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← How changing your story can change your life

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Showing Revision 8 created 11/04/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. I'm going to start
    by telling you about an email
  2. that I saw in my inbox recently.
  3. Now, I have a pretty unusual inbox
  4. because I'm a therapist
  5. and I write an advice column
    called "Dear Therapist,"
  6. so you can imagine what's in there.
  7. I mean, I've read thousands
    of very personal letters
  8. from strangers all over the world.
  9. And these letters range
    from heartbreak and loss,
  10. to spats with parents or siblings.
  11. I keep them in a folder on my laptop,
  12. and I've named it
    "The Problems of Living."
  13. So, I get this email,
    I get lots of emails just like this,
  14. and I want to bring you
    into my world for a second
  15. and read you one of these letters.
  16. And here's how it goes.
  17. "Dear Therapist,

  18. I've been married for 10 years
  19. and things were good
    until a couple of years ago.
  20. That's when my husband
    stopped wanting to have sex as much,
  21. and now we barely have sex at all."
  22. I'm sure you guys were not expecting this.
  23. (Laughter)

  24. "Well, last night I discovered
    that for the past few months,

  25. he's been secretly having
    long, late-night phone calls
  26. with a woman at his office.
  27. I googled her, and she's gorgeous.
  28. I can't believe this is happening.
  29. My father had an affair
    with a coworker when I was young
  30. and it broke our family apart.
  31. Needless to say, I'm devastated.
  32. If I stay in this marriage,
  33. I'll never be able
    to trust my husband again.
  34. But I don't want to put our kids
    through a divorce,
  35. stepmom situation, etc.
  36. What should I do?"
  37. Well, what do you think she should do?

  38. If you got this letter,
  39. you might be thinking
    about how painful infidelity is.
  40. Or maybe about how especially
    painful it is here
  41. because of her experience
    growing up with her father.
  42. And like me, you'd probably
    have some empathy for this woman,
  43. and you might even have some,
  44. how should I put this nicely,
  45. let's just call them "not-so-positive"
    feelings for her husband.
  46. Now, those are the kinds of things
    that go through my mind too,

  47. when I'm reading
    these letters in my inbox.
  48. But I have to be really careful
    when I respond to these letters
  49. because I know that every letter I get
    is actually just a story
  50. written by a specific author.
  51. And that another version
    of this story also exists.
  52. It always does.
  53. And I know this
  54. because if I've learned
    anything as a therapist,
  55. it's that we are all unreliable
    narrators of our own lives.
  56. I am.
  57. You are.
  58. And so is everyone you know.
  59. Which I probably shouldn't have told you
  60. because now you're not
    going to believe my TED Talk.
  61. Look, I don't mean
    that we purposely mislead.

  62. Most of what people tell me
    is absolutely true,
  63. just from their current points of view.
  64. Depending on what
    they emphasize or minimize,
  65. what they leave in, what they leave out,
  66. what they see and want me to see,
  67. they tell their stories
    in a particular way.
  68. The psychologist Jerome Bruner
    described this beautifully -- he said,
  69. "To tell a story is, inescapably,
    to take a moral stance."
  70. All of us walk around
    with stories about our lives.
  71. Why choices were made,
    why things went wrong,
  72. why we treated someone a certain way --
  73. because obviously, they deserved it --
  74. why someone treated us a certain way --
  75. even though, obviously, we didn't.
  76. Stories are the way
    we make sense of our lives.
  77. But what happens when the stories we tell

  78. are misleading or incomplete
    or just wrong?
  79. Well, instead of providing clarity,
  80. these stories keep us stuck.
  81. We assume that our circumstances
    shape our stories.
  82. But what I found time and again in my work
  83. is that the exact opposite happens.
  84. The way we narrate our lives
    shapes what they become.
  85. That's the danger of our stories,
  86. because they can really mess us up,
  87. but it's also their power.
  88. Because what it means
    is that if we can change our stories,
  89. then we can change our lives.
  90. And today, I want to show you how.
  91. Now, I told you I'm a therapist,

  92. and I really am, I'm not being
    an unreliable narrator.
  93. But if I'm, let's say, on an airplane,
  94. and someone asks what I do,
  95. I usually say I'm an editor.
  96. And I say that partly
    because if I say I'm a therapist,
  97. I always get some awkward response, like,
  98. "Oh, a therapist.
  99. Are you going to psychoanalyze me?"
  100. And I'm thinking, "A : no,
  101. and B: why would I do that here?
  102. If I said I was a gynecologist,
  103. would you ask if I were
    about to give you a pelvic exam?"
  104. (Laughter)

  105. But the main reason I say I'm an editor

  106. is because it's true.
  107. Now, it's the job of all therapists
    to help people edit,
  108. but what's interesting
    about my specific role as Dear Therapist
  109. is that when I edit,
    I'm not just editing for one person.
  110. I'm trying to teach a whole group
    of readers how to edit,
  111. using one letter each week as the example.
  112. So I'm thinking about things like,
  113. "What material is extraneous?"
  114. "Is the protagonist moving forward
    or going in circles,
  115. are the supporting characters important
    or are they a distraction?"
  116. "Do the plot points reveal a theme?"
  117. And what I've noticed
  118. is that most people's stories
    tend to circle around two key themes.
  119. The first is freedom,

  120. and the second is change.
  121. And when I edit,
  122. those are the themes that I start with.
  123. So, let's take a look
    at freedom for a second.
  124. Our stories about freedom go like this:
  125. we believe, in general,
  126. that we have an enormous
    amount of freedom.
  127. Except when it comes
    to the problem at hand,
  128. in which case, suddenly,
    we feel like we have none.
  129. Many of our stories
    are about feeling trapped, right?
  130. We feel imprisoned
    by our families, our jobs,
  131. our relationships, our pasts.
  132. Sometimes, we even imprison ourselves
    with a narrative of self-flagellation --
  133. I know you guys all know these stories.
  134. The "everyone's life
    is better than mine" story,
  135. courtesy of social media.
  136. The "I'm an impostor" story,
    the "I'm unlovable" story,
  137. the "nothing will ever
    work out for me" story.
  138. The "when I say, 'Hey, Siri, '
    and she doesn't answer,
  139. that means she hates me" story.
  140. I see you, see, I'm not the only one.
  141. The woman who wrote me that letter,
  142. she also feels trapped.
  143. If she stays with her husband,
    she'll never trust him again,
  144. but if she leaves,
    her children will suffer.
  145. Now, there's a cartoon
    that I think is a perfect example

  146. of what's really going on
    in these stories.
  147. The cartoon shows a prisoner
    shaking the bars,
  148. desperately trying to get out.
  149. But on the right and the left, it's open.
  150. No bars.
  151. The prisoner isn't in jail.
  152. That's most of us.
  153. We feel completely trapped,
  154. stuck in our emotional jail cells.
  155. But we don't walk
    around the bars to freedom
  156. because we know there's a catch.
  157. Freedom comes with responsibility.
  158. And if we take responsibility
    for our role in the story,
  159. we might just have to change.
  160. And that's the other common theme
    that I see in our stories: change.

  161. Those stories sound like this:
  162. a person says, "I want to change."
  163. But what they really mean is,
  164. "I want another character
    in the story to change."
  165. Therapists describe this dilemma as:
  166. "If the queen had balls,
    she'd be the king."
  167. I mean --
  168. (Laughter)

  169. It makes no sense, right?

  170. Why wouldn't we want the protagonist,
  171. who's the hero of the story, to change?
  172. Well, it might be because change,
  173. even really positive change,
  174. involves a surprising amount of loss.
  175. Loss of the familiar.
  176. Even if the familiar is unpleasant
    or utterly miserable,
  177. at least we know the characters
    and setting and plot,
  178. right down to the recurring
    dialogue in this story.
  179. "You never do the laundry!"
  180. "I did it last time!"
  181. "Oh, yeah? When?"
  182. There's something oddly comforting
  183. about knowing exactly
    how the story is going to go
  184. every single time.
  185. To write a new chapter
    is to venture into the unknown.

  186. It's to stare at a blank page.
  187. And as any writer will tell you,
  188. there's nothing more terrifying
    than a blank page.
  189. But here's the thing.
  190. Once we edit our story,
  191. the next chapter
    becomes much easier to write.
  192. We talk so much in our culture
    about getting to know ourselves.
  193. But part of getting to know yourself
    is to unknow yourself.
  194. To let go of the one version of the story
    you've been telling yourself
  195. so that you can live your life,
  196. and not the story
    that you've been telling yourself
  197. about your life.
  198. And that's how we walk around those bars.
  199. So I want to go back to the letter
    from the woman, about the affair.

  200. She asked me what she should do.
  201. Now, I have this word
    taped up in my office:
  202. ultracrepidarianism.
  203. The habit of giving advice or opinions
    outside of one's knowledge or competence.
  204. It's a great word, right?
  205. You can use it in all different contexts,
  206. I'm sure you will be using it
    after this TED Talk.
  207. I use it because it reminds me
    that as a therapist,
  208. I can help people to sort out
    what they want to do,
  209. but I can't make
    their life choices for them.
  210. Only you can write your story,
  211. and all you need are some tools.
  212. So what I want to do

  213. is I want to edit this woman's letter
    together, right here,
  214. as a way to show
    how we can all revise our stories.
  215. And I want to start by asking you
  216. to think of a story
    that you're telling yourself right now
  217. that might not be serving you well.
  218. It might be about a circumstance
    you're experiencing,
  219. it might be about a person in your life,
  220. it might even be about yourself.
  221. And I want you to look
    at the supporting characters.
  222. Who are the people who are helping you
  223. to uphold the wrong version of this story?
  224. For instance, if the woman
    who wrote me that letter

  225. told her friends what happened,
  226. they would probably offer her
    what's called "idiot compassion."
  227. Now, in idiot compassion,
    we go along with the story,
  228. we say, "You're right, that's so unfair,"
  229. when a friend tells us that he didn't
    get the promotion he wanted,
  230. even though we know this has happened
    several times before
  231. because he doesn't really
    put in the effort,
  232. and he probably
    also steals office supplies.
  233. (Laughter)

  234. We say, "Yeah, you're right, he's a jerk,"

  235. when a friend tells us
    that her boyfriend broke up with her,
  236. even though we know
    that there are certain ways
  237. she tends to behave in relationships,
  238. like the incessant texting
    or the going through his drawers,
  239. that tend to lead to this outcome.
  240. We see the problem, it's like,
  241. if a fight breaks out
    in every bar you're going to,
  242. it might be you.
  243. (Laughter)

  244. In order to be good editors,
    we need to offer wise compassion,

  245. not just to our friends, but to ourselves.
  246. This is what's called --
    I think the technical term might be --
  247. "delivering compassionate truth bombs."
  248. And these truth bombs are compassionate,
  249. because they help us to see
    what we've left out of the story.
  250. The truth is,

  251. we don't know if this woman's husband
    is having an affair,
  252. or why their sex life
    changed two years ago,
  253. or what those late-night
    phone calls are really about.
  254. And it might be
    that because of her history,
  255. she's writing a singular
    story of betrayal,
  256. but there's probably something else
  257. that she's not willing
    to let me, in her letter,
  258. or maybe even herself, to see.
  259. It's like that guy
    who's taking a Rorschach test.
  260. You all know what Rorschach tests are?
  261. A psychologist shows you some ink blots,
    they look like that,
  262. and asks, "What do you see?"
  263. So the guy looks
    at his ink blot and he says,
  264. "Well, I definitely don't see blood."
  265. And the examiner says,
  266. "Alright, tell me what else
    you definitely don't see."
  267. In writing, this is called point of view.
  268. What is the narrator not willing to see?
  269. So, I want to read you one more letter.

  270. And it goes like this.
  271. "Dear Therapist,

  272. I need help with my wife.
  273. Lately, everything I do irritates her,
  274. even small things, like the noise
    I make when I chew.
  275. At breakfast,
  276. I noticed that she even tries
    to secretly put extra milk in my granola
  277. so it won't be as crunchy."
  278. (Laughter)

  279. "I feel like she became critical of me
    after my father died two years ago.

  280. I was very close with him,
  281. and her father left when she was young,
  282. so she couldn't relate
    to what I was going through.
  283. There's a friend at work
    whose father died a few months ago,
  284. and who understands my grief.
  285. I wish I could talk to my wife
    like I talk to my friend,
  286. but I feel like she barely
    tolerates me now.
  287. How can I get my wife back?"
  288. OK.

  289. So, what you probably picked up on
  290. is that this is the same story
    I read you earlier,
  291. just told from another
    narrator's point of view.
  292. Her story was about
    a husband who's cheating,
  293. his story is about a wife
    who can't understand his grief.
  294. But what's remarkable,
    is that for all of their differences,
  295. what both of these stories are about
    is a longing for connection.
  296. And if we can get out
    of the first-person narration
  297. and write the story
    from another character's perspective,
  298. suddenly that other character
    becomes much more sympathetic,
  299. and the plot opens up.
  300. That's the hardest step
    in the editing process,
  301. but it's also where change begins.
  302. What would happen
    if you looked at your story

  303. and wrote it from another
    person's point of view?
  304. What would you see now
    from this wider perspective?
  305. That's why, when I see people
    who are depressed,
  306. I sometimes say,
  307. "You are not the best person
    to talk to you about you right now,"
  308. because depression distorts our stories
    in a very particular way.
  309. It narrows our perspectives.
  310. The same is true when we feel
    lonely or hurt or rejected.
  311. We create all kinds of stories,
  312. distorted through a very narrow lens
  313. that we don't even know
    we're looking through.
  314. And then, we've effectively become
    our own fake-news broadcasters.
  315. I have a confession to make.

  316. I wrote the husband's version
    of the letter I read you.
  317. You have no idea how much time I spent
  318. debating between granola
    and pita chips, by the way.
  319. I wrote it based on all
    of the alternative narratives
  320. that I've seen over the years,
  321. not just in my therapy practice,
    but also in my column.
  322. When it's happened
  323. that two people involved
    in the same situation
  324. have written to me,
    unbeknownst to the other,
  325. and I have two versions of the same story
  326. sitting in my inbox.
  327. That really has happened.
  328. I don't know what the other version
    of this woman's letter is,
  329. but I do know this:
  330. she has to write it.
  331. Because with a courageous edit,
  332. she'll write a much more nuanced version
    of her letter that she wrote to me.
  333. Even if her husband
    is having an affair of any kind --
  334. and maybe he is --
  335. she doesn't need to know
    what the plot is yet.
  336. Because just by virtue of doing an edit,
  337. she'll have so many more possibilities
    for what the plot can become.
  338. Now, sometimes it happens
    that I see people who are really stuck,

  339. and they're really invested
    in their stuckness.
  340. We call them help-rejecting complainers.
  341. I'm sure you know people like this.
  342. They're the people who,
    when you try to offer them a suggestion,
  343. they reject it with, "Yeah, no,
    that will never work, because ..."
  344. "Yeah, no, that's impossible,
    because I can't do that."
  345. "Yeah, I really want more friends,
    but people are just so annoying."
  346. (Laughter)

  347. What they're really rejecting

  348. is an edit to their story
    of misery and stuckness.
  349. And so, with these people,
    I usually take a different approach.
  350. And what I do is I say something else.
  351. I say to them,
  352. "We're all going to die."
  353. I bet you're really glad
    I'm not your therapist right now.
  354. Because they look back at me
  355. the way you're looking back
    at me right now,
  356. with this look of utter confusion.
  357. But then I explain that there's a story
  358. that gets written
    about all of us, eventually.
  359. It's called an obituary.
  360. And I say that instead of being
    authors of our own unhappiness,
  361. we get to shape these stories
    while we're still alive.
  362. We get to be the hero
    and not the victim in our stories,
  363. we get to choose what goes on the page
    that lives in our minds
  364. and shapes our realities.
  365. I tell them that life is about deciding
    which stories to listen to
  366. and which ones need an edit.
  367. And that it's worth the effort
    to go through a revision
  368. because there's nothing more important
    to the quality of our lives
  369. than the stories
    we tell ourselves about them.
  370. I say that when it comes
    to the stories of our lives,
  371. we should be aiming for our own
    personal Pulitzer Prize.
  372. Now, most of us aren't
    help-rejecting complainers,

  373. or at least we don't believe we are.
  374. But it's a role
    that is so easy to slip into
  375. when we feel anxious
    or angry or vulnerable.
  376. So the next time
    you're struggling with something,
  377. remember,
  378. we're all going to die.
  379. (Laughter)

  380. And then pull out your editing tools

  381. and ask yourself:
  382. what do I want my story to be?
  383. And then, go write your masterpiece.
  384. Thank you.

  385. (Applause)