My 17-year-old son decided that he wanted his room painted. I encouraged him to take the opportunity to personally take on the task. He quickly and enthusiastically rushed to pick colors and planned how he would modernize his room with new art and a reconfiguration of his furniture. Day two into painting he petered out and declared that he either needed substantial help or he was giving up because he misjudged how labor intensive the job was.
While observing his angst, my urge to rescue intensified. I pulled away and recognized that this was grist for the mill and a prime opportunity for him to work on his narrative (i.e., the stories we carry around and tell to and about ourselves that define how we see ourselves and behave). I was fully aware of how he viewed himself and how his self-perception perpetuated the cycle of him wanting to give up certain tasks abruptly and prematurely.
I validated his frustration, supported his need to want help, and let him know that I thought he could complete the job, despite what his mind was telling him. He threatened that he would leave his room half complete and it would remain that way. I conveyed to him that I was sorry that he was making that decision and to consider how he would feel living in his room that way after he was so excited about it getting refreshed. Angrily and overtly exasperated, he rushed off.
A few hours later he came looking for me and exclaimed, “I did it! I want to show it to you. I actually think I did a pretty good job.” I congratulated him for sticking it out despite his reluctance and for the belief in himself that he could effectively carry it out. I asked him to sit for a moment to really take in his accomplishment.
I asked him why his mind thought it was so challenging for him to finish painting, when blatantly, he knew that he had the ability to do it. He expressed that he’s “lazy,” has low “energy,” and that it takes such a long time to complete. I asked him whether he notices that his “laziness” is selective and that he can and has effectively carried out tasks that required an extended process. I provided him with concrete examples, when he sat with an engineering assignment that took him weeks to create, and conversely, when it comes to washing out a few pans he loses steam.
I asked where he developed the narrative that he is “lazy” and has “low-energy” and to put an age on when they developed. I asked if he truly sees himself that way and whether he thinks it spills over and directly impacts on the way in which he behaves. I further asked him whether that behavior is indicative of him being his best self and him doing what he truly wants to be doing, despite his feelings. He readily recognized that this script impacts on his attitude and fortitude. Automatically and habitually he approaches tasks he deems as inconsequential and enduring with frustration, reluctance, and resistance.
I challenged him to reconsider whether he was in fact “lazy” and had “low energy.” That perhaps they were false constructions in his mind that lent to acting out behaviors that supported and strengthened his script. I pointed out to him that he generally stuck with tasks that required a lot of mental and physical bandwidth. He plays hockey and surfs for prolonged periods of time which requires a significant amount of energy and persistence.
I also provided him with tips for how to work on the narrative. Then he can inevitably shift his mindset to see himself differently, feel more empowered, and approach tasks in line with being who he wants to be rather than who he thinks he is which is based on an old story line.
To effectively shift his mindset, he needed to do. Him just thinking about it and having intentionality, was not going to be enough. He needed to approach tasks curiously. To increase his energy, he needed to expend more energy, otherwise he is stuck believing he cannot when he hasn’t even tried.
To build up his self-belief, self-confidence, and self-compassion, he needed to do things that he thought were challenging and uncomfortable. That every task, whether small or large, is not inconsequential, but rather is a helpful contributor to assist him in questioning and confronting that false narrative.
I asked him how it felt for him to tell me and show me the finished product. He described feeling accomplished and proud. I suggested he seek out a reward (e.g., my praise and acknowledgement) that motivates him to build up his energy and self-belief. I also recommended coming up with an acronym and his daily mantra that would remind him of the skills that would be helpful for him to work on. We came up with the 3P’s: patience, perseverance, and practice.
These are the elements that will help empower him to be his best self, even when his mind doubts him or gravitates towards the familiar, his old narrative. Last, I asked what he wants his new narrative to be, he identified wanting to identify himself as being persistent, driven, and energized.
To Change A Narrative, Consider Asking & Answering:
- How willing are you to be curious and see yourself as an investigator into your life? To observe, be inquisitive about, and question your narrative so that you can learn more about it?
- What is the narrative that developed? Put a chronological age on when it developed. How did it potentially develop?
- How does it spill over and directly impact on the way in which you behave?
- Is that behavior indicative of you being your best self, what you truly want to be doing, based on your values, and who you want to be about?
- If not, what would that look like?
- Are you willing to see yourself differently and make concerted efforts to be more conscious of your automatic and habitual thoughts regarding who you are?
- If yes, when you did this, what did you discover?
- Indicate some past or current behaviors that contradict your narrative.
- How willing are you to shift your mindset and be proactive, and do, despite your mind potentially interfering and conveying that you are unable, lack the desire to, and/or are ineffective?
- If your mind is interfering, what is it expressing? Are these repetitive and typical messages?
- Are you willing to challenge yourself despite the discomfort in order to increase your resilience, perseverance, and self-belief?
- How have you or will you challenge yourself? What was that experience like?
- What reward can you identify that will further motivate you to initiate and sustain change?
- What acronym will you come up with which will be your personal mantra?
- What do you want your new narrative to be?
We all have the power to shift our narratives. Because the script is typically ingrained and integrated, the transformation is a process that takes time. It is way worth the effort to enhance the only life we have.
Just the other night, my son sat down to eat dinner without a knife. I suggested that he may need a knife to eat more neatly and comfortably. He was about to resist and made a quick correction, had a smile on his face, got up to get a knife and exclaimed, “practice!” A proud parenting moment!
Blog as posted on Psych Central.