Sounds like the stuff of nightmare tales, but it is possible to get stuck in your story, unable to find a way out. Are you in a Matrix? Problems are solved only from outside the story, where you get a different perspective.
Gilgamesh, the oldest work of literature in the whole world, written over three thousand years ago, tells of the discovery of hidden tablets that in their turn tell a story – a story within a story. The oldest work written in English, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, consists of stories within a story too – the tale of a group of pilgrims travelling towards the holy shrine at Canterbury, in which each traveller tells a story as they travel.
More recently, the well-known film, The Truman Show, tells the story of Truman, who has lived on Seahaven Island from babyhood. But the story embracing that story is that he is living inside a huge dome, constructed for the transmission of an interminable TV soap opera, where everyone on that island apart from him is an actor in the show, and he is the only one not in the know – for him this is his life.
The concept of a story within a story makes good entertainment – The Matrix is another powerful example. And it is capable of giving us an uneasy feeling: “So what’s real? Am I living the real thing? Or am I living in a story too?”
All good fun to speculate, but it is certainly true that we do indeed live in stories of others’ making, probably much more than we’re aware of. Most often, like Truman, we’re born into them; sometimes we pick them up along the way. Cultures, including religious cultures, offer stories that differ widely from each other. But when we are born into a culture, its story isn’t a story for us, it’s just life, normality (however odd it may seem to others!). A fish doesn’t know it’s in water.
Well, we all have our varied experiences, our world view, our different opinions. But the stories we believe drive our actions. The trouble with living inside a story without knowing it’s a story is that it prevents us stepping outside the storybox, which is often the only place to solve our problems. I watched Wild Wild Country recently, the story of a large religious group that moved from India to remote Oregon in the US and built a city there. Members of the group were clearly hugely inspired by their leader Bhagwan, later known as Osho. Encountering opposition from locals and later by federal forces, they did everything to protect their leader, and as the situation escalated, they armed themselves and finally executed violent acts against those who opposed them. Each worse act was motivated by a strong positive intention (as we would call it in NLP). Perpetrators would have said, “I’m doing this to protect Bhagwan, that is all that matters.” The story doesn’t end well, as you might imagine.
Get out of the Matrix
How often do we try to solve our problems “within the matrix, the story”? For example, “This person is difficult, I’ve got to deal with him/her.” The story in this case is “This person is difficult” and the proposed solution derives directly from the story, “I’ve got to deal with him/her.” “Dealing with” frequently involves some sort of violence. With some politicians, the story is, “My party has got to win this battle,” and the rationale within the story is, “Therefore I’ve got to tell whatever story will win this battle.” This is where truth gets sacrificed. Working within the story often involves a belief that the end justifies the means.
But that’s only one way of viewing a problem, and it’s unlikely to be solved satisfactorily by continuing to look at it from the one perspective. There’s a different way, which is to recognise the matrix and step beyond it. There are various ways to do this.
- Step into a bigger picture. Sit back and open up your view. See yourself and the “difficult” person from a distance in your mind’s eye, and watch the “dance” of movement and sounds between you as if you are watching a film of two people you don’t know. Discover how different aspects of the problem become apparent when you put a bit of distance between you and it. It often happens that you notice that the movements of the two are surprisingly similar, or are polar opposites. If the relationship carries a lot of emotional baggage, you can increase clarity significantly by imagining that you are looking at it from as far away as the moon!
- Turn the statement upside down. Change the statement, “This person is difficult” to “I am difficult” for instance. How might you be difficult for the other person? You might have resistance to thinking this way, but if you change your mindset to a different viewpoint, something will change in your understanding and new approaches will emerge.
- Shift from “This person is difficult” to different levels: consider the person in the context of wider relationships; reflect on what really matters in the relationship, understand which values are important. How might you find harmony, for instance, with this person? What might be a route to further lightness? A sense of humour even? Or trust? Such questions will release possibilities that would never emerge from previous formulations of the problem.
How do you get fit for such mind games? You learn as 3-year-olds do: you play at it. You experiment and don’t insist on success, whatever that is. You find more variety in your life, especially important to many of us who have spent months with diminished horizons during the pandemic. You introduce something different into your day – a new activity, or walk or food or something you wouldn’t usually read, a TV programme that you wouldn’t usually watch. And you step into the shoes of what it is like to be someone who enjoys such activities. The more experience we have of difference, the quicker we become on our feet to respond to what life throws at us, and the easier we find it to adapt to what is needed in each circumstance. And even as we dance with new approaches, ideas and attitudes, we feel more grounded, more solid in who we are. Another of life’s joyful paradoxes!
I want to add, without any trace of lightness at all, don’t think you are doing anything small when you expand your possibilities in this way. Our world is at a critical moment and has huge need of warm hearts and flexible minds. (I’m talking for myself here!) Don’t you agree?
Dance in the moment! Go well,
*** THIS SUNDAY, 13 June – “From Inner Critic to Inner Coach”
A Spirit of Coaching Event on Zoom, from 2 to 3.30, with John McConnel and yours truly.
It has been said that our mind can be our best friend or worst enemy. There is often a war going on inside between these two aspects of ourselves that can be draining and demoralizing. We explore how to train the mind to enable us to live a happier and more fulfilling life.
The event is free, you just need to register your attendance in advance to get the link. tinyurl.com/InnerCriticInnerCoach. All welcome.
Last month I was interviewed by Brett McKay for the American online magazine, Manliness. The title of the conversation is: The Art of Conversation — A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure, and Brett and I grapple with the question, “How do you have a meaningful conversation with another person?” We had a great time and covered some interesting issues – I hope you enjoy it too. There’s a transcription on the link as well as the audio.
There are more podcasts to come – I’ll give you details next month.
Permission to Shift Summit
25 – 27 June
Fireside chats on how to create meaningful relationships. I am speaking on 27th. More information at www.permissiontoshift.com, and details of how to book coming very soon.
By the way, thanks to everyone who downloaded my free e-course, How to Raise Your Profile
last month – it was a popular one!
A book recommendation, Juliet Grayson’s Landscapes of the Heart
Probably the first book by a psychologist that I just couldn’t put down. Juliet Grayson takes us into the hidden world of a psychotherapy session. She shakes our assumptions about how relationships work, and what to expect from our intimate partners, showing us different routes to more satisfying and loving intimacy, and giving us a grounded understanding of what makes relationships successful. It’s brilliant.
Finally, the usual links to my books
The Art of Communication – How to be Authentic, Lead Others, and Create Strong Connections
Relationships can be the hardest thing in life and also the most rewarding and fulfilling. This book explores ways to deepen your connection with others. Such an important topic for today.
The Art of Conversation – Change Your Life with Confident Communication
My most popular book currently. It’s a great handbook to help you communicate better in every situation. Full of practical hints and tips.
Voice and Speaking Skills For Dummies
contains a wealth of resources for improving your voice and communication. Great to dip into for particular voice and speaking issues.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms – 25 Sure Fire Ways to Speak and Present with Confidence
This is the book for you if you ever suffer from performance anxiety. Get rid of your nerves now! The information is tried and tested, and highly practical.
Voice of Influence – How to Get People To Love to Listen to You.
Now published in 9 foreign language editions! Acquire the voice you would love to have, and transform your impact.