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Why You Have to Question the Stories You Tell Yourself

A Personal Perspective: Questioning your personal narratives about who you are.

Key points

  • Your circumstances shape the stories you tell, but the stories you tell also shape your life. It's critical to separate fact from fiction.
  • Questioning your stories, no less editing them, is likely to rock your world. But if the call is to grow, consider these growing pains.
  • Your stories don't replay themselves to torment you, but to give you chances to grow beyond them.
Source: Unsplash

Two years ago, hungry for change, I moved from Asheville, NC (where I'd lived for 16 years) to Santa Cruz, CA, the consideration of which was complicated by a singular fact: my twin brother lives there.

Moving to “his” town would not only run afoul of our long-standing policy that there ain’t no town big enough for the two of us—we need our own turf—but would surely stir the ghost of our mother, who instilled that taboo in us with her insistence, from the day we were born, that we would have independent identities. No Ron and Don stuff. We had separate bedrooms, were placed in separate classes in school, had to take up different instruments, different hobbies, go to different summer camps, even different bus-stops.

When I first told Ross of my interest in moving to Santa Cruz, and expressed concern about violating this lifelong taboo, he shrugged it off. “Fifteen years ago I would have agreed, but I'm over it.”

Then one day, during a monthlong experiment in “dating” Santa Cruz, I went into the grocery store around the corner from his house, and the cashier asked if I wanted a receipt. When I said yes, she cocked her head. “Really? You never want a receipt.”

“Ah, well, I'm not who you think I am,” I said reflexively, familiar with this interaction from years of visiting Ross. “I'm his twin brother, and no I'm not pulling your leg, and I'm the twin who always wants a receipt.”

Later that same day, Ross went into the same grocery store, stood in the same checkout line, and the same cashier said, “I saw your other half today,” not realizing how loaded such a remark is for a twin.

That night he had the first of a number of nightmares about the prospect of me moving to Santa Cruz. Dreams of avalanches, mudslides, and a T-Rex tearing up the town. Turns out he wasn't over it. (Nor was I.) Not surprising. The prohibition against living in the same town was among the longest-standing stories of our life, and wasn't going to be edited out without backlash.

The fact is, we all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how it is—what can and can't be done, what we're capable of, why we succeed or fail, what we can expect from life. We're storytelling animals, and we create stories to help us make sense of life, figure things out, and give us a framework for our decisions.

But those stories can turn on us—especially the negative ones—and become self-limiting when they come up against life's singular agenda: Grow. And especially when they become what theologian Henri Nouwen called lies of identity—I am what I do, I am what I have, I am what others think of me.

Our stories can end up force-fitting us into self-fulfilling prophecies and crappy self-talk bound by a chain of cause and effect that we make up, and it's critical to separate fact from fiction, because stories become opinions become beliefs become behaviors. “My parents divorced when I was nine,” might be a fact, but “It's my fault” is a fiction. “My father was critical and emotionally absent” might be a true story, but “I'm unworthy of love” is a false one. “There ain't no town big enough for the two of us” may have once been true, but no longer is.

Our circumstances may shape the stories we tell, but the stories we tell also shape our lives. We don't just tell stories; they tell us. They tell us who we think we are. If you continually tell a story about yourself as a victim, for instance, each telling rubs it in a little more deeply, and you end up living inside an echo chamber. To say nothing of whatever you believe is “the story of my life,” a phrase that's usually uttered in exasperation—a declaration of pessimism.

Something called the halo effect also tells us that once you form an opinion about someone (including yourself), you're prone to judge other aspects of that person's character—positive or negative—in light of your initial belief, looking for evidence that bolsters the opinion you already have. We like consistency too much for our own good, and it often works against us. Like any story, it's a narrowing down, a part of the whole. It doesn't reflect the totality of who you are. It's too small for you.

To say nothing of broader cultural narratives, such as “Go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, retire.” This storyline might give some folks a template to follow in crafting a life, but can also punish anyone who deviates from it, or create unrealistic expectations around pursuit of the American Dream.

But confronting our narratives may well trigger avalanches and mudslides. Hauling your stories in for questioning, no less acting in direct opposition to them, is likely to rock your world, if not other people's. But if the call is to grow, these are growing pains, and ultimately a good thing.

I've made a regrettable number of life and business decisions that started and ended with the statement, “I can't afford it,” which grinds into my subconscious a message of self-imposed limitation. It’s an abdication of my desires, a surrendering of my power to outside influences like money and time, the emotional equivalent of a rap on the knuckles at the cookie jar. What's more accurate is “I won't afford it,” which adds the critical elements of choice and power. “I'd prefer to spend my money on car repairs than a new computer.”

This isn't just about changing personal patterns, but historical ones. I'm trying to reevaluate messages that often got handed down blindly from generation to generation, hoping to pass along the favorable ones and leave the dysfunctional ones for the fossil record. The entire Protestant work ethic, for instance, has glorified for hundreds of years the story that poverty is punishment for idleness and incompetence, but self-denying work and material wealth put you in line to receive the key to the cosmic washroom. Needless to say, this bears reconsideration. Protestant, after all, means one who protests.

Anytime you catch yourself having a strong reaction to anything or anyone—knee-jerk anger, sudden defensiveness, “irrational” fear—it's usually the result of some story that's hypnotized you, become so internalized and unconscious you don't even see it anymore. Someone's casual remark reminds you of something your father used to say to you, and you're off to the races. You no longer see life as it is, but as it was. And you're stuck in a story that will keep repeating itself until you rewrite the ending. Or better yet, as psychologist Jean Houston suggests, retell the story of your life with the wound as the middle of the story, not the end.

Either way, this isn't about dwelling on the past, but acknowledging how alive it still is in your life. It’s hard to stay in the present, or work to fashion a viable future, when the past is constantly roaring by with its sirens blaring.

Nor are our stories necessarily rooted in the past. We're always making up stories and theories about what we think is going on around us—what someone is thinking, what a friend meant by a comment, what a news story portends about the direction the world is headed, what a symptom means, what a failure says about us—and then we jump to conclusions. We all get the story wrong sometimes.

The stories don't keep replaying themselves to torment us, though, but to give us yet another chance to clean our caches, as they say in cyberspeak. The soul’s agenda is healing, not punishment. But it’s hard human work. “Habit is habit,” Mark Twain said. "It’s not meant to be thrown out the window. It’s meant to be coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”

Psychologist Dan McAdams says you should interrogate yourself about the stories you tell, and not continue to let them have their way with you. Start by watching your language. Tune in to how you talk to yourself—what tone of voice you use, what you tell yourself, how you'd feel if someone else said the kinds of things to you that you say to yourself. (You might even type a few of them up and let a friend read them to you, see how it feels to hear it from someone else.) In learning to catch your stories in the act, practices like mindfulness meditation or journaling can interrupt their regular commute, detaching you from them just long enough to see them from a healthier distance.

Until the core perceptions at the heart of your stories are confronted, the behavior that grows out of them won't change. You think you're acting, but you're really reacting. You think you're making sober and conscious decisions, but you're living under the influence.

And don't believe everything you think. Ask yourself if a particular story is true, and how true? Even a shred of contrary evidence—a minor exception, a small crack in the story, another way it could be told, from another point-of-view—might be enough to create that all-important shadow of a doubt that can help you question the veracity of the story, and allow you to step beyond the boundaries you've set for yourself. The story is a box, and when you identify with it to the point of trance, you're inside the box. When you stop identifying with it, you're outside the box.

But start small. Tackle “I can't cook” before taking on “I'm not worthy of love.” And here's the hard part: let yourself feel what you feel when you hear the stories you tell yourself. The way out is through.

The point isn't to manufacture happy endings, though, but to emphasize the positive. People who tell stories about challenging events, says McAdams, but with a redemptive twist—something they learned, some meaning they wrested from it—tend to experience greater wellbeing than people who focus solely on the negative. When I lost my job at a newspaper early in my career, I initially put it squarely in the “failure” department, but eventually realized that it gave me precisely the motivation I needed to subsequently follow the call to become a freelance writer. The sense of agency, of control over your life—and the stories you tell about it—is equated with greater mental health.

Remember, you're not just the protagonist of your stories. You're the narrator. You're in charge of the stories.

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