those moments come, move immediately. Otherwise the old beliefs will sneak back in.
3) Take Action — You’re not Stewart Smalley.
Change doesn’t come from repeating lame affirmations in the mirror. That’s a form of magical thinking, and probably the least effective form of self editing.
Sure, you edit the story in your mind, but then you have to actually do something about it. Action forges the new story and crystallizes belief.
It’s why going back to the gym after a week off seems difficult, but if you go every day you feel less resistance.
During the break you internalize the lazy story. You’ve stopped being the person who kicks ass and become the lethargic couch potato.
The only way to beat that inner bitch is to show up every day. With each passing day the inner bitch gets weaker and you get stronger.
Editing your story only in your mind and then never taking action will result in no change. The old story will remain.
Take action. I can’t stress this enough.
4) Reframe — When you first start the process you won’t even notice the stories passing through your consciousness. They will silently control your actions.
Without knowing why, you’ll do the opposite of what you know you need to do. Rather than throwing 45-pound weights on the olympic bar for a heavy set of squats, you’ll find yourself crushing donuts like Chief Wiggum.
All because that damn story just played in your head… again.
But, with practice you’ll start to catch the story, and eventually you’ll laugh at how false it is.
Maybe the story says you’re, “not athletic,” because some asshole in the first grade punched you in the mouth and you felt weak.
When you do catch the destructive story, reframe it like this, “I was small, which doesn’t mean I wasn’t athletic. Also, that kid’s dad probably beat him with a belt every night. No wonder he was such an asshole. I wasn’t weak at all. My brain is sending me a false story.”
Then you put down the donut and go workout. Little by little you lose the story that you’re not athletic and the donut starts to look like poison — sweet delicious poison, but poison nonetheless.
The next day you’ll probably feel the call of the donut again. Reframe it again. Rinse and repeat until the story of you, the athlete, is stronger than the story of you the donut aficionado.
5) Ask Yourself, “Is this true?”
Some stories are based in reality and others are false. When you begin to see your mind as a story machine, you will soon realize that it’s constantly playing both true and false stories.
An example from my own life: for a long time I had a story that writing was hard, excruciating work.
Which meant I set myself up to experience excruciatingly difficult work every day.
These days I still get that story sometimes, but now I immediately ask myself, “Is this true?” Then I reframe. I realize it’s a false story. This helps me remember why I love writing and that it’s a joyous process.
This awareness transforms the moment and I go on attacking my work with joy and vigor.
A Daily Practice of Self-Editing
Robyn and I talk every day about our stories and how to edit them. She helps me edit my stories, and I hers. Over the years we’ve changed many things together — things about ourselves that we thought were permanent.
I’m writing this at 5:45am after getting up for meditation and yoga at 4:30. I’m an early riser now — a successfully edited story.
There are others, though, and I will keep my red pen handy.
[For more on story editing, listen to Zander Robertson on the ManTalks Podcast.]
Zander Robertson is editor-in-chief of the Mantalks blog. He’s ghostwritten more than 20 books for major publishing houses and self publishers. Zander believes that the world turns on powerful, raw, and true stories. Read Zander’s article on the first steps to uncovering your story and/or writing your book. Email [email protected] to pitch your article idea for ManTalks.
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