Have you ever noticed how humans tend to be story tellers? We love our stories! We relate to life through story, which is why we enjoy books, television, movies, plays, operas, soap operas, and other forms of conveying the foibles, challenges, and meaning of life through story. We enjoy humorous stories, who-done-its, and dramas—the higher the drama, the better! We tell stories about ourselves and each other and love them all.
Some stories are true, some are exaggerated for affect, and some are made up entirely. Some have morphed beyond recognition through years of retelling. Stories put our lives and life lessons in context and give us a broader perspective and better understanding. We bond over our stories. Sometimes we find common ground through our stories and sometimes we find a way to feel superior through the stories that we tell.
Stories can really enhance our lives. Unfortunately, though, our stories can morph over time from amusing anecdotes to self-definition or self-fulfilling prophecy. We begin to define ourselves, and sometimes our futures, by our stories. We tell the same stories about ourselves—or others tell them about us—so often that they begin to define who we are. We begin to believe those stories are who we are, rather than events (often fluky) that happened to us or things that we did, perhaps in an unthinking moment or when we didn't know better.
The main problem with this "self-definition-by-story" is that, most often, the stories we tell about ourselves or others are not happy stories of joy and triumph, they are stories of mistakes, defeat, humiliation, and shame. Think about gossip, the most viral and malicious form of story-telling. Gossip is seldom about something wonderful that happened to someone or something amazing that someone did. It is usually a story shared to humiliate, discredit, or put someone down (so the teller of the story can feel superior—"I would never do anything so stupid!").
These Stories and Their Abbreviated Forms
Think about the stories that were told about classmates in high school or college. Some of those stories might have been funny—poking fun at someone—and often bullying and shaming. And most of those stories “stuck” to those classmates for many years, and probably had a deep impact on them. Sometimes the stories were distilled down to their essence in the form of a label, usually funny and derogatory at the same time, that the person “wore” until leaving the school. If you escaped being the object of humiliating stories in school, you were one of the lucky ones.
Families, too, have a way of retelling stories about each other. With siblings, it’s often the stories that make the other look bad or stupid, making them the brunt of an enduring family joke. These stories get repeated at family gatherings, evoking derisive laughter at the subject, over many years, and they form the identity, value, and role of each member of the family over time, sometimes for generations. It keeps the family members in their "place" and role in the family.
People love to label things and other people and put them in pigeon holes, so it is no wonder these things quickly catch on and "stick." It makes life easier, because we have things "pegged," and we don't have to keep thinking about them.
What Stories Do You Tell About Yourself?
What do you tell new acquaintances about yourself? How about a new person you are dating? Or family or old friends? What about the stories you tell yourself over and over in your head?
Do you talk about times of joy and triumph or about failures and times when you have been betrayed? Do you portray yourself as a winner or as a victim or loser? Do you ever actually hear the stories you tell about yourself, or do you rattle them off out of habit, without even hearing what you're saying anymore? When you see a friend after a few weeks have passed, and you catch up on events in your lives, do you talk about betrayals and traumas or about fun and happiness?
Far too often, we regale people with the sad stories of our lives, and we repeat them over and over again, reliving the events that traumatized us—sometimes years or even decades before—creating deeper neural pathways for that memory and pain, re-energizing the event, and triggering our post-traumatic stress each time we tell the story.
Sometimes we—and others—end up actually defining ourselves by these events over time: our difficulties and traumas as children, the bullying we received in school, the humiliating fumble or defeat in sports, the promotion(s) we didn’t receive at work, the illness we have or had, the deep betrayal by a lover or friend, and/or the "awful" thing that happened last week.
By doing this, we define ourselves by our pain, hold ourselves in the role of victim, and prevent ourselves from healing our wounds and moving on with our lives to enjoy better circumstances.
So why do we do this? On some level, when we are the ones repeating these stories (often in abbreviated form), we may think we are somehow explaining—to ourselves and others—why we somehow ended up the way we did ("I was beaten as a child," that's why I'm a chronic underachiever), or how heroic we have been in carrying on in the face of these traumas ("I was a single mother," so I must be a strong, wonderful, heroic woman).
While it superficially may have that effect, we are doing ourselves great harm. We are unconsciously condemning ourselves to the perpetual role of the victim as a way of relating to ourselves and others, defining ourselves by the worst or hardest times of our lives, and setting ourselves up to expect no better. Even worse, repeatedly churning up our old wounds and evoking that pain again and again also sets up an energy field around ourselves that literally attracts more of the same!
It is always a good idea to pause and listen to the stories we tell about ourselves and to analyze why we feel we want to define ourselves by those stories, and what we feel we achieve by repeating them.
Constantly Retelling our Traumas Takes Us Right Down the Rabbit Hole
If you find yourself stuck in repeating patterns of situations that are painful, you might want to take a look at the stories you continually tell yourself and others about yourself. Has the repetition of painful events put you in a place of feeling that these things “always” happen to you? Do you feel that “nothing” ever goes well (and you have all those examples to prove it)? Are you telling yourself that? Have you convinced yourself that one or two unhappy incidents are the norm?
This type of repetitive story telling is not to be confused with occasionally venting to a friend about a situation that distresses us. We all need to do that once in a while: talk it through, get another perspective or validate the perspective we’ve reached, and vent those feelings so we can shake it off, let it go, heal, and move on. That’s just normal and human, and usually helpful.
But when we fixate on certain painful events in our lives and repeatedly tell those stories, as if they are the only events or the only important events in our lives, that’s when we have a problem. If it’s a story about someone doing us wrong, that person probably moved on long ago, while we are still re-inflicting that pain and outrage on ourselves over and over again by continually talking about it, and never letting ourselves chalk it up to experience and move on, ourselves. In the end, who has done more damage to us? The original perpetrator or ourselves?
As with everything in life, what we focus on, grows. When we focus on the trauma and drama of life, we get more of that. Is that where you want to be? Is that where you want to stay? Is it making you happy?
Change Your Story, Change Your Life
The good news is that there is a pretty simple fix! It may not be an easy fix, because as we know, old habits die hard. But it is definitely simple!
We merely have to change our stories to change our lives! Imagine meeting friends and, instead of giving a recitation of all the bad things that have happened to you in your past, or in the past week, you regale them with stories of all the joys and triumphs in your life?
The more we talk about, and focus on, the good things in our lives, the more good things we have to talk about! When we talk about the things we are grateful for, the more opportunities we have to express gratitude!
But we have to be vigilant in observing the stories we tell about ourselves, both out loud to others and inside our own heads. Especially until the old habits start to lose their grip and fall away.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude, focusing on the good things that happen in our lives—both big and small—and sharing those stories with our friends lifts us up, shows us repeatedly that we do, in fact, have wonderful things happening in our lives, and brings us more of them.
You May Have to Change Their Stories, Too
And yes, if our friends and families have that habit of repeating embarrassing stories about us, we may just have to exert ourselves and say, “No more!” Instead of laughing at ourselves along with them (while inwardly wincing), we can hold a hand up and say, “You know, I really don’t want to be defined or remembered by that story of something dumb that I did when I was 7! I’d like to hear you tell a story about something I did that was amazing, or smart, or kind, instead!” That will either shut them up, or encourage them to remember your better stories, and then everybody wins!
This might be a good strategy to remember as we get ready for the upcoming Holidays. Pay attention to the stories that you tell and the stories told about you. Make sure that all of them are positive and life-enhancing!
And if you find that you're not that happy with what you hear, make some wonderful New Year's Resolutions to change your stories and change your life!
Here are some articles from past issues of Tunnel Vision that you might find interesting as companion pieces for this issue’s articles and for the Holiday Season:
HOLIDAY SEASON 2017—Includes Remember to BREATHE!
DECEMBER 2014—Includes Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men & more
APRIL 2014—Includes Forgiveness is the Ultimate Act of Self-Love and The Next Step is Gratitude
Wishing you all joy and peace and love
for the Holidays, and throughout the coming year!
Thank you for being part of my
Tunnel Vision family!
All content copyright © Ellyn Dye, 2018.