Psychologist logo
Education, Personality and self, Teaching and learning

‘Kill your selves’ every day

Dr Nic Hooper on students and self-stories.

24 August 2021

Words matter. The words in my title could be seen as insensitive to those who've been touched by suicide. And yet I've used them, because they have had such a lasting impact on my life. First told to me by Steven C. Hayes (the main creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT), they urge us to kill the stories we've built about ourselves, because of the prison they can create for us.  

It's not just me, however. I've noticed that the concept has a powerful impact on others too. This happened recently when I asked my students to review an early copy of my latest book, The Unbreakable Student, which provides those at university with an evidence-based guide for psychological wellbeing. The pattern in the feedback was remarkable. Specifically, it was in Chapter 3, where I covered self-stories, that most of my students reported having their first Eureka! moment.

I sometimes ask myself why. Why would learning about self-stories be such a meaningful experience for people? The best answer I can come up with right now concerns the notion of freedom. Learning about self-stories, and being able to spot them, releases us from their shackles, giving us more freedom to choose the things we do in our lives.

'You'll embarrass yourself…'

I'll give an example to illustrate this…

Imagine that you're accepted to a university that's far from your family home. You wake up on the day of the move. You can see pride but nerves in the body language of your parents (although you know that terror is hiding beneath the surface also, as they send their child out into the world to fend for themselves). You yourself feel that strange mix of excitement and nerves. You arrive at the halls of residence. You make your way to your new room. You exchange niceties with people you pass. You say goodbye to your parents (who are now crying) and you sit on your bed. Just you. By yourself. In your new room.

You then hear voices in the corridor. Other students are moving into their rooms nearby. You think you'd like to leave your room and say 'hello', but you hesitate. The voice in your mind has stepped into the silence. It feeds you this thought: 'You're not a socially confident person, you'll embarrass yourself if you go out there.' Based on your understanding of who you truly are, you know that your mind is right. You sit down on your bed and check social media. Evening comes and goes. You wake up the next morning having not left the safety of your own room.

In the example, a self-story hindered freedom, it restricted behaviour, and it limited potential progress towards meaning (in the shape of developing human relationships). It's this that I think makes the concept of self-stories so powerful for people: when we know that self-stories are a thing, we immediately begin to ask ourselves how our own self-stories may have held us back, and we begin to think about how to lessen their impact going forward.

This was the experience that my students reported. However, they had a couple of questions that are important to explore…

Surely self-stories exist because they're true?

Self-stories are built from our true and real experiences, and therefore it feels right that they should have the power to define who we are and what we do. However, are they built from all our experiences?

Let me explore what I mean here. If you have an 'I'm not the academic type' self-story, then that story probably exists because you have a history of either being told that you're not the academic type or experiencing yourself to not be the academic type. But the human mind is imperfect. It's likely that you've done well academically on many occasions but that such instances were discounted because they didn't fit into your story (there's a confirmation bias). With this in mind, how much weight should you give your self-stories, and especially your restrictive ones, when they're likely to be built from a distorted representation of reality? Should you, for example, use this story to inform a decision not to apply for university?

Another note on this. Imagine that there was a self-story God. She came down from the heavens and told you 'No, really now, you're actually, truthfully, inherently, not the academic type'. Should you still use such a story to inform your behaviour? If you do then you're in a self-story prison. That is, you don't get to go to university, you don't get to apply for certain jobs, you don't get to begin a new business, and all because you're just not the academic type. Your freedom has been limited by a self-story, and living in that psychological space isn't going to be good for your mental health.

The reality, of course, is that there's no self-story God, there's no way to find out if our self-stories are true and stable parts of us. What this means is that you get to make a choice about self-stories. Either you choose to believe them, or you choose not to. And let me tell you, if you choose the latter then the number of things you can do with your life will open right up.

What can you do about self-stories?

The first thing that you'll need to do is to become aware of your self-stories. There are a few ways to do this. Firstly, look at yourself in a mirror and then list what are essentially your personality characteristics and your abilities. Secondly, in everyday conversation, a great cue for a self-story is any sentence that begins with the words 'I am'. For example, I am geeky. I am not funny. I am not sporty. I am rude. I am boring. I am not a good public speaker. If you look out for those words, then you'll learn your self-stories in no time. Finally, a slightly more complex way to learn about your self-stories is to keep asking yourself to distinguish between sentences that are self-evaluation versus those that are self-description. For example, there's a difference between 'I am not good at dancing' versus 'I am six feet tall'. One of those sentences is a self-evaluation and the other is a self-description.

Once you're aware of your self-stories, you need to explore how they function within your life. For example, if you have an 'I am kind' self-story then it's likely that the story will help you to function in the world effectively. But what about an 'I am anxious' self-story? Does that story help you to do more things that you'd like, or does it restrict your behaviour? So, it's really about answering this question – do some of your self-stories stop you from doing things that would be important to your long-term psychological health?

Hold your stories lightly

You may have guessed by now that I'm not just plucking this stuff out of the air. I learned all about self-stories from ACT. And in ACT, clinicians train clients to see the difference between their self-as-story and their observer self. These concepts can be tricky to understand, but the clinician will help the client to contact their ongoing and stable sense of self that's detached from any self-story that exists. To illustrate this idea, here's a well-known metaphor taken from my book (p.73-74):

We're like the sky. Our self-stories are like the weather. The weather changes constantly. Sometimes there's sunshine and sometimes there are clouds, rain or storms. Our self-stories are like this. Sometimes they're positive and sometimes they're self-defeating, restricting and negative. There are a couple of important things to know about the relationship between the sky and the weather. Firstly, the weather can never hurt the sky in the same way that our self-stories can never hurt us. They're stories, and only that. Secondly, the sky can always hold the weather no matter how bad it is. We're the same. We can always make room for tricky self-stories no matter how powerful they seem. We often forget that the sky is there (perhaps sometimes it's hard to see the sky through the weather). When this happens, it's easy to believe that the weather and the sky are one and the same – or it's easy to believe that we are our self-stories. However, every now and then we notice the sky: stable, broad, limitless and pure. The observer self involves learning to access the sky more, and seeing it as a place where we can make room for and watch our self-stories, rather than be defined by them.

Every day that I worked on my book, my 'I am not smart enough to do this' self-story was in the room with me. But I was able to spot the story, to hold it lightly and to keep my feet moving towards something that was important to me. I interacted with my self-story in such a way that it didn't impact my freedom, and this is just one of many times in my life where I've chosen to do wonderful things, in the presence of negative self-stories. That's why I used the words 'lasting impact' in that opening paragraph, and that's why I tell every person I can about this topic.

- Dr Nic Hooper is author of The Unbreakable Student and Senior Lecturer of Psychology at the University of the West of England.

See also our collection of resources for new university students.