The stories we tell ourselves about our circumstance, who we are, what’s happening to us, what we expect, follow well-worn neural paths and reinforces these paths every time we rehearse them. It’s all part of a state called consistency—mental/neural consistency. Our brains like consistency—it’s the path of least resistance.
But what if we want to change things? What if our current circumstances and anticipation of the future are less than what we want? The first step is to change our narrative—to change the story that flows so freely and naturally in our mind.
If Darren feels that he is stuck in his boring job because he doesn’t have the education to go to the place he really wants to go, and he thinks he is too old to go back to study—then consistency is maintained in his mind when his circumstances (stuck in a boring job) match his expectations (not educated enough and too old to do anything about it, so this is his lot in life). In my world of psychotherapy we say that there is congruence—which is just a fancy way of saying there is agreement, or harmony, between the way we see ourselves (and the world) and what we are experiencing.
Now Darren might make an attempt to break out of his own personal status quo and make application for that better job, maybe even get to an interview. He is making an attempt to step into a different experience. He is now stepping into what we call incongruence—there’s a disparity between his understanding of who he is and the new experience he is stepping into (maybe no longer stuck in a boring job yet not educated enough for the possible new exciting job). Suddenly the consistency in his brain is upset. There’s resistance. Our brains don’t like inconsistency.
In subtle ways our established narrative, the story, will want to bring us back to the status quo. “What if I get the job and they find out I’m not that smart? Then the boring job would have been better. At least I have a job. What if they want me to study? I’m too old to study!” And so goes the self-talk coming out of the neural activity wanting to get back to the path of least resistance.
Darren is called in for an interview. He’s less than convincing. He second-guesses himself when they mention “continuing education”. He wonders if the boring job isn’t that bad after all. The self-talk is pulling him back to the consistent, congruent (albeit totally unsatisfying) story of who he is and what he’s capable of.
Darren doesn’t get the new job, but he comforts himself in the fact that his boring job is safe, and he really needs that sense of security. You see our neural networks will always want to pull us back to the paths of least resistance.
But what if Darren had started to change the narrative, the story of himself, before considering any other job? What if started to create small ripples of inconsistency in his mind by changing his story by degrees? We call this controllable incongruence—a fancy way of saying “stepping outside your comfort zone” in a way that it’s in your control but it’s a bit uncomfortable. He could shift his narrative, change his story, by degrees, to line up with a different expectation of himself and his future.
When we change our narrative we automatically look for circumstances, opportunities, observations that validate our new story. We look for congruence between what we believe and what we are experiencing. If Darren had changed his narrative to “I am not stuck, nor am I ever too old to re-educate myself,” then the interview for the new job would feel very different. When they brought up the subject of “continued education” Darren’s internal dialogue would say “I’m up for that!” because that is congruent with his expectations of his capacity and future.
- What parts of your own narrative, the story about who you are and what the world is like, is holding you back from something better?
- How can you, by small steps, change your narrative to create new paths of least resistance in your mind?
- Small things you tell yourself, every day, can transform your automatic thoughts and assumptions into something that will make you alert to the opportunities that you felt have eluded you all your life.