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How to Take Control of Online Learning—Rewrite Your Negative Story


“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”-Frank Herbert

When I teach online, it’s not uncommon for me to meet students who appear to lack self-confidence. At the beginning of a new term, I make phone calls to personally welcome students to the course. During those calls, I’ll usually speak to a handful of students who openly share how horrible they are at taking online classes. They describe themselves as not being good enough to get an “A” in my course—they just want to get a passing grade. I typically ask them how horrible they could be if they made it to my class. 🤔

These students have usually created stories about themselves based on bad experiences. The storylines are typically negative and portray them as not having control over how their stories end. They seem to think that they are doomed to repeat their negative stories because it’s always been that way.

My students don’t realize that they write the stories they live out. Most importantly, they forget that they have the power to change their stories. They don’t fully appreciate the insidious nature of negative storytelling and its potential to hold you back in many aspects of your life, especially in online learning. Negative storytelling renders online students helpless and forces them to relinquish their power to create different outcomes. To regain that power, we need to go deeper into the complexities of negative storytelling.

In this post, I’m going to explain how telling a negative story—to others or yourself—about what you cannot achieve doesn’t produce the results you want. I’ll also explain why negative storytelling is so damaging to students who want their online classes DONE! Finally, I’ll tell you about my TAME YOUR BRAIN 🧠technique that helps you rewrite your story so you can create the thoughts, feelings, and actions that get your online classes DONE! ✔️


What is negative storytelling?

Negative storytelling begins with negative self-talk. I talk a lot about this concept because it’s something I have to correct myself on daily. Negative self-talk is hateful, mean, and defeating and targets some aspect of our lives, like intelligence, physical appearances, or aptitude. Yes, folks. Negative self-talk is one of the Mean Girls—rude and downright nasty at times. 👿

Let me point out here something that’s really important to underscore before we get too far along in our discussion. The way I’m describing negative storytelling here is not intended to minimize the horrific things that people experience. I’m not talking about traumatic situations that shape one’s personality or how we respond to certain emotional triggers. I’m talking about how negative self-talk accumulates and morphs into the sad story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, which slowly eats away at self-confidence. Negative self-talk is also a major threat to goal attainment, so we have to become experts at identifying and changing it.

If you want to learn more about how to identify negative self-talk, read my post The Shocking Reason Why Self-Judgment Derails Online Learning. You’ll learn more about the signs of negative self-talk, my personal story, and how I helped one of my online students overcome the self-judgment issues that were holding her back.

Why is negative storytelling so alluring and harmful to online learning?


Here’s the crazy thing about negative storytelling: We get so comfortable telling these horrible stories to ourselves that we openly share them with other people. Doesn’t this sound crazy? I’m mean completely cray. 🤪 Now, here’s where it gets absolutely bonkers—WE DO IT ALL THE TIME! Myself included.

Why do we engage in this type of behavior if it doesn’t serve us well? I think negative storytelling serves a purpose that we often overlook when we get so wrapped up in these stories.

First, holding onto a negative story is comforting to a certain extent. When we have to face a challenge like learning how to do something for the first time and we’re scared as hell, having a negative story about why we won’t succeed comes in handy. It protects the brain from working to learn something new, which the brain doesn’t like to do. Our brains want to continue doing the same things because they don’t like spending the energy required to do something awesome like learning new skills. You can thank biology and evolution for that “gift.”

Second, rolling out our negative stories is a great defense against being accountable to ourselves. Telling your negative story lets you off the hook for going through the strain and the pain of the learning curve. Our stories are, at their very cores, excuses for accepting the status quo. Negative stories protect us from the messy and uncomfortable process of learning how to do something for the first time. That’s pretty convenient, right?

The truth is that if we continue to hold onto our negative stories from the past, our growth stagnates. I’m sure you can think of a few negative stories you’re telling yourself that prevent you from getting something you really want. Over time, we just keep adding to the plot of an existing negative story or creating a new one altogether. That feeds the negative storytelling production cycle.

What makes negative storytelling so harmful to online learning? Negative storytelling limits your progress by making avoiding new learning challenges comfortable, and until you rewrite the story, you can’t grow. Negative storytelling keeps you stuck, and stuck is the last place you want to be when you’re trying to graduate on time. 🎓Letting go of your negative stories and pushing yourself to get out of your comfort zone helps you build the confidence you need to get your online courses DONE! ✔️

So, how do we rewrite our negative stories?


Rewrite your negative story

I have a TAME YOUR BRAIN 🧠technique that will help you take control of your story so you can create the thoughts and feelings that help you put the actions in place that get your online classes DONE! My techniques involve rewinding and analyzing your story, editing the script, and adding a few experiences that highlight your relationship to success. I want you to write this exercise down on paper, don’t try to do it in your head.

Let’s go through the process in detail.

Step 1: Rewind the story ⏪

The first step in the process is to unpack your negative storytelling through reflection. When was the last time you told someone a negative story about yourself? Once you remember, answer these questions:

*What did the story sound like? Was it upbeat? Happy? Sad? Depressing?

*What were the circumstances that caused you to tell your story (e.g. work, school, personal)?

*To whom did you tell your story? Why did you share your story with the person you chose? What role did you play in the story (e.g., the victim, the powerless student, the fearful teammate, the scorned lover, the maligned colleague)?

Once you’ve answered these questions, reflect on how you felt after telling your story. What thoughts and feelings did you experience after telling your story to someone else? Was your performance Oscar-worthy, or did it go directly to streaming?

Then, ask yourself how telling your negative story helps improve your situation. If the answer sounds something like, “I don’t know” or “This story is not working for me,” that’s a clear sign that the role you play in your negative story is holding you back from the outcomes you want.

Now, stop the tape. It’s time to pull out the script to your story and do some MAJOR rewrites!

Step 2: Change the script ✍️

Now that you have a better understanding of how all of the pieces of the story fit together, change it by rewriting the storyline. That’s right: I want you to do a complete overhaul of the script and cast yourself in a different role.

Use the same context you described in the previous step, but this time, write yourself into the role of the explorer. Think about Indiana Jones here. Instead of being the victim, write the same story starring you as the fearless explorer on a mission to collect knowledge and information to reach your goal.

Let’s say that your negative story is about how other people are better than you at a particular skill. In this story, you list all your experiences that end the same way—with you not achieving your goal. As the explorer in this story, take on the role of searching for new ways to improve that skill.

While you continue your search, you’ll likely identify something else you could improve along the way. Maybe you want to improve your notetaking skills so you can study faster. Your first adventure may be to discover where you’re losing time in your notetaking process. Maybe you overread your materials and need to learn a better technique. But what technique will work best for you? Bam! 💥 Next adventure on deck. Let’s go!

Step 3: Include flashbacks and flashforwards ✨

As you continue stepping into the new role you’re playing in your story, I want you to write in a couple of flashbacks and flashforwards into the script. In your flashbacks, reflect on times in the past when you were successful. Using this mental visualization will remind you that at one time there was something that you had to learn for the first time. As you practiced this new skill, you improved. Eventually, that skill became effortless. This flashback should remind you that you’re good at some things and that you have the capacity to be good at something new you learn.

You can transform the flashback into another motivational tool, the flashforward. Your flashforward scene in the movie must project you into a future where you claim your treasure. In this scene, maybe you’re faster at notetaking! Imagine what your life will be like once you’ve mastered the skill you want to improve. Transporting your imagination to the future in this way helps you stay focused when things get bumpy in the learning process. Writing your success into the storyline encourages you to commit to continuing to explore until you win your prize. 🏆

What's Next?

Practice this exercise the next time you fall into negative storytelling. Rewind your story so you can gain more insight into the details. Recast the story by putting yourself in the role of a bounty-hungry explorer. Instead of playing the role of the victim, cast yourself in an action-oriented role where you encounter new things that take you from one adventure to the next. Finally, don’t forget to add in two or three flashbacks and flashforwards. Having some visual representation of your past and future successes should get your juices flowing when your treasures elude you. Get creative!

Join Me on Facebook!

Did you know Office Hours has a Facebook page? Yes, you have to check it out. I post weekly videos about my TAME YOUR BRAIN 🧠strategies along with other tips to help you succeed in your online classes. You don’t want to miss out on what I’m sharing because it can help you master the online learning process.

You won’t find my techniques anywhere else because I created them based on my experience teaching and taking online classes, and I crafted them for busy students just like you. 👉🏽 Like the page and join our community of online learners.

That’s all for now, BRAIN TAMERS! 🧠 I’ll see you next time during my Office Hours!


Photo: Neel-Unsplit

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