For the last twelve years a large part of my work has been in organizational storytelling. I am particularly interested in how we use stories to position ourselves, our company and product or service, and our personal and organizational values.

A few years ago I began thinking about the most important story we ever tell—the story we tell ourselves. This has been a game-changer for me.

Most people assume this story is simply their identity, who they are. This story was written by their child self, yet it becomes a script for their life and controls how they see themselves, their relationships, their world. It is foundational.

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It is also wrong! Your five-year-old self did not know anything about who you are, how to interpret formative events, or the ways of the world. Yet here you are, still controlled by that false narrative! You can try affirmations, read self-improvement books, take courses, etc. But these measures will not work unless your inner story supports those new beliefs and behaviors.

If you want to change your life, you must first rewrite your inner story.



One of my earliest memories was an incident that happened when I was in kindergarten. I was at the playground sitting under a tree with a shovel and pail, digging a hole and minding my own business. As the hole got deeper I encountered some roots. My shovel got entangled in the roots and I struggled to free it. Unbeknownst to me another little boy was climbing the tree. He suddenly jumped down from the tree and landed right in front of me. At that second my shovel broke free of the roots, launching a shovelful of dirt right into the boy’s face. I looked up in shock. The boy began to cry. The teacher looks over, sees the boy with dirt on his shirt, crying, rubbing his eye, and pointing his little finger at me. I’m standing there, holding a shovel: “Who, me? What did I do?” I was quickly escorted to the principal’s office. I don’t remember anything after that, other than sitting on a bench waiting for my mother to come and pick me up, and feeling a burning sense of injustice.

I’m convinced this is what led me to become a lawyer. At five years old I was unable to stand up for myself, challenge authority, or to even articulate my own case. Five-year-olds don’t understand concepts like accident, intention, unfortunate coincidence, or circumstantial evidence. They only know things like play, shovel, cookies, and punishment. And shame. 

What lessons could I have learned from this incident? I might have learned the value of perseverance, not giving up when I encountered an obstacle, persisting until I had reached my goal. But that possibility evaporated when the boy dropped down and caught a shovelful of dirt. What I did learn was: life is unjust, you cannot trust anyone to treat you fairly, you have to stand up for yourself and speak out and fight for everything you get. And all of that was written into my inner story.  

That story followed me for most of my life. A few other incidents that happened along the way reinforced the rules I derived from the story and affected my relationships, career, the choices I made, pretty much everything. Until I realized that this was all based on a story I concocted when I was just five years old. What did my child self know about anything? Was I even remotely qualified to write that story that would shape my life? Of course not! But there I was, with that story and that life.

You have heard the expression I wish I knew then what I know now. What if I could edit my inner story in light of all that I had learned and experienced in the years since then?

While I cannot change my past, what if I can change my story and my future?

I am in a much better position today to know who I am, what other people are like, how relationships work, and the ways of the world. I could write a much more accurate and empowering story for myself now than I could have ever written as a child.

As I surveyed the research I saw that many of the topics I had been working with and teaching over the last twenty years could be applied to the process of rewriting my inner narrative. Confidence. Assertiveness. Identity. Purpose. Influence. Storytelling. Personal development. Coaching. 

The tools were all there. I had been using them myself and teaching them to others. Why had they not produced better results? Then it all clicked. My inner story of mistrust, wariness, and combativeness was not compatible with what I was trying to change. My old false narrative did not support the new thoughts and behaviors I wanted to adopt. How could I be more confident and relate better to others when my own story was telling me not to trust anyone, that life was unfair, and that I had to fight for everything I got? I had to change my story before I could change myself. As I went along my journey I discovered these truths:

  • Everyone has an inner story that serves as the foundation for their identity and belief system. 
  • This inner story is always wrong, because no five-year-old can possibly possess the wisdom, insight, and experience to get it right.
  • The flawed set of rules and beliefs you derive from your false narrative follow you throughout your life, distort the way you see yourself and the world, and keep you from living the life you deserve.
  • When you change your story you can change your life.

It’s not too late. You can rewrite your inner story with the benefit of hindsight and experience. You are much more qualified to write that story now. And once you do, you will be ready for real change!






How do I know if my inner story needs to be rewritten?

Chances are it does, it almost always does. You wrote it when you were five or six years old. At that time you didn’t know much about yourself, people, relationships, and the ways of the world. You misunderstood a lot of things you heard and incidents that happened to you. Some of these were foundational and formed maladaptive beliefs. 

At the time you wrote your inner story it didn’t seem like there was a choice, it just was what it was. But later in life, with the benefit of perspective, additional experience, and the possibility of using other frames, anyone can rewrite their inner story in a more empowering narrative.

Does having a false inner story mean there is something wrong with me?

No, on the contrary, it is perfectly normal. With the possible exception of Buddha, most children are not that introspective. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, just that you’re living with an inner story that has some inaccuracies and does not serve you well. It’s like needing glasses—common, normal, and can be corrected so that you see clearly. 

But being normal doesn’t mean there is no need to improve. The field of positive psychology arose for this very reason. 

Traditional psychology deals with neurosis, psychosis, depression, and similar ills and attempts to “fix” the problem, usually with limited success. Positive psychology helps “normal” people become happier and lead richer lives.

Can I just take a happiness course instead? There’s a lot of that around now.

You might get some benefit from trying to learn how to be happier, but it will be difficult to change your mindset without rewriting your inner story. In fact, it may be your inner story that is telling you that you cannot or don’t deserve to be happy in the first place!

Can I rewrite my inner story myself?

Yes, it’s possible, but it’s not easy. First of all, you’re biased. Your false inner story wants to perpetuate itself and “protect” you from the threat posed by your new story and its inconvenient truths. It has been with you for a long time and wants to keep things as they are.

Second, the process has a lot of moving parts. It has to be approached systematically, step by step. Most people require some guidance for this, either from a coach or a carefully constructed program.

Finally, the process is different for everyone, especially the business of testing and internalizing your new story. Not everyone is able to develop the challenges and action steps needed to prove and reinforce your new story.

How is rewriting my inner story different from other self-improvement techniques?

Repeating affirmations, trying to change your mindset, practicing new behaviors, and other self-help techniques will not work if they only scratch the surface. If your inner story is not aligned with your new beliefs and behaviors they will not take hold. It would be like hanging new wallpaper over a rotting structure. For lasting change you must address the root of the problem and rebuild from the foundation. Changing your story can change you and your life. 

How long does the process take?

It varies greatly. Several weeks or a few months minimum, some may take many months or years. Many people never internalize their new narrative unless they have a dedicated accountability partner or coach. After all, your old story has a strong hold on you and won’t go without putting up a fight—it thinks it’s there to protect you!

Is this some kind of personal branding?

Not at all. A brand is a promise made to someone else, such as a customer or other stakeholder. It is something you tell others about who you are and what you can do. Your inner story is what you tell yourself. It is far more important than a personal brand.