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How to Use Story Thinking for Personal Development

Summary: We think in stories for 4-6 hours a day, so our lives are substantially constructed as narratives. This affects how we live, what we believe is possible and impossible, and which opportunities we pursue. Coaching can help us become aware of and challenge our narratives to gain personal freedom. This article outlines four simple steps to harness thinking in stories for your personal development.


arra, as in narrative, is not only the name of our marketplace for coaching and personal development. Narratives are also a hot topic for organizations and in psychology. There is even a whole branch of psychology called narrative psychology. Why? Because narratives are closely linked to both individual and organizational development.

No sense-making without stories

The term narrative derives from the Latin word narrare, which means to tell. In psychology, narratives are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and specific situations. We interpret the world and give meaning to things via our own internal narratives. Researchers estimate that we spend 4-6 hours daily thinking in stories1.

Influence on behavior and identity

Narratives influence, and sometimes even form, the basis of our actions. For example, they determine what we think is possible and impossible. They also influence whom we interact with and how we do so. In short, they have a considerable impact on how we live.

Our identity, too, is a collection of stories. Narratives are often difficult to change, because we express who we are and what values we hold through them. Yet, at the same time, they can be the key to transformation.

Progressive vs. regressive narratives

This is especially true for progressive narratives, which researchers distinguish from regressive narratives2. Progressive narratives bring us closer to a goal, while regressive narratives move us away from it. The simplest form of a progressive narrative is “I know I can do this because….”, while in the regressive form, it is “I know I can’t do this because…”. 

Four steps to grow by focusing on narratives

The opportunity to leverage narratives lies in our awareness of them and our critically engagement with them. Consider these four steps:

When you feel challenged, burdened, or trapped in a situation, try to become aware of the story constructed in your mind. It may help to say it out loud or write it down.

Give yourself a moment to acknowledge the narrative you’ve identified. Since it’s a part of you, it’s good to engage with it rather than lose yourself in it or reject it.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What areas of my life does this story affect?
  • In what ways does it help me, and in what ways does it hold me back?
  • How do I behave if I am convinced by this narrative, and how would I behave if a different narrative convinced me?

Establish a rhythm for reviewing your narrative. For example, you can ask yourself once a day: do today’s experiences confirm or contradict my inner story?

Coaching around narratives

You can deepen your work on narratives through coaching. For example, a coach can help you identify your inner stories. Narratives often control us but do not penetrate our consciousness and therefore remain unquestioned and unchanged.

Coaches can also help analyze why your narratives are the way they are. By better understanding and processing a belief’s origin, you can obtain a sense of relief and liberation. Finally, a coach can help you seek experiences that result in new stories that reflect your current self and goals.

As human as breathing

The English author A. S. Byatt compares narration to breathing. Both are inevitably part of human nature, she writes3. Just as breathing can serve mindfulness, narratives can drive your personal development. Critical engagement with them, in our opinion, unlocks a desirable form of self-determination and personal freedom.

  1. Jonathan Gottschall in book «The Story Paradox»;
  2. Michael Murray in book «Qualitative Psychology – a Practical Guide to Research Methods»;
  3. A.S. Byatt, Essay Collection «On Histories and Stories»