The stories we tell ourselves may seem like a fairly harmless and insignificant part of our lives but they are actually the underlying mechanism running the whole show. We all see things through our own unique lens based on our experiences, our genetics and a multitude of other things that eventually end up as the stories that we tell ourselves.
It makes quite a bit of sense when you think about it. The world is a vastly complex place with so many layers of things going on from our own complicated personalities, dealing with the personalities of other people, the global market, politics and policies… Almost any concept you can think of has so many things at play at one time that in order for us to keep our sanity, we compile it all into a nice, comprehensible story. A story that we aren’t even aware of most of the time.
Some stories that we might share
These stories are in every part of our lives and often govern the way we think about and react to certain situations.
Have you ever had an argument with someone and then thought of 5 fantastic comebacks in the shower later on? It’s good fun but it’s a story of a past experience that you are replaying (maybe not even accurately, depending on the timeframe) and then imagining how the story would have played out if you had told them that they should brush their teeth more often.
Or have you ever had a presentation or had to do something in front of an audience? It can be extremely nerve-wracking when you tell yourself the story that everyone is focused on you and would start to laugh if you began to mess up. When in reality, the most likely scenario is that the audience actually want to listen to what you have to say and so actually don’t want you to fail – as crazy and far-fetched as that may sound.
Or have you ever got back from a day out with friends to realise you had a piece of food stuck between your teeth? The horror! You looked like a fool all day and then you start to falsely re-imagine all of the weird faces that people were pulling when they looked at you. That’s one version of the story that you might tell and that I have told many times before. When the real story is probably that people either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Becoming aware of your stories
In the stories above that have happened to me, as the story is playing out it is very difficult to realise that it is just a story. Just like the rest of our experiences, it feels very real. On reflection though, we can usually see how unrealistic a story is or that it came from a rogue source like from our grandparent’s friend when we were younger or that it is just there playing a role that it shouldn’t really play.
Becoming aware that you tell yourself stories and that other people do too, is a big step to not only understanding and having sympathy for yourself, but also for understanding your best friends and the people you disagree with the most.
Getting hooked on a particular story is a favourite human habit. It is the hardest thing to break away from a narrative that you have known and lived by your whole life. Maybe a particularly harrowing story from when you were young, or something that you have told yourself for years and you can’t even remember why. As with the other stories, they don’t even tend to be true. A way to try and bring a sense of reality to the situation is by saying ‘The story I am telling myself is…’ and then filling in the blank. You can follow it up by asking three important questions:
Can I be absolutely certain that this story is true?
How do I feel or behave when I tell this story?
What might a different reason or end to the story be that could be true?
So for example: ‘The story I am telling myself is that my friend doesn’t like me because they haven’t replied to my message even though it’s been two hours.’ I can’t be absolutely certain that that story is true. It makes me feel awful about myself and my crumbling friendship. A different reason might be that the person actually does still like me and that they are just busy.
So it’s easy to conclude that it’s a ridiculous story to tell myself.
With these you can perform an often needed reality check and detach from the stories. Remember that they are just that, stories. And you can change their narratives any time you like.
Everyone has their own narratives
Everyone has their own way of seeing the world and as a result, everyone has their own set of values that they derive from that and the stories they tell themselves. Mark Manson puts it quite nicely in one of his posts:
I once knew a guy who made a lot of money. He saw the world as a series of value propositions. Everything from what holiday vacation to take, to which beer to choose at a restaurant, to why certain people liked him or not.
If someone was rude to him it was because they were jealous or felt threatened by his power or success. If someone was kind to him it was because they admired his power and success, and in some cases, may be trying to manipulate him to get more access to it.
He measured himself through his financial success. And naturally he measured the world and the people around him through financial success.
I once knew a woman who was beautiful. She saw the world in terms of attraction and attention. Everything from job interviews to getting discounts at restaurants to dealing with a nagging mother.
If someone was rude to her it was because they were intimidated by her beauty or their own lack of beauty. If someone was kind to her it was because they admired her beauty and wanted access to it.
She measured herself through her beauty and attractiveness. And naturally she measured the world and people in it by their beauty and attractiveness.
I once knew a guy who was a loser. He was socially awkward and nobody liked him. He saw the world as a popularity contest, a contest that he was perpetually losing. Everything from how much he earned at work, to the poor service he got at restaurants, to the people who didn’t laugh at his jokes.
If someone was rude to him it was because they realized how much cooler they were than him. If someone was kind to him it was because they saw how much of a loser he was and took pity on him. Or perhaps they were just bigger losers than he was.
He measured himself through his social status. And naturally he measured the world and the people in it through social status.
It’s important to look at ourselves every now and then and try to work out what our specific lens is and how it is affecting our lives, and possibly how it is being projected on to the lives of others. It is also worthwhile realising that different people value different things for different reasons. Most aren’t any better or worse than the others.
Not everyone values family relationships as much (or as little) as you do. Not everyone values going out and partying as a key part of their week. Not everyone values their life by how much they have travelled or experienced as you might do. Some people, like me, value produtivity and output very highly, whereas others might not. Where you place high value, others will place low and vice versa. And that’s okay.
Be aware of your own stories and make them work for you. And remember that everyone has their own desires, problems and unique narrative that they use to navigate their own lives too.
Honouring everyone, including ourselves, Dan, is my take away from this well written essay. A very good reminder!
Absolutely, Carolyn! Remembering that everyone is the main character in their own story is both necessary and humbling!