Introduction to Story Mining
We’re so intent on our healing, yet we find ourselves stuck … Again! What is wrong with us?
There’s nothing wrong with us. We’re doing our best, right? We’re giving it our all. We’re just stuck in a tenacious story that won’t let us go.
We’re stuck in a disempowering story, like those we discussed in the [previous article]—stories about our power, our worth, our belonging, our fear of uncertainty and change, or not having enough time.
These [five common stories] are powerful roadblocks to healing and discovering our potential. Hard as we try, these stories keep us stuck in our suffering.
How Do We Work with Our Stories?
How do we work with these stories that hold us back from our potential? How do we look them squarely in the eye, and bravely walk up to the emotions, beliefs, and assumptions they contain, in a new and insightful way?
How do we honor the stories that at one time protected and comforted us in our time of great need, but now keep us from moving on into our greatness?
We Need Tools
First, we need tools. Perspective changers. New ways to closely examine the stories of our lives for the truth, the bullshit, and the constrictions to our potential.
We Need a New Story
Then, we need to write a new story! We’ve got to mine our stories for their assumptions and false truths that get us stuck. We need to carefully apply our new tools (coming up next!), pull out the new truths, and use our stories to our best advantage—to heal, to unleash our untapped potential, and create new vital energy.
WE CAN CHANGE OUR BIG STORIES
But first we need reassurance that we can change. Our biggest, toughest, most tenacious, set-in-stone stories can change. Whew!
Yes, You’re Wired for Better Stories, Remember?
The physiological reality is that, while our brains are wired to resist change to avoid uncertain and potentially dangerous circumstances, we are also wired to succeed at change.
We all possess the deep potential of neuroplasticity—the engine of change that we’ve been discussing. Harnessing this potential requires only our imaginations, intentions, and actions. Whatever we conceive of to change (imagination), whatever we decide to change (intention), and whatever we practice (action), will become manifest in our lives. This is certain.
We Are Changing Regardless of Our Actions
Our brains know how to change. We know how to change. In one way or another we’ve been doing it every moment of our entire lives (change is the only certainty in life).
But, like our stories, change can be passively accepted or actively guided. One way can work for us, one against.
Although you may not see it yet, you’re built for this work. You are a change warrior. You have powerful internal tools and resources to claim this for yourself.
Lay the Groundwork for Healing Your Stories
Claim Your Inner Wisdom and Guidance
Yes, we all have inner wisdom, but many of us don’t trust it or we don’t stop to listen to it in the midst of our complicated, noisy lives.
You must create time, space, and quiet to listen into your inner wisdom. It takes courage to step up to the truth and inner knowing of your wise center. It may set you apart from the other voices in your head and in your life.
Cultivate Optimism, Hope, and Faith
Humans may be wired for assuming the worst-case scenario when confronted with a challenging or stressful situation. But, really, these life-threatening situations are few and far between. Most of our lives are spent in risk-free moments. And in those many moments, whether we are aware of it or not, we also believe in a better future. This is what allows us to plan, to move forward, to get up in the morning. We always assume a better day is coming.
We Must Have Hope to Heal
Having hope is vital for the healing process. Hope is the opening in our thinking that something better is possible, that healing is possible. We may not see it or know what it is, but we believe in the possibilities. And that belief shifts our physiology in many supportive directions—reducing inflammation, positively modulating stress, improving mood, giving us healthier hearts and brains—and inspires creative imagination and action.
However, as adults, we know that our intentions seldom match the outcomes precisely.
So, while we use hope to bolster our potential—to prepare and energize us for the work to come—we need something else, something larger than we are.
I’m talking about hope’s wiser sister: faith.
Hope is hard work. Faith, on the other hand, allows us to rest by assuring us that no matter what the outcome, we’ve done our very best. Faith softens us and lends us courage to forgive our disappointments and let go of our unrealized expectations. Faith is our maturity to receive the grace, the mercy, and all the stuff of life that comes as a result of—and in spite of—our best efforts.
Whether we remember it or not, every single one of us has stepped up to a challenge. We’ve been courageous, and we can be so again. We may have fallen or failed. But we did our best even when we were scared or uncertain.
Curiosity is our birthright. Children are the greatest explorers of all time. We can’t stop them! They take bold steps into terra incognita very day, sometimes giggling, sometimes falling down and giving a quick cry, but always getting back up. We must reclaim that potential for ourselves.
Rediscover Your Curiosity
Curiosity moves us forward and is an absolute part of who we are. Admittedly, some adults don’t feel curious anymore. But it’s not because they’ve lost it. It’s because it’s been buried. It’s really, truly in there. Rediscovering curiosity will be one of the joys of our work together. Whether you feel it there or not, be absolutely certain that it’s there, and will emerge to lead you toward creative ideas and solutions.
Draw on Past Successes
Anything we do today will build on what we’ve done before. To develop and empower the amazing changes coming into your life, you will be building on all the successful changes you’ve managed before.
There may be a few failures along the way as well. That’s fine! Welcome to being completely and utterly human. But please recognize that these “failures” are also rich experiences to draw insight from. One way to look at failure is as a huge punctuation mark where you must pause to see the opportunity or the better way. Learning what doesn’t work is as valuable as learning what does work. In this way, life is all one big experiment (without the judgment).
Be Humble and Truthful
The scary, but necessary, part of self-discovery is seeing the parts of us that we don’t like or that make us feel vulnerable.
But not nearly as hard as getting to the end of our lives and finding that we failed to step into our power and the deeper levels of our meaning and happiness because we chickened out.
We have to let go of our pride and always tell ourselves the truth. We must step into our adult minds. Those parts of us that we feel the most vulnerable about are often our greatest assets—our love, tenderness, compassion—our feelings. We need to know these things. The world needs them.
To believe that I was a hero, as [told to me through my son’s perspective], I not only had to reckon with my assumptions about the events of my life being personal, I also had to claim personal responsibility for everything that happened to me and all of the choices I subsequently made. I had to claim this power for myself. I was half-assed about this for years, continuing to hustle for my sense of worth through blame, excuses, and numbing my pain in relentless hard work. It wasn’t until I established a daily writing and meditation practice—creating the space for me to feel and breathe and find my center—that I was able to fully claim my power.
Ditch Blame and Excuses
We must let go of the idea that through blame and excuses we complete our life story. That if we met misfortune, there must be someone to blame. This is almost never the case. I’m not talking about senseless acts of violence or damaging recklessness. I’m talking about all the rest of the events of our lives, the disappointments that we cling to by tethering ourselves to the past events and the people in them through blame. Or the excuses we carry with us to explain why we can’t make the changes that will lead to healing.
Blame and excuses are our way of not having to step into our power. Blame and excuses are how we let go of personal responsibility for our lives. Blame and excuses suck our energy. They crush us. We must let them go right now.
Commit to the Decision to Heal
You know this one, because you’ve said “yes,” many times by now!
The most reliable and universal predictor of success that I observe in my clients is their willingness and ability to commit to their healing and to themselves. The decision to change ignites all healing.
This is also what sustains our healing: commitment is the decision to see our healing through, all the way to the very end.
Starting is the easy part.
Our decision to change—to heal—must be made every day.
Trust That Healing Is Your Innate Potential
We’ve talked about this before too. Healing is our innate, unstoppable potential, and a primary urge of nature.
[All things heal.]
And this healing that is our birthright can be passively accepted or actively directed. But we’re also called to understand that healing is not always curing—while we may reach our heretofore unimagined potential through our reverent self-care, we may still have scars, suffering, and vulnerabilities that will require our lifelong care.
What you do is your story.
If you don’t like your current story—change it. Create the vision, make the decision, then do it.
This is your power. How your simple decision, ignited by action, changes your stories, changes your mind, changes your neural networks, creates your new life.
The real story will always be in the story you live. Now.
I love the old expression, “We make the road by walking.” Gotta start walking.
Is There a Tenacious Story Standing in Your Way?
How do we know what’s stalled our healing? How do we know if our “reality” is a story that’s not supporting us? What do we look out for? This is not easy. Our minds can be tricky.
Remember the five dangerous stories we’ve discussed so far?
- The Story of Our Power
- The Story of Our Worth
- The Story of How We Belong
- The Story of Our Fear About Uncertainty and Change
- The Story of Not Having Enough Time
For some of us, getting unstuck is a matter of finding the resources and support that we need but haven’t had thus far. New information, education, or ideas may be just what we need to jumpstart a new phase to our healing. We may revitalize a stuck healing journey through a new perspective or direction of a new resource, mentor, or consultant. We can add new members to our team or call in the support of family and friends to help us.
But what if we’re stuck with a tenacious story and can’t see it?
Clues You May Be Stuck in a Tenacious Story:
You know precisely how to solve your problem but just can’t get it done. Story.
You feel stuck. “I’m stuck” is always a story.
You’re afraid to commit to change you know you need. Fear is a story.
You feel unlovable, undeserving, guilty, hopeless, or shameful. Always a story!
You worry your loved ones won’t support your healing. Big assumptions. Big story.
You’ve done it all but are still suffering. This is the most tenacious story of all. This is a story of fatigue, of suffering, of not seeing the way forward. I know you’ve worked hard, and it’s been a long road, but I promise you haven’t done it all. There is always a path forward. There’s always space for change, for compassion and love, for progress.
Beware of the Diagnosis—Certainty Is Always a Story
Uncertainty is scary.
But guess what? Certainty, while strangely comforting, is an even bigger problem.
Like the medical diagnosis, often declared with an air of certainty, naming something is a story, and can stop all inquiry and progress.
A diagnosis—or lack thereof—as proclaimed by your doctor (or other authoritative resource) can distract from the critical journey of understanding yourself and discovering the true meaning of your symptoms and problems as unique and distinct from everyone else’s.
The diagnosis is a label—a story—that you are given as a way to explain your illness. Its purpose is to clarify the problem and provide direction for finding solutions. The diagnosis can provide a sense of comfort and certainty that your illness is “this thing,” for which there is a predetermined path for resolution.
Sometimes this is exactly what happens: the clarity of the diagnosis leads directly to an effective treatment plan.
But by virtue of naming anything, the suggestion is that it is well defined, simple, and fully knowable. But humans are infinitely complex.
The Diagnosis Oversimplifies the Problem
The diagnosis often oversimplifies the problem, failing to recognize the deeper causes. It gives us the illusion that we understand something that may actually defy full understanding. Or that changes. Or that has not been fully illuminated.
If the diagnosis were a hypothesis and not the final declaration of what is true, then it would be more helpful. It would serve as a guidepost, a useful roadmap in the process of discovery: “Here is what the data as we know it suggests.” “Here is the hypothesis at this time about what is going on.” “Let’s investigate that.”
The diagnosis should declare what we know so far, provide suggestions for a sense of direction, and temporarily simplify the problem so we can tend to one thing at a time (but not forget to come back to the big picture).
Pretending we are certain about something too complex to understand completely is harmful. It provides comfort but limits progress. It simplifies but restricts possibilities. It defines but doesn’t tell the whole truth.
The Lack of Diagnosis is Also a Story
Likewise, the lack of diagnosis is a story that can get in the way of healing. When our doctors don’t know what’s wrong with us, or if we don’t fit neatly into an existing diagnostic category, we’re often told there is nothing wrong, or there is nothing more that can be done, or, still worse, our problems are all in our heads.
To Heal, Insist on the Truth of Uncertainty
For healing, rather than certainty, we need the truth of uncertainty (the truth that there is very little we know for sure) to inspire curiosity and inquiry. Only this truth can lead us to the deep, sustainable solutions we seek.
Story Mining: Introduction
Let’s take a close look at those tenacious stories that have you stuck and mine them for the nuggets of gold and wisdom that will help you change and heal. We’ve got power tools to help you and a safe step-by-step story mining strategy to guide you all the way through.
Power Tools for Story Mining
Take these tools with you everywhere. Use them to scrutinize everything you believe as you evaluate why you are stuck, scared, or unable to move forward with your healing. These are perspective changers. They don’t change the facts, but they allow you to see the facts of your life through different lenses. These are lenses that let you cut through the muck, the bullshit, and the lies that cling to your truth—your real truth—the truth that will set you free.
The Lens of Love
When we understand our stories through a more positive and ennobling lens, everything changes. Love changes everything. It changes our brains, changes our genetic expression, and it changes our stories through a foundational perspective shift, not by conjuring new facts. Through the power of [neuroplasticity] to change our neural networks, love changes our futures and opens up possibilities for growth and healing that are impossible in its absence.
The Vast Power of Love
Love is broad and unlimited. Love of our families. Love of nature. Love of the littlest things in a day. Most importantly, love of ourselves. We are worthy and deserve a loving life story. There is nothing more you need—not the approval of someone else, not the permission of someone else, not someone else’s story about us.
Each of us, in this moment, is filled with love. It’s who we are. It’s the lens we’ll use to retell our stories—the lens we’ll use to heal.
The Love is There Even if You Don’t Feel It
The reality is that many of us may be struggling or suffering in life and not able to feel love at this particular moment. Exhaustion and suffering make it hard to feel much of anything. But we can still practice. We can take small steps to build the neural networks of love. We can shift the overwhelmed, pessimistic thoughts to more hopeful ones.
The lens of love is how you will evaluate all your life stories. Through this lens you will scrutinize how you see the facts of your life—do you keep love as your boss, or do you sink to blame, shame, and guilt? Remember that love always ennobles, never judges.
And through the lens of love, you will evaluate your future stories and actions. Does this decision support love? Does this course of action serve love and connection, or does it serve fear?
Those are the only questions you need answers to as you move forward on your journey.
Life School Point of View (POV)
The Life School POV is a powerful tool to remind us that all the events of our lives have made us exactly who we are today. The person we love and are satisfied with. Or the person who needs some work—but without the Life School POV would never realize this. Not that those events were somehow preordained, but they are all available to us to derive meaning and foster strength and wisdom.
Even the bad—traumatizing and painful—stuff has shaped us into who we are today. It’s led us to create resources to support us, to call in help and love that have amazed us when they arrived. And it’s filled us with wisdom that has strengthened us for the rest of our lives.
We are Not Victims
The Life School POV doesn’t let us sink into the passive position of being the victim of our circumstances. We make sense out of it—we learn, we grow, we rise. We drop all blame and excuses. This life is ours, plain and simple. We claim full responsibility for all of it. There is no other path to sustainable healing.
You Need a New Story—Let’s Write You One!
You feel stuck. You’re filled with questions. Now where do you go? How do you reckon with those stories that put the brakes on your healing and make you suffer?
Each story, at its core, involves a false notion or assumption that must be discovered and transformed.
In [my hero story] I made the false assumption that events of my life were about me—that I was abandoned, unwanted, unworthy. On the surface it looked like that. This concrete and inherently limited perspective of a young person engendered guilt and a very profound sense of unworthiness.
However, with my adult perspective, by using my new tools, the lens of love and the Life School POV, I realized how those events and the actions of others had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It wasn’t personal. Their behavior was about them.
And I saw that every one of those events shaped me into who I am today. I have unique qualities, perspectives, and wisdom that I could not otherwise have. I gained from those events. And had they been another way, I may have lost what I have now that I so highly value.
These perspectives—the lens of love and Life School POV—released the story of abandonment to one of freedom. See how that works?
STORY MINING PRACTICE
Start Here—Sit Down, Get Quiet, Be Present
You are important. Stepping up to change requires your full, reverent attention. Get quiet, relaxed, and focused on the task at hand. Have paper and pen ready. Breathe. Let go of distractions. Soften. Be in your strong center.
This puts you on the fast track to success. It instantaneously shifts you into a state of hope and infinite possibilities. It calls in the resources of your great mind, your inner wisdom, and the larger Universe to help you.
Thank you for this challenge, for the opportunity to explore and discover myself, for the growth and freedom that are mine to claim through my honesty and effort. I am grateful.
Clearly State Your Current Story (What’s Your Problem or Aspiration?)
Where do you feel stuck? Write this down as your problem, issue, or aspiration. Keep it simple. Don’t overthink—write these down quickly.
I am tired all the time.
I am sick and hopeless.
Decide to Change—Accept Ownership of Your Story
This is your declaration that the problem exists, that you are stuck, and that you claim full ownership of the present circumstances and all that is required to change it.
Ownership means that when we are stuck, it’s about us. By accepting personal responsibility for our story we facilitate hope: if it’s ours to manage, we can do something about it. Even when our problems involve others, we can accept responsibility for our part. This releases blame, creating space for others to participate.
Boldly declare your decision to change and claim full responsibility for your problem and its resolution. Contemplate how you create, perpetuate, or fail to facilitate correcting your problem.
I sleep only four hours at night because I don’t have time to sleep.
This is why I’m tired. I’m committed to creating more time for sleep.
I don’t see a way out and have given up on myself.
I have dug myself into a hole (starting with my stories) and am committed to helping myself climb out.
Story Shifting: Transform Your Problem into a Positive Personal Affirmation
New stories need new neural networks. We can ignite the energy of neuroplasticity by nourishing our brains with new stories. Stories that tell us the truth that our problems can change.
Create a positive, present tense affirmation to articulate your goal. This makes it “sticky,” mobilizing the resources needed to bring it to life. It affirms the direction you are headed (forward, into needed change), the possibility of change (away from the perception of being stuck), and attracts the help you need.
I enjoy radiant new energy.
I have all the time I need for deep, restorative sleep.
I choose hope.
I receive all the support and resources I need to attain vibrant energy.
The Moment of Reckoning
If you know what the obstacles to achieving your goal are, why don’t you just remove them? If you know you need more sleep, why don’t you get more sleep? If you know you need to ask for help, why don’t you just do that? What supports those obstacles? What story is present that makes the obstacles necessary? What fears exist?
I sleep only four hours at night because I feel I have to do it all—work full time, take care of the kids, do all the household chores, be the ideal spouse—there’s no time left for sleep.
I don’t deserve to rest or take care of myself. If I do, then I feel guilty.
If I take care of myself, others will suffer because of it.
I have been to many doctors, and they say there are no answers for me.
What are your obstacles to change? What are your stories? Reflect on this very honestly. Write swiftly and don’t overthink.
Take a Time Out
Before continuing, let’s shake this out. For some of you this process has been a breeze. By all means, carry on if you wish. For many of us, the problems we have chosen to work on are quite difficult, intense, or bring up challenging emotions. These may be areas in which we have felt quite stuck, or where we bring up a lot of self-judgment. So let’s take a quick break to get out of our heads and back into our bodies. Stand up and move. Feel your feet against the floor. Walk around. Make a cup of tea or get some water. Breathe deeply. Sigh it out loudly. Let it all go.
Name the False Notion or Assumption in Your Story
You now have a positive personal affirmation that clearly states your goal and the positive change you would like to experience. You also have a problem statement with a story that explains why the problem exists. Recall what those are now.
Now, consider how these statements are at odds with one another. On the one hand you have an exciting new positive affirmation that can energize your movement toward change. On the other hand, there is an essential story about what will happen if that change occurs, that drives your problem and keeps you stuck. These need to be reckoned with.
Look closely at your reasons for staying stuck. What keeps your old story alive? Is it based on the facts of your life? Does it pass scrutiny through the lens of love or the Life School POV?
What do you believe about the outcome if your desired change were to take place? What are you afraid of? What is the worst-case scenario? Might there be fear that hinders you? Are you waiting for support that hasn’t come (money, knowledge)? Do you need permission? Are you worried about what people will think? Of standing alone?
Regardless of what your obstacle is, ultimately only fear stands in your way. In their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow refer to these fears as the “competing commitments” that serve as our obstacles to successful change. On the one hand we are committed to the change we want. But on the other hand, perhaps unconsciously, we’re also committed to protecting ourselves from the harm we perceive will accompany that change.
State Your Fears:
I sleep only four hours at night because I feel that I have to do it all: work full time, raise the kids, do all the household chores, be the ideal spouse.
If I don’t accomplish all of this, I will be thought of as a failure. If I don’t accomplish all of this, I will be a disappointment to someone (to my family, my community, my culture).
If I take care of myself, others will suffer.
If I take care of myself, I will shine and those around me (family, friends) will feel resentful or jealous. If I take care of myself my health and energy will soar, I will lead a happier life and my friends in misery will feel abandoned. (Who am I to feel good when everyone else in my life suffers?)
I have been to many doctors and there are simply no answers for me.
I am shy and worried about speaking up with my doctors. If I become self-reliant and ask for help I will be thought of as uppity. I will step on toes. People will be angry with me.
Look carefully at what you’ve written. Is it at all possible that you’ve made assumptions here? Are they supported by all the facts? Do your assumptions pass the scrutiny of the lens of love? The Life School POV? If there are even hints of doubt, blame, shame, or judgment, consider them to be false notions and assumptions to be discredited and consciously corrected. This is not an easy task and may take you way out of your comfort zone. But it’s the truth, and it’s your fast track to freedom, energy, and healing.
Now, ignite your new path with courage! Change can and most likely will trigger anxiety, trepidation, or resistance. Expect this and prepare for it. It is now time to put your new goal and the healthier, more ennobling life story that supports it into practice. Think of it like a scientist: test your hypothesis. This is the step where you muster up courage and go forth into that terra incognita. It’s okay to feel afraid but resist your fearful stories.
Reframe how you think about the fear by assigning new words to describe the physical aspects of fear—the nervousness, racing heart, shortness of breath, frantic thoughts. Like, “Oh, it feels like anxiety but perhaps that’s just my body ramping up for action to support me.” Or, “I’m excited about what’s to come.” Don’t worry about believing what you say, just practice it. Select your words carefully to support your decision to take action with courage.
Practice Your Story
Almost there. Remember? What you do is your story. Now that you are ready and supercharged with courage, name your first action step. What are you ready for? The moon? Or, how about baby steps? Keep it small and doable and practice daily. It might look like this:
Tonight, I will go to bed early and make sure I get eight hours of sleep. I will do this every night and ask for my family’s support.
I will find a Functional Medicine doctor in my community and call for an appointment today.
I will not give up on my healing. I deserve to be well. I will continue to explore resources until my needs are met. I remain resolutely optimistic. I’m in this for the long haul.
If you’re like me, you want to go fast and take giant leaps right away. We’re determined, we’re committed, we’re excited! We want to move forward, quickly building on our successes and feeling the powerful intoxicating rush of success. But this isn’t a race. This is life. Remember, the goal is to build a strong foundation, one that supports our core, our goals, our futures. Big quick wins are exciting, but they’re generally not sustainable. They don’t have the automaticity that comes with time or the internalization that comes with repetition. No great medieval cathedral was ever built on just a bunch of soaring arches or grandiose facades. There is always a foundation of small bricks, carefully placed, one next to another, one supporting another. Only on that foundation could a cathedral reach to the heavens. And that takes time.
Finally, Embrace Failure as a True Great Teacher
We can be fragile when we are suffering, working hard on healing, and challenged with changes that scare us. It is important to be kind and gentle with ourselves as we do our work. We must expect that there will be setbacks, disappointments, as well as outright miserable failures. We may feel like we’ve let ourselves down, let others down, totally messed things up, and are now totally stuck for sure!
Fine. Let it be. Roadblocks and disappointments are the inevitable price for being curious and courageous. And just like small children, after we fall down and maybe cry (or drop an f-bomb), we brush ourselves off and stand back up. We giggle as we shake it off. And we take note of what just happened.
Failure invites us to listen and learn. Then try again. That’s all. No magic. No bravado. Just Life School.
Dang it! I didn’t get to bed until midnight again, ugh! I was too ambitious at first. I was getting just four hours of sleep. Tonight I will shoot for five instead of eight.
I saw a new doctor and was told there is nothing wrong with me yet again. I feel discouraged, but I promised not to give up. I will practice hope and optimism, though it is very hard, and reach out to some friends for advice about how to proceed. I will not give up.
Last Thoughts on Empowering Your Healing Story
We’ve come a long way on our journey so far. We’ve made amazing progress—even if you don’t feel it, believe me, you have! We’re strengthened by the guiding perspectives of love (the lens of love) and learning (the Life School POV) as we acknowledge, face, and rewrite our stories. All this work is the passage to grace and freedom in our lives.
I hope you will carry these new tools with you always, scrutinize your stories, even if they feel impossible or like the terrible truth that will forever hold you in its grip. I promise you it won’t. Be brave and carry on. We’re all here with you, cheering you on, sharing this healing journey, empowering our healing stories.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. 2002.
Karyn Shanks MD. How to Empower Your Healing Story (A Manifesto). 2019.
Karyn Shanks MD. How to Empower Your Healing Story (What are Stories?). 2019.
Karyn Shanks MD. How to Empower Your Healing Story (by Reimagining These Five Stories). 2019.
Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book. 2001.