Tuesday, 11 February 2014

On storytelling...

Who doesn't love a good story?  As children we beg our parents for one more fairytale before bedtime.  Or we sit by the campfire, enraptured and terrified by a gripping ghost story.

"And then they told her... the calls were coming from outside the house!
Wait, no, I got that wrong..."

As we grow older we find our own ways to pursue exciting stories, whether through books, films, or television.  We seek out stories wherever we go.  This passion for narrative is an intrinsic part of human nature.  It’s inscribed deeply in our DNA.

But what if some stories are bad for us?  What if some narratives in our life are holding us back, deceiving us, or even damaging us?

Every day you tell yourself millions of little stories.  It’s a coping mechanism, a way to make sense of yourself and the world.  Take this story, for instance: my name is Angela, I’m a British soprano and I study in Germany.

Hi Angela.  Love the side ponytail.

At first glance, this story seems helpful.  It gives Angela an identity, a place in the world.  But it also places limits on her.  Certainly Angela is so much more than her name, nationality, voice type, and place of study.  And yet every day she is telling herself that that is all she is.  She is boxing herself in with her own words.

Is being a British soprano the essence of Angela’s existence?  Is studying in Germany the meaning of her life?  Of course not.  But if she identifies with this story too much, she is putting herself in a very small and precarious place.  What if one of these labels were taken away from her?  For instance, what if she changed from a soprano to a mezzo-soprano?  She might feel lost, desperate, hopeless.  She has clung to her story so much that she doesn't know what to do without it.

We all cling to stories like this, for many different reasons.  They comfort us in an uncertain world.  They help us to interpret events, to understand people, or to create a series of logical cause-and-effect relationships.  And often, they add a bit drama to our everyday lives.  

That's right.  We're all a bit of a drama queen.

But clinging to these kinds of stories can be extremely dangerous.  Why?  Because we forget that they’re stories.  We forget that they're based in our minds, and not in reality.

For every event in your life, there are two layers: the bare facts, and the emotional filter through which you perceive them.  For instance, you might be sitting on a streetcar and notice that someone is staring at you.  If you are feeling particularly insecure about your appearance that day, you might think to yourself, he’s staring because my outfit looks stupid.  You have no idea if this thought is true.  These are the only facts you know: you’re sitting on a streetcar, and someone is staring.  Everything else is a product of your mind – a story which your emotions are projecting onto the situation.

Nonetheless, you might believe this story.  You might choose to identify with it.  And in doing so, you are mistaking a story for the truth.  You are creating a negative reality for yourself out of thin air.  It's completely nuts!  And yet we do this to ourselves all the time.

Have you ever choked in an important audition or performance?  I certainly have.  One particular audition comes to mind.  Around this time last year I was heading to Amsterdam to audition for a prestigious opera academy.  I had auditioned for the same opera academy the year before, and had come very close to winning a place.  This time I was determined to get in.  I had convinced myself that this was it.  The be-all, end-all of auditions.  I had to win a place in this opera academy, because it was the very best thing for me to do next.  In fact, it was the only thing to do next.

Now.  Of course the opera academy wasn't the only thing I could do next.  The world is an enormous place full of innumerable chances and opportunities for a young singer like me.  There are millions of jobs and young artist programmes outside of this one opera academy in Amsterdam.  But at the time, I didn't see that.  I was blind to everything except this audition.  I told myself that I had to win it, and there was no other option.

So what happened?  Well first of all, I became extremely anxious.  For weeks leading up to this audition, I couldn't sleep properly.  My arias ran through my head constantly.  Eventually my immune system couldn't handle the stress anymore, and I contracted tonsillitis.  I was prescribed antibiotics, but they made me sick to my stomach.  I arrived on the day of the audition feeling stressed out, exhausted, and incredibly nauseous.

Needless to say, it wasn't my best performance.  I didn't even make it to the second round of auditions.  I was pretty crushed.  And it took me a long time before I could look back and see how I had sabotaged myself.

In getting psyched up for this audition, I had told myself an extremely dangerous story.  I had created a psychological drama, in which the audition had all the power in the world to decide if I was a good singer.  I had made myself completely terrified of the audition and its result.  It was no wonder that I failed so spectacularly!

In contrast, last week I had another audition, for which I had barely enough time to prepare.  I had received a phone call on Monday asking me to come in on Thursday!  This gave me just enough time to brush up my arias and re-learn an excerpt in a blitz of focused practice.  Before I knew it I was onstage, singing my audition.

And I nailed it.


Why did I nail this audition, while I choked on the one in Amsterdam?  I had spent months preparing for the audition in Amsterdam, polishing my arias with expert coaches and perfecting them with trusted teachers.  This audition, in contrast, was prepared at the last minute, over the span of three days.

The truth is that my success in this audition had nothing to do with how I had prepared my arias.  It had everything to do with how I had prepared myself mentally.  Or rather, how I didn't prepare myself mentally.  Since I only had three days before this audition, I didn't have time to get nervous.  I didn't have time to tell myself a story, building up the audition in my head until it crushed me.

Of course, as soon as this audition was over, I found the time to tell myself a story.  I reflected on my success, and I found a way to excuse it.  They must not have had a very high standard, I told myself.  That’s why I did so well.  Even after doing something well, I found a way to transform it into a story of failure.

Does this way of thinking sound familiar to you?  Have you ever diminished your successes, or rejected someone’s praise?  Just like some people see the world through rose-tinted glasses, others choose to look through shades of grey.  We find ways to twist reality, no matter what it looks like, into a picture of negativity.

A less-than-inspiring way to view the world.

The truth is that you did succeed.  The truth is that the person complimenting you did enjoy your performance.  These are objective facts, and yet you manage to obscure them from your vision completely.  You project your own negative emotions and beliefs onto the situation, and turn it into something else.  If only you could take off your grey shades for just a moment, you would see the truth for what it is.  But your urge for storytelling is too strong.  And once again, you deceive yourself.

Next time you find yourself reacting strongly to a situation, try to take a step back.  Separate the facts from the fiction.  What is the truth, and what is the story you’re telling yourself?  You might have many good reasons to believe this story.  Perhaps it helps to reinforce some deep-seated belief about yourself or the world.  Perhaps it gives you some drama you’re craving, or it feeds your ego.  There may be several reasons to find your story compelling.  But it’s important to see your story for what it is – fantasy, conjecture, emotional guesswork.  No more real than the monsters under your bed.

We all love a good story.  Unfortunately, we often love a bad story too.  Our perceptions and interpretations of the world can cripple us if we let them.  This is why it’s important to recognise our mind’s stories when we hear them.  The minute we see them for what they are, they lose their power over us.

The stories we tell ourselves can be extremely convincing.  But they will only ever be as real as we allow them to be.

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