• Many of us have firm ideas about who we are and what we can and can't do

  • These beliefs may feel more like facts, and are known as restricting narratives, explains therapist Emily Hilton

  • If you feel stuck in your ideas about who you are and want to change, working with a therapist or counsellor can help – find yours here 

One of the hallmarks of my lockdown experience has been picking up old hobbies, which had previously fallen victim to the travails of London life. However, there was one hobby that I was particularly reticent to return to, despite encouragement from several sources: cycling.

Growing up in Bristol, I spent many of my younger years cycling, taking full advantage of the dedicated routes around the city. As I got older, there were fewer trips along the Bristol to Bath cycle path, and eventually several years passed with no cycling. Fast forward to almost a decade later, and my next cycling experience – unfortunately, this ended acrimoniously in an encounter with a Parisian lamp-post. That, I felt, was enough to put me off cycling. I was not someone who was gifted with a cycling ability, I told myself: I can’t do that.

Until lockdown. As the London streets began to clear of motorised vehicles, fleets of bikes sprang up to take their places. As I enviously watched my fellow Londoners scooting about, enjoying sunny cycles galore, I remembered that lamp-post, and its very clear verdict on my cycling skills: it’s not for me, I’m not cut out for cycling, I can’t do that.

Well, reader: eventually, I cracked. After negotiating the online brawl that buying a bike during lockdown turned out to be, I became the proud owner of a new bike (complete with memory-foam saddle, which I found an eye-catching feature). Getting onto that bike for the first time was very scary indeed. At the first sign of trouble, I felt my heart pounding, my hands sweating, and that voice back in my ear: this isn’t for you, you’re not cut out for cycling, you can’t do this.

I managed to cycle once (far from any lamp-posts), and I didn’t fall off. So I tried again, and again, and I came to realise that actually, I am very capable of cycling. With that realisation, my thoughts turned to therapy, and to how my experience with this bike mirrors a particular part of the work I often do with my clients.

What are restricting narratives?

Just as I had this idea about myself as being inherently incapable of cycling, we all hold what I describe as ‘restricting narratives’ about ourselves, resulting from past experiences. Restricting narratives come about when an event that we see as significant occurs (e.g.: having an accident on my bike). To try to make sense of the event, we infer something about ourselves from it, and this becomes the restricting narrative (e.g.: this accident happened because I’m not able to ride a bike well enough). Often, the significant experience is (emotionally or physically) painful enough to prevent us from intentionally re-living it, so we gather little or no evidence to the contrary to dispel the restricting narrative: eventually, it begins to feel like a fact, not a belief.

As these beliefs solidify further, we may come to think that they illustrate innate, unchangeable parts of our character: ‘I’m not someone who has a lot of feelings’; ‘I can’t trust other people’; ‘I don’t have any willpower’; ‘I take care of everyone else, I don’t ask for help’. Once we start to examine them in more detail, we often see that – like my feelings about my biking ability –  some of what we think of as personality traits are actually ways in which we hold ourselves back, as a reaction to events from our past. We might even find that we started to believe these things about ourselves to try to protect ourselves from repeating painful experiences: if I believe I’m a bad cyclist, I’m not likely to put myself at risk of having another biking accident. However, I’m also going to miss out on cycling for the rest of my life. Often, we don’t ask ourselves the question: if this belief actually isn’t true, or if I’m protecting myself from something I don’t need protecting from - what am I missing out on?

3 steps to tackle restricting narratives

1. Notice the restricting narrative

It can often be challenging to spot one of these narratives, because they can feel more like fact than belief. Therefore, just observing that we’re thinking about ourselves in this particular way is the first step: you can’t do anything to change something if you can’t see that it’s there.

2. Interrogate the narrative

Having spotted the thought, we can start to examine it properly, and to see whether it holds up to scrutiny. Does it really follow that because I had one accident, on one bike, almost ten years after I’d last cycled, that I’m incapable of cycling? What about all those other years of cycling successfully – are they evidence to the contrary? Even if it were true that I’m not a good cyclist, is that something unchangeable about myself? Or would I perhaps be able to learn to improve, and to build up my cycling skill-set? These sort of questions help us really dig into the narrative, and to demonstrate that it isn’t an irrefutable ‘fact’ after all.

3. Collect evidence that disproves the narrative

Having theoretically poked holes in the restricting narrative, the next step is to properly test out our new narrative. As aforementioned, these restricting narratives are often in place to try to protect us from something, so to challenge them can be scary – but once we’re able to screw our courage up and try breaking out, we can also often find that, actually, we no longer need to protect ourselves from the thing that we’d feared so much in the first place. Just as I managed to cycle without sustaining any injury, someone who is able to push against their belief that ‘I can’t talk about my feelings because they burden others’ finds that actually, people can respond well to their emotions; that people won’t reject them for opening up. Opening up becomes less scary.

Writing those three steps out perhaps makes them look like simple measures to enact, and sometimes they can be. Other times, these restricting narratives can present in slightly different ways across a few different areas of our life, and take more time to truly topple. If we are able to achieve that toppling, though, it can bring a real sense of freedom, achievement, and a revelling in the possibility of living a life that fits us better. Just like riding a bike.

Emily Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London and online