I tell myself stories all the time. There are big ones like where I will live someday and little ones like how much toothpaste I will put on my toothbrush. I'm a running narrative, one internal story after another, but I didn't notice the stories so much until I lost them. That's when I began to realize how important stories are.
My stories organize my life, give it meaning and prepare me for action. Here's a little one that I told myself yesterday. It was story about what shirt I was going to wear. I looked at a shirt and the story went like this: "The color will look good with the jacket but it's too cold outside for this one and if I go to the gym before I go to the meeting, I will have to take it off and change to my t-shirt, but my friend gave me this shirt and if I wear it I will remember her and feel happy." Just a shirt, but thinking about which one I would choose created a group of stories. It was a lot more colorful and engaging than a simple choice.
So many stories flowing through my mind, but when I was suddenly injured my stories disappeared. I could not tell myself the simplest morning tale about how I would get out of bed and how much toothpaste I would put on my toothbrush and what shirt I would put on, much less the bigger stories about how I would go to work and what I would do. I couldn't move. I was paralyzed.
Being injured was bad enough but losing my stories was deeply disorienting. I was bewildered. Our minds don't like feeling bewildered and won't leave the story space empty for long. We quickly start to construct a new set of stories, positive or negative. The only framework for a new story that I had was what I saw around me and what I imagined might happen. Lying in the hospital bed with machines clicking around me, the material I had to work with was grim.
And so my first new stories were of despair and desperation. There's a problem with this. Our brains make physical patterns of the stories we tell ourselves. All that storytelling creates pathways that get reinforced and begin to shape our expectations. If we tell ourselves stories of despair we begin to look for the despair. We "prove" our stories to be true by finding what we tell ourselves will be there.
I was one of the lucky ones. I found my way to new stories of hope and possibility and those stories changed my expectations and helped me find the courage I needed to work and heal. Finding these positive stories took me a long time and there was a considerable amount of wasted effort getting there. Is there any way to make this process simpler? Of course there is. We do it all the time. We tell each other stories.
We talk with one another. We read books and go to the movies. We love other people's stories. We use them to make frameworks for our own stories. When I read about someone with a challenge who has found a way to make a powerful life, I begin to try the story on for myself - adapting it to my situation. The closer the story is to my own experience, the clearer, more hopeful and real it is, the easier it is for me to adapt it and use it for myself.
We can give each other the gift of a positive narrative. This isn't about telling other people what to do. Few people I have ever known like to be told what to do. This is about offering a story that someone else can use to figure out what to do for themselves.
Knowing how long it took me to find my way to a new story of hope led to the creation of the DVD that I co-produced with my friend and film expert, Paul Shain. This DVD can be shown to people with strokes and other kinds of brain injuries early in the process of recovery. There are wonderful people on the DVD sharing the framework for new stories. You can watch it on my website www.healingintopossibility.com or contact me through the website to find out how to get a copy.