On occasion, I will be posting thought related to our Journeys to find a life well lived on Psychology Today.
Our stories, and the challenges we experience in our lives, seem both unique and unsolvable to us in our isolated and sometimes “walled off” world. In reality, these challenges are all too common to most people. More importantly, the path to changing the trajectory of that story to a positive experience, both within ourselves and in our relationships with others, is imminently available. To accomplish this requires a bit of introspection and the building of skills necessary to take action on what you discover in the crafting of those stories.
The starting point to that critical journey is “you”; your openness to consider change, cultivation of a growth mindset, willingness to expand and open your self-awareness, and finally, the ultimate discipline and accountability that you commit to for those choices. I believe there are three distinctly different stories we have about ourselves. The first is the “persona story,” the story you tell others about who you are. The second is the “hidden self story,” the story you tell yourself in the private chambers of your inner mind, heart, and soul. The third story is the “story of possibility,” the true vision you have of your life in accordance with your most sacred and true values.
Your Personal Story
The first story is the story of how you hope to be seen in the world. Most of us spend our lifetime crafting and cultivating our persona. It is likely composed of a view of our personality that is aspirational, positive, self-oriented, and perhaps more forgiving of our weaknesses. Self-preservation is a very strong drive that guides our behavior and our view of ourselves. We are probably quite invested in our persona and likely quite defensive about it as well. It’s OK for you to poke holes in it, but it’s not OK for others to do so.
As I write this, I notice that who I am and who I want to be in the outer world are at odds to some extent. The persona I project is one of a strong, confident, independent, thoughtful, and kind person. I’m a bit guarded for sure, but because of my education and training as a psychologist, I like to have deep conversations with folks, to ask provocative questions, and to be transparent about my own awareness and distinctions about life and relationships. I enjoy that process and connection. I believe that I want to be seen as someone with depth and of substance, as this has been a drive of mine for as long as I can recall, largely in response to a core negative belief I have in my inner story concerning my own self-image. Often the core issue that we struggle with in our life story is a main character in our persona that strives to compensate for the challenge we see in ourselves.
To help you discover more about your persona or first story, here are a few things you can do:
- Question and explore your motivation in taking actions or making decisions, and dig a bit deeper into your feelings and true motivations.
- Ask others how they see you. If you are lucky, someone who cares a great deal for you will share the truth lovingly, and you will benefit greatly. My brother-in-law, Rex, did that for me many years ago. While I was surprised at what he said, it made perfect sense given what I know about my persona.
- Ask what is important to you inside yourself and also as relates to how others see you. An example for me is that I want to be seen as competent and professional and having my stuff together. I like that I am a psychologist and get to help others with their problems; it kind of gets me off the hook in dealing with my own challenges.
- Begin to explore deeper the real you, your wants, needs, hopes, and what is truly important to you.
The Hidden Self
The second story we tell about ourselves or could tell is that of the hidden self, the private self. This represents the inner drives, motives, aspirations, fears, beliefs, and internal image of yourself. It would be like if you pulled back the curtain, like in The Wizard of Oz, and we finally got to see the true nature of the all-powerful wizard. We see his real story, his emotions, fears, and ways of coping with the world.
For me, looking inside at this part of myself for that story has been difficult and scary. I have worked very hard to create the outer façade of myself—having it all together and being a leader and helper of others. In a way, this has shielded me from having to deal with my own core negative beliefs, and it reinforces my ego-oriented persona story. Questions to ask to uncover the hidden story of self include these:
- What consumes your thinking, what do you obsess about, and what do you fear and work hard to overcome?
- What are the core issues that have traveled the world and the years of your life with you, like an uninvited guest that keeps showing up in your life?
- What feelings are you hiding from others about yourself?
- What might happen if your true inner self were uncovered and shared with your loved ones, friends, and professional associates?
The Unknown Self
The third story is the story of the undiscovered you, perhaps the aspirational you, the possible you. This story is unknown to you and others and is perhaps the most important story and the most exciting one. This story is likely the resolution of the first two stories. It is the one that can change your life’s trajectory.
For me, as I sat with myself in deliberation and preparation for writing this post, exploring my third story, I had to determine if I would take on this vision of my potential life or settle for the safer ground of story one while keeping story two hidden as much as possible. I have decided to go for it, but I waiver often, and I believe that is the nature of the third story. All we can do is bring it to awareness and begin to live into it and share it with others in a courageous and honest manner. Even with this perspective and motivation, I still find myself with one foot in story one and often stuck in story two, but the three stories create a pathway for me to travel and explore, learn about, and even live. Why not try to write these three stories for yourself and see where it takes your thinking and decision-making?
In conclusion, the real purpose of the three stories is to step back from your day-to-day life, take an honest look at yourself, and determine what story is driving your life and whether you want to change it.
As I explain in my book, The Journeyman Life: The Not-So-Perfect Path to a Life Well Lived, meaningful change begins with the stark reality and ownership of how we are living our inner and outer lives. That, along with the creation and commitment to a set of core life values, mission, and daily practices, is the key to our journey to a well-lived life.
Following are the key takeaways and actions that will allow you to move on this pathway:
- Explore in journal format your three stories and share them with a friend or intimate partner. Ask for feedback, then expand and refine your stories.
- Deepen the exploration of your inner life and private story by further understanding your core beliefs and operating system. What are the voices or beliefs that are holding you back that are fearful and also aggressive to others?
- Refine the vision, mission, and values for the life you wish to live; the life that is possible with this awareness and choice available to you.
- Commit to a set of goals and the development of new skills to allow this change to take place both inside and outside you.
- Build a network of support to help you in this process.
Joseph Campbell, in his book, The Hero’s Journey, discusses this process when he challenges all men to “Explore the inner reaches of your outer space.” The journey that you find yourself on is your unique story and the possibilities are boundless.