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How changing your story can change your life | Lori Gottlieb

How changing your story can change your life | Lori Gottlieb


I’m going to start
by telling you about an email that I saw in my inbox recently. Now, I have a pretty unusual inbox because I’m a therapist and I write an advice column
called “Dear Therapist,” so you can imagine what’s in there. I mean, I’ve read thousands
of very personal letters from strangers all over the world. And these letters range
from heartbreak and loss, to spats with parents or siblings. I keep them in a folder on my laptop, and I’ve named it
“The Problems of Living.” So, I get this email,
I get lots of emails just like this, and I want to bring you
into my world for a second and read you one of these letters. And here’s how it goes. “Dear Therapist, I’ve been married for 10 years and things were good
until a couple of years ago. That’s when my husband
stopped wanting to have sex as much, and now we barely have sex at all.” I’m sure you guys were not expecting this. (Laughter) “Well, last night I discovered
that for the past few months, he’s been secretly having
long, late-night phone calls with a woman at his office. I googled her, and she’s gorgeous. I can’t believe this is happening. My father had an affair
with a coworker when I was young and it broke our family apart. Needless to say, I’m devastated. If I stay in this marriage, I’ll never be able
to trust my husband again. But I don’t want to put our kids
through a divorce, stepmom situation, etc. What should I do?” Well, what do you think she should do? If you got this letter, you might be thinking
about how painful infidelity is. Or maybe about how especially
painful it is here because of her experience
growing up with her father. And like me, you’d probably
have some empathy for this woman, and you might even have some, how should I put this nicely, let’s just call them “not-so-positive”
feelings for her husband. Now, those are the kinds of things
that go through my mind too, when I’m reading
these letters in my inbox. But I have to be really careful
when I respond to these letters because I know that every letter I get
is actually just a story written by a specific author. And that another version
of this story also exists. It always does. And I know this because if I’ve learned
anything as a therapist, it’s that we are all unreliable
narrators of our own lives. I am. You are. And so is everyone you know. Which I probably shouldn’t have told you because now you’re not
going to believe my TED Talk. Look, I don’t mean
that we purposely mislead. Most of what people tell me
is absolutely true, just from their current points of view. Depending on what
they emphasize or minimize, what they leave in, what they leave out, what they see and want me to see, they tell their stories
in a particular way. The psychologist Jerome Bruner
described this beautifully — he said, “To tell a story is, inescapably,
to take a moral stance.” All of us walk around
with stories about our lives. Why choices were made,
why things went wrong, why we treated someone a certain way — because obviously, they deserved it — why someone treated us a certain way — even though, obviously, we didn’t. Stories are the way
we make sense of our lives. But what happens when the stories we tell are misleading or incomplete
or just wrong? Well, instead of providing clarity, these stories keep us stuck. We assume that our circumstances
shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens. The way we narrate our lives
shapes what they become. That’s the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it’s also their power. Because what it means
is that if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives. And today, I want to show you how. Now, I told you I’m a therapist, and I really am, I’m not being
an unreliable narrator. But if I’m, let’s say, on an airplane, and someone asks what I do, I usually say I’m an editor. And I say that partly
because if I say I’m a therapist, I always get some awkward response, like, “Oh, a therapist. Are you going to psychoanalyze me?” And I’m thinking, “A : no, and B: why would I do that here? If I said I was a gynecologist, would you ask if I were
about to give you a pelvic exam?” (Laughter) But the main reason I say I’m an editor is because it’s true. Now, it’s the job of all therapists
to help people edit, but what’s interesting
about my specific role as Dear Therapist is that when I edit,
I’m not just editing for one person. I’m trying to teach a whole group
of readers how to edit, using one letter each week as the example. So I’m thinking about things like, “What material is extraneous?” “Is the protagonist moving forward
or going in circles, are the supporting characters important
or are they a distraction?” “Do the plot points reveal a theme?” And what I’ve noticed is that most people’s stories
tend to circle around two key themes. The first is freedom, and the second is change. And when I edit, those are the themes that I start with. So, let’s take a look
at freedom for a second. Our stories about freedom go like this: we believe, in general, that we have an enormous
amount of freedom. Except when it comes
to the problem at hand, in which case, suddenly,
we feel like we have none. Many of our stories
are about feeling trapped, right? We feel imprisoned
by our families, our jobs, our relationships, our pasts. Sometimes, we even imprison ourselves
with a narrative of self-flagellation — I know you guys all know these stories. The “everyone’s life
is better than mine” story, courtesy of social media. The “I’m an impostor” story,
the “I’m unlovable” story, the “nothing will ever
work out for me” story. The “when I say, ‘Hey, Siri, ‘
and she doesn’t answer, that means she hates me” story. I see you, see, I’m not the only one. The woman who wrote me that letter, she also feels trapped. If she stays with her husband,
she’ll never trust him again, but if she leaves,
her children will suffer. Now, there’s a cartoon
that I think is a perfect example of what’s really going on
in these stories. The cartoon shows a prisoner
shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out. But on the right and the left, it’s open. No bars. The prisoner isn’t in jail. That’s most of us. We feel completely trapped, stuck in our emotional jail cells. But we don’t walk
around the bars to freedom because we know there’s a catch. Freedom comes with responsibility. And if we take responsibility
for our role in the story, we might just have to change. And that’s the other common theme
that I see in our stories: change. Those stories sound like this: a person says, “I want to change.” But what they really mean is, “I want another character
in the story to change.” Therapists describe this dilemma as: “If the queen had balls,
she’d be the king.” I mean — (Laughter) It makes no sense, right? Why wouldn’t we want the protagonist, who’s the hero of the story, to change? Well, it might be because change, even really positive change, involves a surprising amount of loss. Loss of the familiar. Even if the familiar is unpleasant
or utterly miserable, at least we know the characters
and setting and plot, right down to the recurring
dialogue in this story. “You never do the laundry!” “I did it last time!” “Oh, yeah? When?” There’s something oddly comforting about knowing exactly
how the story is going to go every single time. To write a new chapter
is to venture into the unknown. It’s to stare at a blank page. And as any writer will tell you, there’s nothing more terrifying
than a blank page. But here’s the thing. Once we edit our story, the next chapter
becomes much easier to write. We talk so much in our culture
about getting to know ourselves. But part of getting to know yourself
is to unknow yourself. To let go of the one version of the story
you’ve been telling yourself so that you can live your life, and not the story
that you’ve been telling yourself about your life. And that’s how we walk around those bars. So I want to go back to the letter
from the woman, about the affair. She asked me what she should do. Now, I have this word
taped up in my office: ultracrepidarianism. The habit of giving advice or opinions
outside of one’s knowledge or competence. It’s a great word, right? You can use it in all different contexts, I’m sure you will be using it
after this TED Talk. I use it because it reminds me
that as a therapist, I can help people to sort out
what they want to do, but I can’t make
their life choices for them. Only you can write your story, and all you need are some tools. So what I want to do is I want to edit this woman’s letter
together, right here, as a way to show
how we can all revise our stories. And I want to start by asking you to think of a story
that you’re telling yourself right now that might not be serving you well. It might be about a circumstance
you’re experiencing, it might be about a person in your life, it might even be about yourself. And I want you to look
at the supporting characters. Who are the people who are helping you to uphold the wrong version of this story? For instance, if the woman
who wrote me that letter told her friends what happened, they would probably offer her
what’s called “idiot compassion.” Now, in idiot compassion,
we go along with the story, we say, “You’re right, that’s so unfair,” when a friend tells us that he didn’t
get the promotion he wanted, even though we know this has happened
several times before because he doesn’t really
put in the effort, and he probably
also steals office supplies. (Laughter) We say, “Yeah, you’re right, he’s a jerk,” when a friend tells us
that her boyfriend broke up with her, even though we know
that there are certain ways she tends to behave in relationships, like the incessant texting
or the going through his drawers, that tend to lead to this outcome. We see the problem, it’s like, if a fight breaks out
in every bar you’re going to, it might be you. (Laughter) In order to be good editors,
we need to offer wise compassion, not just to our friends, but to ourselves. This is what’s called —
I think the technical term might be — “delivering compassionate truth bombs.” And these truth bombs are compassionate, because they help us to see
what we’ve left out of the story. The truth is, we don’t know if this woman’s husband
is having an affair, or why their sex life
changed two years ago, or what those late-night
phone calls are really about. And it might be
that because of her history, she’s writing a singular
story of betrayal, but there’s probably something else that she’s not willing
to let me, in her letter, or maybe even herself, to see. It’s like that guy
who’s taking a Rorschach test. You all know what Rorschach tests are? A psychologist shows you some ink blots,
they look like that, and asks, “What do you see?” So the guy looks
at his ink blot and he says, “Well, I definitely don’t see blood.” And the examiner says, “Alright, tell me what else
you definitely don’t see.” In writing, this is called point of view. What is the narrator not willing to see? So, I want to read you one more letter. And it goes like this. “Dear Therapist, I need help with my wife. Lately, everything I do irritates her, even small things, like the noise
I make when I chew. At breakfast, I noticed that she even tries
to secretly put extra milk in my granola so it won’t be as crunchy.” (Laughter) “I feel like she became critical of me
after my father died two years ago. I was very close with him, and her father left when she was young, so she couldn’t relate
to what I was going through. There’s a friend at work
whose father died a few months ago, and who understands my grief. I wish I could talk to my wife
like I talk to my friend, but I feel like she barely
tolerates me now. How can I get my wife back?” OK. So, what you probably picked up on is that this is the same story
I read you earlier, just told from another
narrator’s point of view. Her story was about
a husband who’s cheating, his story is about a wife
who can’t understand his grief. But what’s remarkable,
is that for all of their differences, what both of these stories are about
is a longing for connection. And if we can get out
of the first-person narration and write the story
from another character’s perspective, suddenly that other character
becomes much more sympathetic, and the plot opens up. That’s the hardest step
in the editing process, but it’s also where change begins. What would happen
if you looked at your story and wrote it from another
person’s point of view? What would you see now
from this wider perspective? That’s why, when I see people
who are depressed, I sometimes say, “You are not the best person
to talk to you about you right now,” because depression distorts our stories
in a very particular way. It narrows our perspectives. The same is true when we feel
lonely or hurt or rejected. We create all kinds of stories, distorted through a very narrow lens that we don’t even know
we’re looking through. And then, we’ve effectively become
our own fake-news broadcasters. I have a confession to make. I wrote the husband’s version
of the letter I read you. You have no idea how much time I spent debating between granola
and pita chips, by the way. I wrote it based on all
of the alternative narratives that I’ve seen over the years, not just in my therapy practice,
but also in my column. When it’s happened that two people involved
in the same situation have written to me,
unbeknownst to the other, and I have two versions of the same story sitting in my inbox. That really has happened. I don’t know what the other version
of this woman’s letter is, but I do know this: she has to write it. Because with a courageous edit, she’ll write a much more nuanced version
of her letter that she wrote to me. Even if her husband
is having an affair of any kind — and maybe he is — she doesn’t need to know
what the plot is yet. Because just by virtue of doing an edit, she’ll have so many more possibilities
for what the plot can become. Now, sometimes it happens
that I see people who are really stuck, and they’re really invested
in their stuckness. We call them help-rejecting complainers. I’m sure you know people like this. They’re the people who,
when you try to offer them a suggestion, they reject it with, “Yeah, no,
that will never work, because …” “Yeah, no, that’s impossible,
because I can’t do that.” “Yeah, I really want more friends,
but people are just so annoying.” (Laughter) What they’re really rejecting is an edit to their story
of misery and stuckness. And so, with these people,
I usually take a different approach. And what I do is I say something else. I say to them, “We’re all going to die.” I bet you’re really glad
I’m not your therapist right now. Because they look back at me the way you’re looking back
at me right now, with this look of utter confusion. But then I explain that there’s a story that gets written
about all of us, eventually. It’s called an obituary. And I say that instead of being
authors of our own unhappiness, we get to shape these stories
while we’re still alive. We get to be the hero
and not the victim in our stories, we get to choose what goes on the page
that lives in our minds and shapes our realities. I tell them that life is about deciding
which stories to listen to and which ones need an edit. And that it’s worth the effort
to go through a revision because there’s nothing more important
to the quality of our lives than the stories
we tell ourselves about them. I say that when it comes
to the stories of our lives, we should be aiming for our own
personal Pulitzer Prize. Now, most of us aren’t
help-rejecting complainers, or at least we don’t believe we are. But it’s a role
that is so easy to slip into when we feel anxious
or angry or vulnerable. So the next time
you’re struggling with something, remember, we’re all going to die. (Laughter) And then pull out your editing tools and ask yourself: what do I want my story to be? And then, go write your masterpiece. Thank you. (Applause)

100 comments on “How changing your story can change your life | Lori Gottlieb

  1. "What do I want my story to be"?
    That's a really good question!
    Another would be: "How do I decide WHAT I want my story to be?
    And also: "How long will my life be, that this story will be about?".
    In my case, already I'm not a million miles away from the age of 70.
    For me, another question is: "How come it was the early 1970s not so ago? Where did all those decades go?"
    OK it's time for another confession. This is the politically incorrect (socially unattractive ?) one.
    At the age of 15, I was invited along to a Bible believing Christian church, heard that Jesus gave His life and rose again to be the Saviour that I needed, and was invited to forsake the sin in my life and rely on Christ alone for forgiveness and eternal life.
    So what should I do?
    I was only 15 with my whole life ahead of me.
    I'll spare you the story of my first 15 years. It was pretty mixed.
    What I did was to do exactly as I was invited.
    So now I have a story – still unfinished – looking back over half a century of life as someone for whom my Saviour has increasingly been the number one Person throughout.
    If you're still with me, you might want to know: "Has it been worth it? Really, honestly worth it?"
    Without hesitation, yes. Very definitely.
    So, am I totally happy with my story – with my life?
    No, I'm not. Because I've said and done things foolishly at times. I've let people down, including myself.
    But I have so much to thank God for. And so much to look forward to in this life, but especially in the next.
    Not because of any confidence I have in me. But because I trust my Saviour and I trust God's word, the Bible.
    Both have proved essential to me.
    So if I may, please can I recommend that the best person to write the story of the rest of your life is our Creator, Who designed our bodies and gave us the gift of life (and Who gave us the manual of life that we all so seriously need)!
    Of course, if you want Him to do that for you, you'll need to come to Him on His terms.
    Why not begin by telling Him quietly in your own words that you want to get to know Him, His compassion and His direction in your life, personally? Start that regular contact with Him. And do get a copy of the New Testament, even the whole Bible. The Gospel of John is a great place to get started. Read it a couple of times and go from there.
    Like me, you'll be on a journey you won't regret.
    As the Bible says, "O taste and see that the Lord is good"!
    I'm just one among millions throughout history who can say, "That's my story!"

  2. The narcissists are going to eat this right up with their granola. It is fine for some, awful advice for those who seek to create just such a false reality through a story.

  3. Esther Hicks is the Master of this… Wouldn't hurt to give her credit. Tell a different story and yr reality will adjust accordingly. Yr own vibration is answered – more like a wave coming back, rather than it's "done to you". It's because it is a Vibrational Universe, not an Action-based. Vibration first. Actions second. No amount of action makes up for the fact that you are out of Alignment. Period. Get into alignment first, then the action will be presented to you. Then, you must act upon it. Not a minute sooner. You should invite Esther… She would bring down the house like it's nobody's business!!! Excellent talk.. Xx..

  4. Our values define our beliefs, while our beliefs determine our reality.
    We usually expect what we believe not what actually is and that's the reason we get hurt when our expectations are not fulfilled.
    Be careful with what you believe, Beliefs can change everything.
    Subscribe 😊

  5. Be the editor/hero of your story. Accept change and the responsibility that comes with it. Consider the viewpoint of other people.

  6. I was on board until the wife got blamed for part of the cheating. He had other choices besides cheating and causing her betrayal trauma.

  7. I´ve seen many Ted Talks and many other videos. And by many i mean MANY. Im really interested in psychology and everything about our thinking.
    This is one of the best videos I´ve ever seen when it comes to reinspecting (is that a word?) ourselfs.

    Super valuable.

  8. I wish she would have given examples of what a changed story should sound like. Like in that woman’s case. She needs an edit I know but i wish she gave examples of exactly what good edits would sound like in her circumstance or in any other circumstance. I don’t have much of an imagination.

  9. i'm sort unhappy because i am idle im bored spending time unwittingly watching teds that doesn't apply. Lost knowledge. not so much

  10. This is the same woman who urged women to settle for unsatisfactory relationships with men if they couldn't do better, yet she is still single herself.

  11. Such a quotable talk!
    – We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
    – To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance.
    – Stories are the way we make sense of our lives.
    – The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become.
    – Change, even really positive change, involves a surprising amount of loss.
    – What would happen if you looked at your story and wrote it from another person’s point of view?
    – Life is about choosing which stories to listen to, and which ones need an edit.
    – There’s nothing more important to the quality of our lives than the stories we tell ourselves about them.

    What do you want your story to be? Go write your masterpiece!

  12. This is precisely what I have done over the past four years. Learnt to let go of my victim story and the false notion that I am a product of my past. And it is what inspired me to start a Youtube channel. I am on a mission to help others. Come join me if you feel that this resonates with you!

  13. It's not always possible for A LOT of people to change their story. But it is astoundingly easy for her or anyone else to suggest they do or can.

  14. You cannot say change the story Akos Vetek, Helsinki, Nokia, hacker and stalker of my proxy and home internet, password thief of my internet router and other accounts, narcissist. Let everyone in the world know how you cause people PTSD by your abusive deeds. Every video from you, now tags your name as the sender. Now that's HONESTY.

  15. You mean how refugees from Sharia countries are fine and won't turn Europe into a Caliphate will make it so? Talk to Sweden

  16. Wow. I think I learned my lesson. Wonderful therapist you are. I changed my story already n I'm so much relieved. Thank you.

  17. This is soooo true. Change the old programming inside out the rest will follow. It changed my distorted view because of an old childhood programming. It took awhile yet it’s worth it. 💥🙏🏼😃💖🦋

  18. She didnt say that she got the email writers permission to air their personal problems in public. You could say it is semi-anonymous because she didn't assign the name but how would you feel if your private email was broadcast? Or maybe she did get permission and didnt mention it. I wouldn't write anything to her, lol. Who gets effective therapy by email anyway??

  19. I wish I was changing the narrative in my mind with regards to my relationship. Unfortunately, broken bones and bruises are pretty hard evidence that the abuse isn't just in my head.

  20. I have not sexed any female since 2011……..till today 29/11(november)2019 Friday

    But who knows ?????
    Whats cooking into brain now ???????
    I can do magics in life suddenly ?????

  21. People always say they want change. Change is scary and difficutl. Friends will tell you not to change. The rewards of a positive change are worth it. The rewards of a negative change are not.

  22. So if a woman is physically or emotionally abused, it is "just her perspective" and in reality, the husband has quite a sensible reason to beat her if only you listen to his perspective instead?

  23. What an inspiring message from such a charismatic speaker. I am very curious as to how she and so many of these TEDtalk speakers remember their speech though! A 16 minute speech must translate to at least 8 pages of text

  24. To make it short: somebody who doesn't have a clue about human behaviour wants to explain how to resolve problems with your life.

  25. As a lifelong sufferer of PTSD from an early childhood event…I just paused at 7:33 (with tears) because casting off old misperceptions of rejection is like another rejection in and of itself. I have indeed been editing my story for several years now. I know what I want my story to be. You have just given me a window into a future that I can actually get to. No. More like an open door. Thanks.

  26. Hi Lori. Thank you for this inspiring talk. I am reading your book now and loving it…the therapist me is taking notes..the soul inside is savoring each chapter,each story…the Lit major in me has the sinking feeling I get when I realize I am coming to the end in a short while. Guess I will have to read the ‘Dear Therapist’ column to get more doses of your wit and sublime wisdom. So happy I found your work.

  27. And this is why people are untrustworthy and cruel to people with autism and/or lack of empathy: people tend to be lying and manipulative, and they aren't even aware of it, and if they are, they presume everyone else is the same. People are so controlled by emotions and peer-pressure. Base their understanding on assumptions. Most people are incapable of being objective. Its disturbing and irrational to me.
    Though the one thing that's even worse, is a therapist that make these assumptions.

  28. Excellent. We should teach this to children and reinforce it into adulthood. I suspect the difficult part are the extremes who never see anything positive and those wearing rose colored glasses. I suspect it best not to only think or tell our true story, but live it and ignore the naysayers.

  29. THANK YOU. I have truly changed and my life is altogether changed and I’ve been freaking out! It is hard to celebrate living in/on a blank slate, all “stories” gone, done. You are correct, it’s been very much about having and gaining relationship with personal responsibility. There is one level of responsibility I’ve been really scared of though, it’s a higher level – creativity. The responsibility of creating one’s life. I hope I can be brave enough, after all the changes I’ve been brave enough to make, to create the life story my own heart wishes to tell. Thanks for the lecture.❤️

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