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!