Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I'm a story fanatic.

When I look back on the trajectory of my life, the things that have brought me awe and fulfillment fall into two categories: relationships and stories. Story telling is the light of my life. I'm enlivened by writing and conversation; communicating my stories and reveling in other people's. The arc of every interaction with another person is a story shared. 

I've been a voracious reader and consumer of movies my entire life. I spent every latch key kid afternoon devouring three books at a time, alongside endless movies rented at the local video store. I'm completely fascinated by personal voice shared through narrative, as well as the way we use stories to define ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” - Joan Didion

To be a storyteller is to communicate our place in the world and our experiences here. It's how we find communion and oneness as human beings, but it's also how we sort ourselves apart.

Telling stories to explain and understand the plot of our lives, and the many outside forces that have shaped us does more than just make sense of things. It's a form of survival. Sometimes telling a story is the only way to develop a container around a thing or experience, a feeling or loss that isn't rational or bearable otherwise.

The question is, when does a story become an excuse? An explanation for lack of agency and ability, victimhood, or immobility?

The stories we tell ourselves are usually the ones we tell others. If the container we draw around ourselves is too tight and too limiting, the path ahead suffers into submission. Never doubt the power of the spoken word. The universe responds in kind to the energy and words we live by. The way we value and define ourselves becomes the way others do in response. In this way, our stories quickly become self fulfilling prophecies without much conscious effort at all.

I have a bad habit that you might be able to relate to. I pretend to know my life's limits and opportunities based solely on a small sample of experiences, in other words what's already happened. "I can't..." "I won't...." "This will never be possible for me because...." "This always happens, so here we go again..." For some control freaks, there's a perverse satisfaction in being able to predict our lives- even when we predict bad outcomes. Expecting negativity or scarcity is a way of sheltering ourselves from the cruelty of dashed hopes.

I'm sick and tired of this sad practice. I don't want to be a broken record, repeating stories of lack or letdown. I don't want to limit the scope of my life with stringent beliefs that aren't on par with the flexibility of reality. I'm done with outdated stories; done with falling into the trap of repeating limiting things about my circumstances. Instead, I'm seeking new opportunities-miraculous ones!-for abundance and comfort. Rather than lamenting over constriction and challenge, I'm focusing on speaking warmly about my future and my power.

Not everything that happens to us/through us warrants the context of a story. Some things just are. They happened because they happened, and imbuing them with constructed meaning makes them more powerful than they need be. This is especially true for situations of suffering that we need to move on from in order to reclaim our life. 

As with everything, we start small. Practice coming up with answers to standard questions like, what do you do? As well as tougher ones, like what happened to that job/relationship/idea you had? Respond with a new story that isn't defined by lack, failure or turmoil- or say F it and tell a joke instead. Whatever you do, don't put yourself down.

Imagine that the stories you tell about yourself and your circumstances are an invitation to the world to meet your words where they land. It takes practice to develop an in-the-moment awareness about the tales we are mindlessly repeating about ourselves and our abilities. We can paint our world with words, dress our wounds with words, and create new narratives that invite miracles. Just as we have the ability to assign meaning to things, we also have the power to remove or re-associate meaning as well. Our lives are stories in constant draft and re-write, always open to a different ending.

*Photos from Checkerboard Loop in Zion National Park*


  1. Thank you! After spending a weekend with an old college friend who is struggling with much of what you wrote about, this was very insightful to me.

  2. I'm honored to hear that. Thanks for reading. I hope your friend can break through some of their old stories to welcome new opportunities and lovely surprises


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