Telling stories is a tradition. But what happens when those stories keep us stuck? Elle Blakeman looks at how they can help us or harm us
My mother is lucky. She is always saying so. ‘I don’t even enter raffles anymore, because I always win,’ she says, explaining cupboards bursting with school-fete jam and first-prize hampers. ‘It gets embarrassing.’
Think about your life. Are you lucky or unlucky? Do you breeze through green lights? Turn up the moment before the elevator door closes or the last slice of cake disappears? Or is it just the opposite?
We construct stories to make sense of our lives, adding meaning to life experiences, with heroes and villains and plot twists as any good as any bestseller. It’s human nature and, like most psychological functions, it’s ultimately designed to keep us safe. We don’t need to get mugged to know that we should probably avoid a dark alley.
Recounting those stories to ourselves and others, we tend to think that we are speaking facts – an unarguable report of events and interactions and words spoken. But our memories are heavily filtered through our values and beliefs.
‘We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives,’ says therapist and author Lori Gottlieb in her brilliant TED Talk, How changing your story can change your life. Even when we get the facts right, we are still seeing things from our point of view. A colleague might ignore you in the office hallway. You take this as proof they don’t like you. That guess might be correct, but there are other explanations. Maybe they’re intimidated by you. Maybe they’re late for a meeting and didn’t notice you. Maybe they’re desperate for the bathroom.
‘Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible from the chaos of our lives,’ says Dan McAdams, PhD, a Northwestern University psychology professor who has spent the past decade studying them.
However, these stories do more than narrate our lives. They direct it, using confirmation bias to keep us trapped in our patterns. ‘Life stories do not simply reflect personality: they are personality,’ argues McAdams, with partner Erika Manczak. ‘Or, more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals and values.’
So thinking of yourself as lucky or unlucky – or ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ or ‘brave’ or ‘fearful’ – can create your reality. An optimistic person might call a little louder to that colleague in the hall, or email to ask if everything’s okay. A pessimist sticks to their assumption and even creates a negative space – perhaps ignoring them in return – that they convinced themselves was there.
‘Our lives hang on narrative thread,’ agrees Sandra Marinella, author of The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness or Loss. ‘Our world is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves – what we believe about our lives and what we hold to be true about our world.’
Our narrative can shape the memory of an event. Ask any mother about the birth of her child and she will tell you of the joy and the love that she felt, not the pain or suffering. (Give her a few days before you try this one.) And the more this story is recounted, the further the painful memories slip until they are all but forgotten – footnotes not facts.
‘Stories shape memory so dramatically,’ agrees John Holmes, PhD, a psychology professor at Waterloo University. ‘Once you tell a story, it’s hard to get out of that story’s framework, and they tend to get more dramatic over time.’
Stories can strand us in internal battles. Thoughts such as ‘I always end up with terrible relationships,’ ‘I’ll never get that promotion I want’ and ‘I’m too old to start over’ reverberate in our mind until they become fact. We avoid going for a promotion, we sabotage our healthy eating or we stay in an unhappy situation because ‘it’s too late’ – forgetting that we are essentially imprisoning ourselves.
‘Negative self-talk is a clear sign that you need to rewrite your story,’ warns author and life coach Tony Robbins. ‘Our story affects what we do, where we go and how we approach life. A powerful story leads to a life of opportunity – change your story, change your life. The first step in changing your story is to stop telling yourself disempowering ones.’
How do we break free of our narrative and live our real life?
Thanks to social media, it’s easy to be consumed by the things we don’t have. There is always someone supposedly living a better, more fabulous life than you. But instead of falling into the ‘my life is so hard’ spiral, focus on all that you have. Need inspiration? The Red Cross notes that, if you can read this, you are luckier than more than one billion people who cannot read at all. If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are luckier than the million who will not survive the week. If you have money in the bank and in your wallet, and can spare change for a dish, you are among the top eight per cent of the world’s wealthy.
WHAT’S YOUR STORY?
Take time to think about and write down all the stories you have about yourself and your life, good and bad. Do this without judgment or fear. Are there any that no longer serve you? Once you’ve identified the stories that you want to let go, are there habits you hold onto that keep them alive? Have you ‘always had a sweet tooth’, forcing you to eat unhealthily? Are you ‘the fun one’ of your friends, forcing you to drink more than you should? Are you addicted to clickbait stories that infuriate or worry you, forcing you to stay in unhappy circumstances for fear of the alternative? Let those stories go and see your habits change.
TELL THE TRUTH
Stick to unarguable facts and notice when you add a story. Someone ignored you: fact. The reason why? Just a story. If you struggle to separate those, talk to a good friend or therapist and see if you can stop yourself assigning meaning where there is none. The more you do that, the easier it becomes. You accept events as they happen, rather than allowing them to become bigger and take up too much headspace.
‘If you want to learn how to change your life,’ notes Tony Robbins, ‘you cannot stay in your comfort zone.’ To grow and learn, we must move forwards, take risks and push ourselves. Transformation happens when you realise you can achieve more than you thought you could, accepting the good and the bad with grace. Only when this happens will you live your life, not your story.