Seeing the Stories

How many stories do you tell yourself everyday? My answer is more than you are aware of.

There are some that are relatively easy to spot: “If I go to that meeting and I show them this picture and explain the importance of the project then maybe they will approve funding” is a story you can clearly hear yourself telling. You can hear your inner voice as a narrator in your head as you run through a possible future scenario.

Alternatively you may be narrating a story like: “When she said X, I should not have replied immediately with Y, no I should have waited a little bit and then said Z, that would have been much better.” This story also has a clear narrator as it runs over a scene from the past.

These clearly narrated stories will be the first ones you’ll notice telling to yourself. This will already be very useful, as we’ll see later in this book. However there is more.

There are also stories without a clear narrator.

Stories that you usually don’t notice because you are in the middle of them, living in the world that the story creates, swimming in its water. Like the story I was telling myself last week as I was waiting to go to the party. These invisible stories are similar to watching most movies in that there is no narrator and the screenwriter isn’t visible.

In the movies you also don’t see the cameras, the lights and the microphone. Everyone works hard for you to forget you are looking at something that was made up. They want you to ‘suspend your disbelief’ and go along with the story. In real life, however, it is the other way around: you have to work hard to spot that a story is being told. Also because you are not just watching the story, you are playing in it. And usually you have the lead role.

Spotting invisble stories

Invisble stories are like wind. They are hard to see directly, you normally notice them through the effect they have. You can’t see wind, only the trees it bends or the water it ripples. The effect of these invisible stories can be noticed in your mood, your feelings, your thoughts and your actions.

The irritation I felt whilst waiting at my front door, my tapping foot and the blaming thoughts running through my mind were like rustling leaves indicating that someone somewhere was telling a story that I was in the grips of.

We don’t want or need to be aware of these stories all the time, however when the effects these stories have in our lives are unwanted, then it can be good to go look for the screenwriter and drag him or her away from their desks and put the spotlight on them for a while. When the wind that is blowing prevents us from doing what we really want or even creates damage, then we do want to be able to see the story we are telling ourselves and examine it a little.

So the first crucial step is to spot the story. If you have thoughts, feelings or behavior that are unwanted, then go looking for the story by asking yourself, what kind of story am I telling myself in the background?

Is this you?

Two young fish are out swimming and pass an old fish, “nice water today” the oldtimer says, a little bit further one of the young fish turns to the other: “what the hell is water?”

Is this you?

Life is going pretty well, but… there are moments. Moments that you lose your cool unnecessarily, moments when you hide what you think unnecessarily, moments when you feel you are holding yourself back unnecessarily. Is this you?

One of those moments had me standing just inside our frontdoor in Amsterdam with my coat and scarf on, waiting for my girlfriend to get ready. My foot started tapping. I had said we needed to go 10 minutes ago. We didn’t want to be late for this party. She had once said she never took long getting dressed. So this was not only frustrating, it wasn’t fair.

My hand started tapping the hallway table with the keys I was holding just to make sure she did hear that she was responsible for making my existence less than idyllic in that moment. My mind went over a few sarcastic utterances that would release the tension I felt inside, though I also knew they would only make the situation worse. She would most likely slow down or even decide not to go if I said them, but yet my mouth opened and… At that moment a brilliant question popped in my mind. Not for her, for me.

What story am I creating here for myself?

It had the effect you can have in a dark cinema, when you are completely engrossed in the story and then all of a sudden you see the heads of the people in front of you in the dark and notice that there are sides to the screen and you realize with a relief that there isn’t really a monster behind the trees, but that it’s a story someone made up and that got produced really well… but that it’s not real!

The anger left my body as I thought about what story I was creating in my mind. The cognitive exercise of analyzing the story, something I also do for a living, took away the perceived reality of the injustice of having to wait for a few minutes. To my surprise I didn’t feel angry and impatient any more. I re-ran the story; she had said I would never have to wait, I gave her fair warning and sure enough I started to feel the anger and impatience come back as I got sucked into the story.

What kind of story was this? I asked again and as I truthfully tried to answer that question I felt the feelings go away. It was a story of scarcity and survival. There wasn’t enough time. There weren’t enough parties. There was not enough respect. There were not enough expectations being met. There was not enough. It was a story of not enough.

She tapped me on the shoulder. Can we go now daydreamer?

Ah yes of course, I smiled. And the next twenty minutes became a pleasant transit through Amsterdam of a couple on their way to a party, while without my asking the story question it may well have been an irritated, grumpy, somewhat petty affair.

So it starts with seeing the water. Seeing the story.

Storycolors, the beginning of a journey

Last week, over lunch, almost unnoticeably, I was part of a major milestone.

To the other people in the restaurant nothing special seemed to be happening. Two people sat talking, spooning up a green soup and one was typing things into her laptop. And yet it was a big moment, because by definition beginnings are a prerequisite for anything happening at all.

Without beginnings we would have had no man on the moon, no-one organising the World Cup football and van Gogh, Vermeer and Rembrandt would only be known by their neighbours and family.

At that lunch in Amsterdam, a new business was formed that brings together many of the different strands of my life and work.

Its name is Storycolors and it is a new method of self-management and revolves around recognising the stories we tell ourselves and color coding them, hence the name. The method will heighten your awareness of how you block yourself in certain moments and it helps you take away the reasons behind that blocking and so opens up alternative avenues of action.

They say starting is half of the job done. I wont say that, but knowing that if you don’t start nothing gets done, I do believe it a cause for a mild celebration. A blogpost and another cup of soup for now, but more is to follow!