“ Tell me about your childhood”.
That’s a question frequently heard in therapists’ offices the world over. Whether we are there to deal with a career that has us in a tizzy, or to handle the fallout from a death, divorce or some other life challenge, the questions digging into stories of “how I got here” are a commonplace when we engage therapists.
And boy-oh-boy do we love telling these stories! Even the ones that we’ve repeated a thousand times, stories that make us feel sad and lonely, angry or hurt; we tell and retell them. Research into our brains has also found that each retelling deepens our attachment to story and each time we believe the stories more and more. We use them to teach ourselves who we are and what we are capable of accomplishing. As research Prof. Dan McAdams writes, “Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality’. *1
We are always creating the story of ourselves.
But what if that’s all they are? What if the story is just a story, something that we made up to fill in the missing pieces of memory. We create stories to cover up feelings that we don’t want to feel, like anger, guilt, frustration and regret. Surprisingly many of our stories can limit how much joy and happiness we allow ourselves to experience. What if we one morning we woke up and saw exactly what stories we are telling ourselves and…
WHAT IF THE STORY IS NOT TRUE?
This is the ‘radical” idea that forms one of the foundations of Positive Psychology-based coaching, that it’s just a story, nothing more and nothing less. Stories are how we create sense in the world and it’s infinite variations without focusing too much on each new event or item. In many ways, having stories is a very useful shorthand for our lives. We can live our lives in a form of “ant-tracking” where we live out the story of who we are and what we are about. But what if the stories are not true, or not all true? What if they were true at one time for us, say when we were 7 years old, or 14 or 21…Are they still “the truth” for who we are at 26, 35, 54 or 89? Jonathan M. Adler states, “A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story”. *2
Your life is an ocean of experiences.
Imagine your past as an enormous ocean that you have swum in for years. You are really good at swimming though sometimes you get tired and need to find small islands to crawl up onto and rest. You might stay on an island for a short time, just long enough to catch your breath and get your strength back before diving back into the ocean. At other times you might find an island that you really like and you stay there for years. Maybe you build a house and create a garden and find that it’s a pretty good life on this particular island; you might even forget that there’s a whole ocean out there for you to swim in, if you stay on your island long enough.
Then storms hit your island. You are pelted by sheets of rain that wash away your satisfaction with your job. The hailstones that start as teeny, tiny glittering drops grow larger and larger, slowly burying you in discomfort with your relationships. The wind blows so strongly that you find yourself pushing against it all the time and you feel exhausted at the end of each day. You find that the storms don’t seem to abate, they continue day after day, week after week and you start to remember that you did not always live in a storm. In the back of your mind you know there is something else out there, some other way of living where you feel vibrant, happy, fully alive. You want that again. You want to live for yourself and at your best every single day.
You want to be happy. You want to be unstoppable. Where do you turn in the storm? Who can help you navigate the ocean?
Storms can be beautiful and chaotic.
One of the biggest differences I see between coaching and therapy is that therapists spend a great deal of time swimming around in the oceans of the past with their clients. Therapy asks us to tell and retell our stories. We swim deeper into them trying to understand them, trying to see how we learnt to swim in the first place. We end up understanding a whole lot about why we think we always do the backstroke, breaststroke or crawl, but we often never get ourselves past the place of being deep in the stories.
Positive Psychology research tells us that the more you tell a story the more it embeds itself in your psyche. Stories of all kinds “actually alter our brains, and can even change the way we think and act”.*3 The fact that we tell ourselves all kinds of stories about who we are and why we are the way we are, has an actual effect on how we live our lives. Our stories are recognizable patterns, and we use them to make meaning of the world around us. We create ourselves through the stories we tell, and the stories we hear become our personal life maps. “Stories are so near and dear to us, in fact, that we even invent them when they’re not actually there”. *4 As humans we have a tendency to imagine and create meaning where it does not actually exist and this means that we are capable of telling ourselves stories about who we are, and then living those into being true.
Coaching comes in when we swim back to the question I asked earlier.
What if the stories are not true? What if we looked at them as simply stories that we made up, or that we were told so many times that we think or feel they are truthful, or were a truth at one time but now maybe are not?
Coaches spend a lot of time asking people to stop swimming in the ocean of stories. The question, “what else might also be true”, is a question most coaches I know use in one form or another as a way to get clients to think about the aspects they are overlooking. Where therapists start with the present and work backwards to see how you got to be the person you are today, coaching starts with the present and works to unravel the patterns and habits that are holding you back from living into what and who you are really capable of.
I often warn my coaching clients that when they launch into the story of why or how something is the way it is, I will stop them to ask if retelling the story is useful, and to have them look at what about telling the story creates more obstacles to success. For most of us, coaching is about moving beyond the stories and looking at what can be true for us next. We coach into what we want, strengthening and building new habits that allow us to swim in life’s ocean in many different ways. We learn new breathing techniques and new ways to float. We might find new islands or learn how to create them all by ourselves. Coaching moves us forward on our strengths and by making heavy use of what has worked in the past, building on that to create more success in our future.
It’s a truism to say “Nothing predicts future success better than past success”. This is one basis from which Positive Psychology coaching works. Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford, developed a well-supported social theory about self-efficacy that explains and describes a phenomenon that many have observed. Bandura’s theory, supported by many experiments, explains how higher self-expectations lead to higher performance.*5
Stepping out of the ocean can give you a new perspective on your past successes.
What would you do if you knew without doubt you were amazing? What would you do if you felt engaged and happy everyday of your life? I’m not talking about a Pollyanna approach where everything is sugar-coated. I’m talking about living a meaningful life where you feel connected to your values and to what is truly important to you. We aren’t talking about a life without pain or work or failures, we are talking about a life fully experienced, one that has a taste of everything, highs, lows and the stuff in the middle- all of it.
Research on the relationship between confidence and performance confirms the following: The more a person expects to achieve, the more he actually will achieve. Confidence is always based on past performances so we coaches tend to work with techniques in coaching that reference past success in order to mine the elements for useful tools that our clients can put to use now to build new successes for themselves.
To put it in a nutshell (and make a generalization), therapists start at the present day and work backwards in exploration of the past, life coaches start where you are right now and build upon past successes to help clients grow themselves forward. Both can be useful at different times and often in tandem, but ultimately they are working to address different needs.
I hope this has been helpful and I’d love to hear about your experiences with either therapists or coaching or both. Feel free to drop in a comment and join our discussion below.
*1. APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Dan McAdams, and Erika Manczak
*2. Living Into the Story: Agency and Coherence in a Longitudinal Study of Narrative Identity Development and Mental Health Over the Course of Psychotherapy, Jonathan M. Adler, 2012
*3.The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave, Shane Jones, 2014
*4.The Psychology of Stories: The Storytelling Formula Our Brains Crave, Shane Jones, 2014
*5.Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change, Albert Bandura, 1977