If personal narratives aren't serving you, try new ones

I've been thinking a lot about personal narratives as we continue to live through one historical event after another. Our internal stories are with us day in and day out. They continuously get activated by positive and negative situations and events setting the tone for the way we perceive ourselves, interact with others and view the world.

The stories we tell ourselves can either lend to our ability to problem solve or get us stuck in negative patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. We've collectively been through challenging times that have created polarizing narratives all around us in our communities, states, country and the world. We are constantly bombarded by negative narratives in the news and on social media.

So, how are personal narratives developed? Typically, they're shaped by chronic messaging received directly or indirectly throughout life related to family, traumatic experiences (pandemic anyone?) and/or culture. We then carry those messages with us, making choices (often unconsciously) and taking in information that reinforces them. Sometimes our internal stories are obvious to us, while other times they may not be.

Narratives can influence one or multiple roles we occupy in life. Examples of negative narratives would be, "I hate my job," "I need to lose weight," and "People can't be trusted or are malicious." They can also be more character specific such as, "I always fail" or "I'm inadequate or worthless." These types of thoughts tend to be all or nothing in nature.

Here are some questions and thoughts to consider and explore if you're looking to change a challenging personal narrative:

• What is a common negative narrative you have about yourself, others or the world?

• How does that narrative make you feel?

• Does it loop you into repeating a pattern of behavior that doesn't serve you?

• What might the narrative be rooted in?

• Does it impact one role in your life more strongly or permeate across roles?

• Do you absolutely know the narrative to be true? Is there evidence?

• Have you ever overlooked information that would contradict the narrative?

• Remember, we aren't our narrative. It's a part of us. Changing a narrative isn't just telling yourself the opposite. It starts with shifting something about the story. Instead of, "I hate my job," try, "I dislike that I feel undervalued at my job."

• We always have choices. Do you want to focus on thoughts that bring you up or down?

Choosing a different narrative can turn a stressful situation into a lighter and more manageable feeling one.

• Consider what narratives your children will inherit. Our children are taking in information about so many things currently, ranging from how to deal with scary world events such as pandemics and wars along with how to deal with people who have different opinions and the importance of self care.

Ultimately, the goal with challenging narratives is to create new ones that tell a different story about your life that better matches who you want to be. While you can't often change what happens to you, you can change the story you tell yourself about it. It can take considerable conscious effort and commitment to change a narrative. If you struggle with depression or anxiety, it's helpful to be aware it can affect your ability to shift thinking patterns. Consider seeking professional support if you feel stuck. You are worth it.

- Alisa Messana of Hinsdale is a licensed clinical social worker and a mental health consultant.