The Brink of Chaos

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves

by on Jun.10, 2013, under Storytelling

Another summer day..So this guy walks toward a bar and he steps over a curb that was 6-inches high, or maybe it was 7-inches, 6 and a half?, anyway, there was an empty can of Coke next to his foot, no wait it was Sprite, er 7-up…

This is not a story we want to hear.  Good stories only tell us the details we need and leave out the detritus that distracts us. Every good story-teller cuts out many details that just don’t matter.  Some were not cut until the last-minute which is why we find deleted scenes on the DVD. They aren’t deleted because they aren’t good or funny, but rather because they don’t support the purpose of the story.

All of us tell stories even if we don’t think of ourselves as storytellers.  We tell stories about how we got sick or why the person in front of us cut us off.  Moreover, if we listen to our conversations with others, we’ll hear ourselves relating mostly stories. Stories weave our lives together and give us a means to understand our experience. But our story telling doesn’t stop with others, we also tell ourselves stories about our own lives.  How did we get here? What has our life been like? And just like any good storyteller, our narrative is defined by what we cut.

So what scenes do you cut in the narrative of your life?

If we are feeling lucky and successful, we’ll remember the things that went right and how we discovered fortune.  If we are feeling unlucky, we remember all the missed opportunities or things that didn’t go our way. All of our lives have examples of every type of plot element we might want to use.

Our brains search for confirming evidence – which is why our emotions change our narrative.  It’s also why fortune cookies sometimes seem eerily accurate.  We can all find confirming evidence for things because there is so much that seems irrelevant. If it fits, it’s important.  If it doesn’t, it was just noise. This all happens unconsciously but it affects the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Yet the stories we tell are not the only plot that can be weaved. So here’s a thought-experiment: take a negative narrative that you tell about yourselves or someone else and see if you can come up with a narrative that inverts the conclusion.  Cut the stuff you normally remember and stress the stuff that you normally ignore.

Life is far more complex than our narratives suggest.

Photo Credit: Fatma .M


2 Comments for this entry

  • Paula Zanatta

    I read this blog several months ago and it made me very curious. I started looking internal to see what stories I tell myself about myself and others. It started out as a small exercise for which I recruited my husband to help me. We began trying to tell ourselves different stories about the driver who despite there being no room between you and the car in front decides there is and cuts you off. We came up with a bunch of stories about the driver’s wife in labor, they didn’t see us, they had 10 minutes to validate the winning lottery ticket they just found in the pocket of a suit they wore last year, etc.

    At first it was a fun game, but over time, we have applied it to every area of our lives. When someone shows up late for a meeting, doesn’t do what they said they would, when the kids don’t answer your text message, etc., it is so easy to tell yourself stories about disrespect, thoughtlessness, etc. It is amazing how quickly we develop and make these stories fact. It is a bit scary too.

    However, rewriting the stories has been an incredibly wonderful experience. I feel less stressed and much more calm every day. If we slip up and tell ourselves a story as fact, we are quick to point it out to each other. We even catch ourselves saying “I’m telling myself a story again!” Now I shout “go get that winning lottery ticket” to the driver that cuts us off on our commutes.

    I am so grateful for this blog and the profound impact it has had on mine and my husband’s life. I shared the link with my friends and co-workers and it is inspiring others as well. Thank you!

  • Matthew

    Thank you for the very kind feedback. I’ve had a very similar experience doing the same thing and glad it was helpful for you too.

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