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Check Your Story
How the stories we tell ourselves determine the lives we live.
I’ve been fascinated with stories since I remember myself remembering things. I read stories and loved storytellers. I listened and imagined what it must be to one character or another. I saw the world through many eyes. As the world grows more complex and our lives intertwine, I felt compelled to write this piece. I hope it will inspire at least a few people to take a closer look at their own stories.
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Without further ado, a complex and vast topic in 1300 words…
Life experiences become memories. Memories turn into stories; some of them are even true. Stories shape our experience of reality and foreshadow the future. They influence our choices, behavior, priorities, goals, and understanding of everything, shape our identity, character, and purpose. Sometimes they keep us up at night, guessing and doubting. Other times, give us hope and strength, make us smile, connect, fall in love. Some stories inspire, embolden, and motivate us. Others keep us trapped and depressed.
The truth doesn’t always matter, but the story always does. The meaning we derive from the story becomes the organizing principle of how we perceive the world and ourselves and what we do next, or always.
A good story captivates and endures because it resonates. Stories bring real and imaginary worlds and characters to us through fairytales, news, plays, movies, discussions, books, travels, social media, and conversations with others. They shape us whether we agree or disagree, believe or not, assimilate, or discard them, whether we are aware of the change or not. They help us understand the past, who we are now, why, and who we could be in the future. They help us understand others, the why, what, when, and how of reality. But often, they paint the wrong picture in our minds.
If you are like me and wish to be honest with yourself, you will admit that you’ve had the experience of making the wrong assumption about a person you just met and then proceeded to treat them accordingly. Unfortunately, misjudging people or situations is as common as traffic violations. Misunderstandings happen even with people you’ve known for a while. The consequences - just as unpleasant as getting a ticket. But how could we be so wrong? And why? For the answer, please refer to the story of your life.
People growing up neglected and mistreated often question whether they are worthy of love and attention and act accordingly. They apologize a lot, even for things they didn’t do. They sit in the corner, making themselves small. They hide, doubt themselves, and often don’t take good care of themselves. At the same time, they feel needy, looking for someone to love them and help them. They could become “The Hermit,” “The Intellectual,” or “The Victim.” Sometimes, they become “The Bully,” “The Attention Seeker,” or “The Hater.”
If you lived through challenges as a child, forced to accepted responsibilities well beyond your age, you might be one of the people who tell themselves that you don’t need anyone. Your story of self-sufficiency and independence may prevent you from enjoying meaningful, mutually enriching relationships. You may easily discard partners and friends if you see them monopolizing your time and distracting you from your goals. You may value personal space and time more than togetherness. Possibly feel annoyed at those who show weakness, act needy or easily ask for favors.
Some feel abandoned by their parents, and others had ambivalent mothers and absent fathers. Some grew up with substance abuse and violence. We all come from somewhere and from some circumstances. One way or another, we try to make sense of what is happening to us and develop adaptations for survival. We stumble on strategies, and as long as we receive some benefit and relief, we repeat them until they become habitual and unconscious.
The strategies we develop depend on the story we tell ourselves of what’s happening to us, what works, and why, using the tools we have at our disposal. Usually, we emulate what’s familiar because it’s easily accessible, and we have proof that it works, even if we don’t like it. Sadly, not everyone is lucky enough to have great role models. Unfortunately, using bad strategies leads to bad outcomes. We don’t get what we really want or need. But we do amplify our stories and condition our inclinations. What we insist on persists! Sadly, these stories don’t always fit in the present. Often, distort it. Worse, they may be blocking the future.
By seeing the past everywhere, we miss the nuances of the moment and opportunities for creating a better future.
Eventually, we experience the cumulative consequences of these stories as unhappiness, discontent, anger, and depression. Yet, we are willing to accept the known and expected benefits and suffering of doing what we always do over undefined better possibilities and the potential struggle of change.
Do you use your story of what happened in the past to avoid and deflect responsibility for your actions? To get attention, help, and sympathy? To gain favors, establish belonging and affinity? To rationalize your behavior? To excuse your poor life and health choices? Have you been accused of any of these? If you feel the need to tell your story repeatedly, even to people who know you for a long time, you could be trapped in the story. It’s not to say that your story didn’t happen, or you don’t remember it correctly. You could be 100% on the dot and still be trapped in a narrative that limits your creativity and stifles your potential while consistently producing predictable outcomes you don’t like.
Ask yourself if and how your story serves you? The perspective we receive from others may be the very feedback we need to realize that our story has become a trap. Self-reflect, don’t double down and blame them for pointing it out. To others, it may be obvious how we sabotage ourselves. They can see what’s in our blind spot, how easily offended we become in specific situations, and when we repeat the same mistakes and conversations.
Stories interact with each other. Often, they attract and perpetuate each other. Think of co-dependent relationships. Each person’s story only works with the other’s when they fit the co-dependent dynamic. They need each other to perpetuate their individual stories. Your story of feeling uncomfortable in situations with others who express vulnerability and distress may lead you to shut down, feel guilty, or put the other person down. At the same time, the other person may feel unable to express themselves and resent you. Both of you find yourselves in familiar territory.
To paraphrase Maslow’s Law of Instruments, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Likewise, think of stories as hammers. Our cognitive bias is to over-rely on familiar tools. In the same way, we bend our understanding of life to the logic of our stories rather than re-write the story to fit reality.
The solution to old, outdated, and irrelevant stories is new, updated, and accurate ones. For that, we need to have new experiences. We must question our automatic responses, instantaneous judgments, and go-to narratives. We must be open to new information, fresh perspectives, other explanations, and uncomfortable experiences. We must hear feedback from others. We need new interpretations leading to new behavior and different choices. Or at least, we must revise and edit the old stories, as life presents us with such opportunities. This way, we have more than one tool in our toolbox. We become more versatile, resourceful, flexible, and comfortable in our own skin. We must remember that our old stories may not just hurt us. They hurt those around us, as we see them not for who they are but through the filters of our stories. They lead us to misunderstandings, misalignments, and mismatches.
Revising and editing may feel like a slow evolution, a gradual deviation from how things used to be. Or it could feel like writing a whole new chapter in life with new characters and a new plot. It could feel like an entire new Hero’s Journey to the abyss and back, emerging radically transformed. Rejecting the call to adventure is the first step on this journey. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t feel like working hard to feel better. Just don’t get stuck there. If you chose to accept the challenge, despite the difficulty of undoing the familiar, you will emerge on the other side wiser and better with a new story. That’s a promise.
New stories carry new meaning, necessitate new habits, contain new inspiration, motivation, and attitude, and guarantee new outcomes.
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