Are We The Stories We Tell Ourselves and Why It Matters
In a way, we are all secret story tellers. We are hard-wired to try to understand the world around us. From as young as 3, when our egos begin to develop, we try to understand what is happening, and why it is happening, so that we can control our world. To that end, we create stories – narratives about who we are, why certain things have happened to us, and what we’ve done to create the situations we find ourselves in.
The stories we tell about ourselves, and the words we use to describe ourselves, are critical in determining how we feel about ourselves in the world.
But where do these stories come from?
Sometimes, we make them up out of whole cloth. But more often, we’ve unconsciously learned how to see ourselves from the answers we get from parents, from teachers, from bosses, from classmates. We learn these stories when we are young, and then we internalize them and they become the truths around which we arrange and explain our lives. But these stories are not necessarily true. They are not necessarily the real story, or the whole story. They are often conclusions and beliefs we accepted when we were too young to use our critical abilities to question them. And so, insidiously, they become the lenses through which we see reality. And gradually, our answer to the question of why we are not able to achieve our goals may become, unconsciously, “The Problem is Me.”
Here’s an example from my practice. Chloe was ignored as an infant by both her parents, and she was finally abandoned at age 4 and put in foster care. Relatives explained to her it was because she had cried too much and was too needy. So the story she began to tell herself about herself is that she was bad – too demanding and too needy; and therefore, ultimately, unlovable. Her life was filled with despair and hopelessness. These stories were offered to Chloe when she was too young to have insight and to analyze what she was being told.
While in therapy, Chloe became convinced that she needed to meet as an adult the mother who had abandoned her. She was able to locate her, and learned that her mother had been divorced three times, and was now living with her son, a dysfunctional adult. She’d had another two children, with neither of whom she remained in contact. Chloe was suddenly able to see that the problem was not hers. Instead, the shortcoming was in her mother’s ability to nurture. Gradually, Chloe began making better choices in her life. She no longer gravitated toward abusive men, or friends who did not have her wellbeing at heart. Chloe is now happily married, living in Manhattan, with a flourishing business.
Are you telling yourself stories that are not true and that are poisoning your life and dimishing your hopes? Here’s a quick test to give yourself:
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you tend to fixate and obsess on everything you think is wrong with you?
- Are you very negative and judgmental about these “flaws”? Do you catch yourself using such phrases as “I hate myself when I….”?
- When you don’t achieve a goal, do you automatically disqualify yourself and tell yourself you are inadequate?
- When things go wrong do you automatically tell yourself that you did something wrong?
- When a relationship doesn’t work out the way you want it to, do you automatically tell yourself that you are unlovable and will never be loved?
If your answers to most of these questions is “YES”, you need to re-examine the stories you are telling yourself. The conclusions you are drawing about yourself may be illogical, and untrue. You have not looked at them objectively, with your adult critical sensibility, with insight, and compassion for yourself. The messages you are giving yourself are toxic! NO WONDER YOU FEEL SO LOW!
So what should you do about this? You can begin the process of therapy on your own:
- First of all, PAY ATTENTION and NOTICE the words you use about yourself most often.
- BECOME AWARE, and ask yourself if your self-judgements seem unremittingly harsh.
- ASK YOURSELF WHEN THIS SELF-CRITICISM BEGAN, and where or from whom you learned these stories.
- CONSCIOUSLY LOOK FOR POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS.
- CONSCIOUSLY DECIDE TO BE KINDER TO YOURSELF IN YOUR INTERNAL MONOLOGUES. After all, if YOU are not kind to yourself, who will be?
- Honestly write down three qualities you like about yourself.
It is possible you will not be able to do this alone. You may be too committed to these negative self-assessments to challenge them. Or you may think it disloyal to question the voices of authority figures you love. This is where working with a therapist and getting objective perspective, insight, and encouragement can be extremely helpful. Only when you can learn to silence these harmful stories can you begin to live your life with a sense of hope and possibility, realistically changing behavior that may be counterproductive, and making peace with outside circumstances over which you have no control.