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  • Jenn Steliga

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

In the world of counseling and coaching, there is a theory called narrative therapy that helps people frame their issues by examining the stories they have been told – and the stories they tell themselves – about how their “problem” started and how it’s maintained. Narratives can be helpful or not so helpful. Narrative theory, along with the techniques used to understand and re-write our stories, has always been one of my favorite coaching techniques because it works!

An example of a narrative might go something like this:

“I’m not good with my money; I never have been, I never will be – it’s just not my thing ”

Another example:

“Budgets limit my freedom so they could never help me reach a goal”

These are real-life scenarios I hear about time after time. When you hear a story long enough (from parents, spouses, society), you start to tell yourself the same story and before you know it that story – that was once really just a story (meaning there were likely kernels of truth within it, but was unlikely 100% truth) – becomes your truth. And then a really crazy thing happens … the problem starts to become a part of your identity, so that to untangle the two feels nearly impossible. And before you know it you are the problem, and well, to fix the entire being of you just feels overwhelming. So, you stay stuck by perpetuating your story.

There’s really no need for that.

I’m not suggesting you aren’t the problem sometimes, or that you should abdicate all responsibility for yourself and your actions. That would be utter nonsense. I want to be crystal clear on this, so I'm going to repeat myself: I am in no way suggesting that you point to the outside world and say "I am not the problem - YOU are". What I am saying is this:

There are helpful techniques to rethink the problem as you've currently defined it


That doing so can open up more possibilities to get to your desired end state.

And who doesn’t want to solve their problems?


Now that we are clear on what externalizing the problem means (you're not going to create a victim mentality and blame others, right??), here are a few practical tips on how to get started using narrative techniques to tackle your toughest financial issues:

  • Examine your narratives closely. This takes time, patience and practice. Most of you reading this don’t even believe you have narratives. You do. Look for them, listen for them, and start to pay attention to the way you talk to yourself. Which ones are good and not so good? In other words, which stories contribute to effectively solving your problems and which ones leave you stuck?

  • When you identify a narrative that’s not helpful, begin to take a different perspective on the problem. Let’s take the example from above about the person not being good with money. In this narrative the person is the problem. Re-write that and make “your understanding of money” the problem.

  • You just externalized the problem. Externalizing re-focuses the problem-saturated story you’ve been telling yourself (I’m bad with money) to something outside of your character or inherent worth as a person (understanding of money).

And that notion is the critical one here.The two aren’t linked – you’re not a bad person because you haven’t had the results you want with money (you’re not a bad person, period). Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “hey, this doesn’t apply to me because I don’t think I’m a bad person, I just think I’m not good with money. Period. End of story”. Well here’s another shocker for you – that’s false. No one is simply “bad” with money. It is simply not true that it is impossible for you to become someone who gets the results they want with money. Stop telling yourself that story … right … now (for a lot of you reading this I just identified your unhelpful narrative - you’re welcome).

People stay stuck in their problems because they start to believe the reason the problem hasn’t gone away is because of who they are as a person (enter guilt/shame cycle and victim mentality). The reason using externalization works is because it can start to break this nasty cycle; if you let this cycle take hold it will become an engrained pattern of thinking and you will begin to believe that your behaviors are you.

The mind is a powerful thing, and it will believe what you tell it. So if you want to take steps to long-lasting change, learn to view your problem as separate from you: personify it (have fun – give it a name and a full personality), learn to observe it as a separate entity and you will notice you open up a whole new range of create possibilities to solve your “problem” when you’re no longer identifying your undesired results with your worth as a person.


White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York, NY.

W. W. Norton Company, Inc.


Narrative coaching techniques have helped my clients get unstuck and move toward their desired future so that they can experience the freedom of an intentional life. If you think you need some extra assistance, coaching may be a good fit for you: click here to schedule your complimentary consultation.

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