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The Stories We Tell Ourselves…

The stories we tell ourselves…

I was walking through sand dunes at a place called Bamburgh Castle and happened to come across a couple of strangers, at the exact time when he was proposing to her. Beautiful romantic moment in life – and she did say yes.

I felt privileged and honoured to be present and managed capture the moment on camera. I was struck by the commitments we make in life to ourselves and to others, and the changes it brings to our lives and futures. I could not help but consider why we find change so hard when, everyday, people change so much by simply in growing up/older, leaving home, going to university, getting a job, changing a job, getting married, having children, getting divorced, retiring etc. Yet the idea of change, or the want to change always feels difficult.

Have you ever tried to change something significant about yourself, whether a personality trait, a bad habit or another aspect of your life? Did it work? Have you ever tried to get someone else to change? What happened?  

So often we sit around, thinking about how unhappy we are about one thing or another.

Here’s a secret: the only person capable of changing your life for the better … is you.

You are the only person that can go to the gym, talk to your partner or open your own business. So why don’t you? It always starts with self-doubt. Maybe I shouldn’t really do this, we think. Maybe it’s not a good idea. Or … It’s not going to work anyway, is it?  You’ve tried it before after all, and it didn’t work then.

So many of the stories we tell ourselves are lies.

The unwritten rules we apply to our behaviours and motivations are the result of our biases, our fears and our experiences. The tendency of not challenging our own stories reminds me of an experiment a group of psychologists performed years ago. 

They started with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, they hung a banana on a string with a set of stairs placed under it.

Not before long, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the banana. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the other monkeys with ice-cold water. After a while, another monkey made an attempt to obtain the banana. As soon as his foot touched the stairs, all of the other monkeys were sprayed with ice-cold water. It wasn’t long before all of the other monkeys would physically prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.

Now, the psychologists shut off the cold water, removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey saw the banana and started to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attacked him. After another attempt and attack, he realized that if he tried to climb the stairs, he would be assaulted.

Next, they removed another one of the original monkeys and replaced it with a new one. The newcomer went to the stairs and was attacked. The previous newcomer took part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

Likewise, they replaced a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey tried to climb the stairs, he was attacked. The monkeys had no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they were beating any monkey that tried.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to try for the banana.

Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

The story we tell ourselves follows a well-trodden path. The path may be slightly different for each of us, but if we’re not succeeding at something, it’s quite probably because we are telling ourselves the wrong story.

Try it now: 

Think of a habit change you’re trying to make or that you’ve tried but failed at in the recent past. Maybe exercise, diet, meditation, writing, making a decision, relationship etc. Now, think about what story you told yourself about yourself. What was the image that came to mind?  Was it someone winning, triumphing over all odds, never to be defeated? Or was it someone ordinary who probably would give in at the first temptation when things got hard?

History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heart-breaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats. B. C. Forbes


Here are some pointers to success:

1/ Identify Your Story

The first step in changing a limiting belief is identifying. The difference between you and the people doing the thing that you’ve always wanted to do is the stories tell yourselves. Changing the story you tell yourself is one of the most important steps to changing your life.

2/ See the River not the Rocks

So many people starting out on change, see the obstacles. Yes, change can be tough and if we pretend it’s easy, we fail more easily. Obstacles are present in everyday life, be it a barrier that sets you back, halts your progress or derails your best laid plans. They can be discouraging and cause us to give up. However, focus on the goal and take one step forward each day.

3/ Support Your New Story with Emotions

Supporting your new story with facts will help you believe it, but what really anchors it into your life is associating it with positive emotions and positive thinking. By visualising and rehearsing in your mind the positive outcome will make you feel joy and help you look forward to what you plan to accomplish every day.

Imagine a new story for your life and start living it.  Paulo Coelho

4/ Take the Step to Change Today

Start challenging yourself more often and see things from a more positive perspective. Sometimes, you might fall back into old habits, but remember that making the effort will get you a step closer to your ideal than you were before.

Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen. Michel Jordan

Our entire identity and view of the world is a meaning, a story.

I was recently chatting with some pensioners and they said my messaging was for those who had time to change, but their journey was now settled. I challenged them on this.

Change is for everyone, available to everyone, and the footprints you leave can be made, varied, changed, any day you choose to do so.

Why not now?

The greatest victory is over self, and we should always  aspire to rise above our limitations

The story you have in your mind about the world at large and yourself as an individual is far from objective. To live a remarkable life, it is vital you take consistent action in spite of your fears and doubts.

THE MENTAL FILTER – 3 questions to ask yourself

  1. Is this story serving me?
  2. Is this the story I want to tell?
  3. If I am the author of my own story what do I want it to be?

Now write the next chapter. Make it your story.

To the couple I met a Bamburgh I wish them a great life story together.

If you are looking for coaching on change for yourself or your organisation, or would like more information on the work we do on Personal, Professional, or Organisational Change, please contact us on

About Dr Maurice Duffy

Irish. Author, Professor, Coach and Business strategist. The person Australian Captain Steve Smith credited with helping him back from his cricket ban. Coach to two Ashes wins. Coach to CEOs, Politicians and some of the best know international sports starts including Olympians. BBC ‘Thought for the Week’. Coached business leaders and organizations in 80 countries. Works with charities to do with Mental Health. Lives in North East England with his wife and 11-year-old son.