the ‘cosmic cornflower’ that will thicken up your self-belief
One of my favourite concepts from Narrative Therapy, is the idea of ‘thickening’ our thin stories.
Most of us tell thin stories about ourselves: I am shy. I am disorganised. Love is not going to work out for me. If we tell these stories often enough, they limit our self-belief and our sense of possibility.
Thin stories don’t allow much space for complexity or contradiction – they tend to be super simple. Often they are generated by other people: labels generously bestowed on us from our parents, siblings, teachers that become what we believe about ourselves: I’m bossy. I’m not creative. My emotions are too much. Just me?
But these stories are selected out to fit with the meanings other people arrived at for who knows what the hell reason. They are the stories that have been privileged over millions of other possible conclusions, then told and retold. Until they felt like facts.
Thin stories are not necessarily negative, just limiting. ‘That’s SO you!‘ can be a well-meaning attribution from a friend – even if it doesn’t actually feel like you, or you just enjoy the sense of belonging that comes from a friend trying to know you – you may claim a thin story. And the story becomes an aspect of your relationship dynamic.
Thin stories also tend to obscure broader power dynamics, bias and assumptions.
A woman (ok, pretty much every woman) may describe her self-doubt as the reason she has never been promoted, but this thin story overlooks the very low numbers of women leaders in the organisation as a whole. This story hides the unconscious power dynamics to which she has been subjected, as well as examples of her competence, achievement, experience and skill.
Once a thin story takes hold, it’s very easy for it to become incorporated into our identities.
We can believe that it accurately describes a fixed characteristic that tells us what’s wrong with us. Our sense of self can become polarised into things that ‘is me’ and ‘is not me’. And this can lock us in to a limited and limiting sense of our capacity for growth.
TL;DR: thin stories are deeply unhelpful and make us feel completely pants.
So how do we free ourselves from the influence of these problematic, limiting stories? We need some ‘cosmic cornflour’ to thicken them up.
This reflective practice – just five questions – is a way to start to loosen and expand the stories that keep you confined. Try it 🙂
Towards rich and thick stories:
Thickening our stories is really about creating a broader and deeper articulation of what else might be true. So this isn’t an exercise in denying that at times, you can be disorganised, or that you feel undermined in work meetings, or that sometimes you feel a bit overwhelmed by particular emotions. This is about expanding your understanding of the context of these events, and allowing room for contradictions and context specific truths.
1: What is the ‘thin story’ you feel limited by? Be specific: one story at a time helps to make this process manageable. Describe this in one sentence – it might begin with ‘I am…’
2: How can you describe this story in a way that externalises it? Externalising, personifying, characterising helps to create space between you and the story – this is not ‘you’, this is a limited story about you. For example: ‘I am disorganised’ becomes ‘The disorganisation leads to me feeling overwhelmed and stressed’. ‘I am useless at being creative’ could change to: ‘Charlie Creative is not my friend’.
3: What is your relationship with this story? Observing yourself in moments when the thin story is activated can be really illuminating – notice what you notice.Recall moments when the thin story was present – what is this like for you: what do you believe about yourself, other people and the wider world, how do you feel, what is true for you in this moment?
4: What else might be true? List any and all instances where a contradictory story is present or specific contexts where this story is out of date or not relevant. Notice that the thin story is not always true. For example: The disorganisation is not present when it’s my weekend with the kids – I am always on time to pick them up. Last week I worked with the team to get our report in on time. When I have an early night, I give myself time in the morning to feel organised. When I was 15 and Mum was sick I made sure my siblings had breakfast and we all got to school.
5: What is a richer, thicker story I can practice telling? Given the nuance of contradictions and context specific instances, come up with a more accurate – richer, thicher – description of your story. For example: ‘When I am well-rested and prioritise myself, I am so on it and I feel calmer, even proud of myself. I tend to be really organised when other people are counting on me. Sometimes the disorganisation feels stressful, but I know what to do to support myself’.
Remember: you contain multitudes.
Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totally ♥ Instagram - join me there?