While we all have stories that are long recitations of our experiences, we also have supersonic stories, or narratives, that whip into our minds and start the story ball rolling; I call these snapshot stories. These are not always negative; they can also be positive: “I can do this,” “That was a nice person,” or “I love my life.” There are, however, snapshot stories that often needle at you and work to sabotage what you are working towards are those negative narratives; they get in the way of what you need to be doing.

Like a photograph’s negative, these snapshots are hard to see unless you hold them up to the light. It’s only when you begin to be aware of what you are saying to yourself, in the privacy of your head, that you can begin to challenge these short and quick stories. When you turn these snapshot stories inward, they often end up sounding like “I can’t handle this,” “I am a failure,” “I am a fraud,” “I am stupid,” “I don’t have any real friends,” “I am unlovable,” or “No one likes me.” And none of these snapshot stories are helpful to you, not even a little.

What’s Below the Waterline of Your Negative Narrative?

What is below the waterline that leads to negative narratives and where you need to explore your snapshot stories.

When you externalize these snapshot stories, they often lead to judgments, biases, defensiveness, or victimization. “You aren’t a nice person,” “You can’t handle this,” “That was a failure,” “You’re stupid,” “They’re idiots”—truly the list is long, and I could go on all day, writing little snippets of stories. What’s important, though, is to begin examining these snapshots, to make conscious the unconscious.

Several things may emerge from this examination. One is that these stories are the tip of the iceberg. A deeper story lies below the waterline, submerged just out of eyeshot, and by getting curious, you can begin to understand yourself better.

Another important insight from examining these snapshot stories may be that you begin to notice an imbalance toward the negative in these stories. You may notice those things that bother you. So if you are bothered by aspects of yourself, guess which things you’ll create negative stories about? For example, if I call someone else stupid, I am often telling myself how stupid I am… a lot more often. You may not use the word stupid with yourself; you might dance around the negative self-talk, with a whole host of other descriptions of your inability to function at the level you think you should be functioning.

The Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda’s

Which then leads to the story of “should.” In one of my first jobs out of graduate school, I was working with families. I remember talking with my supervisor about the SWCs —“shoulda, woulda, couldas”— those powerful words that leave us helpless because they are all about the past—that place we have no ability to change.

I make a point of getting curious with my clients when these words show up; what do these words mean in relationship to this situation? Circling the SWCs is about as helpful as a hammer in a china shop. Very little forward motion can happen, and often, a huge amount of judgment is attached to these unmet expectations. “You should have done…,” “I could have done…,” “If only I would have done….”

Have you ever tried to walk forward into a new room, while looking back over your shoulder? It’s probably not the most effective strategy, right? I think you get the picture here; these are classic snapshot stories, and they will leave you disempowered and spending more time focused on the past, on unrealized expectations, and fighting with the reality of the here and now, rather than on the vision you are working on moving toward in your life.

To Illustrate

To illustrate how snapshot stories, ride below the surface of our minds; I was working with a client named Mallory. She was a lovely twenty-nine-year-old woman with a Master’s degree in Psychology. For all intents and purposes, she looked like someone who was moving forward in her life; she seemed like someone with options.

When we started working together, I asked her, “What brings you to my office?” Mallory began to tell me how she still lived with her grandma. She was working at a little dress shop in the mall, and she didn’t have the confidence to get a “real” job. She was scared, anxious, and most of all, depressed.

Mallory had snapshot stories about how her parents were critical and frustrated with her because she had a great education and they felt she was wasting it at the dress shop; she felt a lot of judgment for not getting on with her life. As part of our work together, I asked her what she was saying to herself. Her response was classic, “I’m not saying anything to myself. I want to move on; I am just not able to. I don’t know why; I think I’m broken.” She then rattled off all her diagnoses. And, there it was, the underlying snapshot story, “I’m just not able to because I am broken.”

After Mallory and I talked about the idea of snapshot stories, I asked her whether she would be willing to play with me around this idea of noticing her internal dialogue. She agreed, so before our next appointment, Mallory agreed to write down all these little thoughts that were her snapshot stories. Two weeks later, a very different person came into my office.

Now That’s an Insight

Mallory sat down and handed me her journal; it was almost full. Then Mallory looked at me, and with all seriousness, said, “If I heard someone speaking this way to another person, I would call it emotional abuse.” Ding, ding, ding! Now that’s an insight. This insight didn’t change such a long-standing habit overnight, but it was the step that led to her taking charge of her life, and it knocked out about 85 percent of her anxiety, depression, and fear.

Over the next six months, Mallory created new habits about how she could talk to herself. One recommendation I gave her was to stick Post-it notes up on her bathroom mirror, saying all the things she knew to be true about herself: “I can try,” “I’m allowed to make mistakes,” “I’m allowed to fail and learn from it,” “I am capable,” “I have gifts to share with others,” “My ability to work through my depression and anxiety will help other people,” and “I can learn to trust myself.” You get the point. She had some work to do, but I am happy to say she had a clear goal of where she was going, and she worked to get there.

Putting It Together

In order to tame your snapshot stories, you will need to consider what works for you to develop awareness. Here are five ideas to support the process of StoryJacking.

  1. A recognition that you are ready to challenge these stories.
  2. Decide to be curious when you notice those little digs your inner critic lobs at you.
  3. Challenge the stories with a more balanced truth.
  4. Give yourself compassion and grace as you navigate to a more useful story.
  5. And, remember that change takes attention and time. New neural networks take practice.

You might also take a look at this post, 8 Questions to End Your Suffering. It might give you a few more ideas.

Moving Forward

Taming your snapshot stories is where your power is in your life. While we cannot control the outside world, we certainly have the ability to tame the monsters that show up in our minds. By being curious and courageous, you can slay these stories and influence how you will move forward in your life.

Your Turn...

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!

  • What, inside of you, would be important to inquire more deeply into now?

  • Is the story you are telling yourself helping or hurting your ability to reach your goal?


Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC is a Leadership Confidence and Whole Life Coach, and the author of StoryJacking: Change Your Inner Dialogue, Transform Your Life, the Reflective Coach, and Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors. Lyssa works with confidence challenged high achievers who are ready to rewrite the internal narratives that slow them down. Her clients include executives, senior leadership, and managers at organizations such as Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, the US Military, as well as with creative writers, actors, and artists.

What fires her up is working with smart people to trust their brilliance and develop the courage and confidence to believe in themselves and the work that is their purpose. If you are interested in meeting to see if you could benefit from working together, let's have a coffee and a chat.

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