As humans, we’re natural storytellers. Stories help us make sense of the world and organize experiences. We also tell ourselves stories about our lives, building narratives about the past and the present while imagining how it might all unfold in the future. Whether true or false, our stories significantly impact how we feel about ourselves and the world, which is why we must tune in to and regulate them. Learn how to become conscious of the stories we tell ourselves and shift them. (Estimated reading time: 9 minutes)
“We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves.”— Tony Robbins
We are storytellers. This is evident as early as childhood when our parents, grandparents, or adults tell us bedtime stories. Whether they read us long and epic myths or short and sweet fairy tales, we relished voyaging into mystical lands. Every story presented an opportunity for adventure and escapism.
The love for story time does not diminish as we grow up. Adults also find stories more compelling than facts. We get our dose of stories through novels, movies, TV shows, biographies, or sharing news about the people in our lives or well-known figures.
Unlike the tales in mythology and movies, however, our personal narratives are entirely based on our perceptions. As the authors of our own stories, we are solely responsible for what we notice, what we give credence to, and how we interpret experiences.
Two children can be raised in the same home and grow up with the same parents, but their experiences and how they process and interpret their early years could be entirely different.
Their conclusions about their childhood will impact their actions and outcomes into adulthood. One person might use their difficult upbringing as a springboard to success, while the other might consider it a hindrance that blocks them.
The pages of your life are blank, and you can write a story encouraging you to reach your full potential or one that causes you to spiral into despair. You decide whether you follow the Hero’s Journey or if you’re the damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued by a prince.
Distilling your experiences into stories that empower you, while eliminating the ones that bring you down, is a surefire way to climb higher ground.
Why do we love stories?
At some point, you may have found yourself absorbed in a riveting memoir or binge-watching a Netflix series—but there’s more to storytelling than a great plotline. It’s intrinsic to our nature.
Storytelling is one of the human characteristics that has been universal throughout history and across cultures. From hunter-gathers sharing tales around a bonfire or scriptures preserved in ancient civilizations, people from all societies wove narratives to elicit emotion, change, teach, entertain, or warn.
No matter how the story impacts us, it’s much easier to retain, recall, and learn from, making it a powerful medium to spread ideas and values. Today, producers in the entertainment industry pay top dollar for scripts that tell compelling stories that grab a viewer’s attention.
The prominence of storytelling from its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary inclination to tell stories. Storytelling is instinctive and fundamental to the brain.
Stories help us make sense of the world and organize experiences. It feels manageable and less daunting when we can recognize cause and effect. A valiant hero should slay monsters in fairy tales to rescue the princess and live happily ever after.
Another reason our brains love stories is a phenomenon called “narrative transportation.” When we hear stories that engage all our senses, we feel immersed in them, like we’re actually there. If you’ve been engrossed in a movie for hours, chances are you barely noticed the passage of time and forgot about everything else.
Narrative transportation leads to sizable activity in your brain’s connections and chemistry. As you follow a story, it releases chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine that stimulate an emotional connection to a narrative. Because of the pleasurable effects of these hormones, they’re often referred to as an “Angel’s Cocktail.”
Stories feel natural because it’s a format we’ve used since childhood to make sense of the world. Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, a popularizer of comparative mythology, said that our propensity to tell stories isn’t because we’re seeking meaning in life, but rather “an experience of being alive” and to get “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”
When our life experiences resonate beyond the physical plane, they align with our innermost being and reality. When this happens, we feel the “rapture of being alive.” Narratives offer instruction and make us aware of the “monsters” we must slay and the “treasures” we seek.
Our narrative-forming inclinations make it natural to use the same template for our lives. These narratives significantly impact how we feel about ourselves and the world, which is why we must tune in and regulate them.
Why is it important to know your stories?
Every day, we tell ourselves stories. We build narratives about the past and the present while also imagining how our futures might unfold. Yet, most of the time, we aren’t even aware we’re doing it.
As we go about our days, it feels natural to piece together gaps in our knowledge and create a storyline to understand things better. Whether it’s the behavior of a rude customer or the intention of a friend who pays you a surprise visit, we instinctively need to tie A to B and weave a coherent explanation.
There is an evolutionary root to such tendencies. In a TED Talk, science writer Michael Shermer refers to humans as “pattern-seeking primates.” If we hear rustling in the bushes, our survival depends on our ability to associate the noise with the threat of predators and flee.
Connecting the dots is a primal behavior that increases our chances of survival. But it can work against us if it goes into overdrive, especially when there’s no imminent threat. We miss that self-stories are based on our perceptions and beliefs, whether those stories are true or false.
Over time, stories accumulate and build up a belief system that impacts how we behave, respond, and act. If our stories control us, they control our choices, the directions we take, and how we handle the inevitable blocks and delays.
We get so accustomed to distilling our lives into stories that we forget to do a reality check—a necessity considering the fallacies and biases we’re prone to. We highlight certain happenings while overlooking others, weave together disparate events, and even make things up to feel better. Living in fantasies may feel good in the moment, but it eventually leads to pain and misdirection.
We create stories, not just about our own lives, but about things that occur in the world around us, like social issues, politics, history, and religion. Just look at the number of theories and narratives concocted on social media, and you can see the striking contrast in their perspectives. Opposing stories among the public disrupt peace and cause war, divisions, and an unwillingness to reconcile those differences.
We also like to use past events as a predictor of future occurrences; a phenomenon called The Black Swan Effect. In looking at our personal histories, we tend to remember facts that stand out to us or that suit the narrative we want to tell.
For instance, when examining the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, we believe it resulted from predictable factors while discounting the role of chance, randomness, and ambiguity. The predictability of compact stories offers comfort, no matter how flawed and inaccurate they are.
When we’re aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we can break away from patterns and beliefs that hold us back on an individual and collective level. Understanding our storytelling tendencies helps us adapt and thrive in a changing world, no matter how unpredictable it is.
Shift your story: how to rewrite your story so it empowers you
Life is complex. Everything that happens (or doesn’t) is a product of nuanced and multifaceted forces that we can’t always comprehend or process. Sometimes, the best option is to detach and observe the unfolding of the tapestry of life.
Buddha said: “If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.”
When we’re caught up in a state of uncertainty and fear, instead of retreating into the comfort of our old, imperfect, and incomplete stories, we can be in a state of not knowing. We’re open to seeing other versions of the truth so that we can shift and evolve.
It takes conscious effort to be in the world without interpreting it. Without cause and effect, it can feel like a mishmash of sensory input that we can’t make sense of. While stillness is one way to avoid stories, there are other ways to become conscious of the stories we tell ourselves and shift them:
1. Become aware of your stories
Half the battle is simply catching yourself in the act and bringing awareness to the running commentary in your head. This can be done by cultivating mindfulness and recognizing limiting beliefs. Anytime you hear yourself saying things like “I’m not capable of doing it” or “People always leave me in the cold,” take note and be open to questioning their validity.
2. Analyze your stories
Once you’ve identified your stories, ask yourself where they could be coming from. Are they even true? If you believe you’re never good enough no matter what you accomplish, perhaps you were told that you would not amount to anything as a kid by a teacher, and this stayed with you.
Realize that stories do not reflect reality and it’s simply a product of your beliefs and past experiences. By shining a light on the ones that live in the dark corners of your subconscious, you can challenge them and see through their falseness.
3. Write a new and better story
The good news is that you don’t have to passively accept the stories of the past. You can rewrite new and more empowering ones that support you in your journey. Ask yourself, “how can I create the best possible story for myself?” Here are some ways to find inspiration:
- Think of positive experiences and people in your life. Look for the common thread. Remember that they don’t have to be big and life-changing. What matters is how they make you feel when you remember them.
- Look at your role models, especially those you can relate to. What aspects and themes of their stories would you like to incorporate into your own?
- Read stories and memoirs. The archetypes, symbols, and storylines of specific tales might inspire you. For instance, you could emulate the courage of Wonder Woman or the intelligence of Marie Curie. Take note of their struggles, qualities, and triumphs.
4. Create habits to support the new stories
Once you’ve chosen your new stories, the next step is to develop habits and routines that can support them. Practices like meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing will make it easier to catch old stories and stop them from spiraling out of control. It’s important not to judge yourself as you do it. Just be aware, notice them without getting caught up, and gently bring yourself to the present moment. Regular journaling can also help you get a big-picture perspective of your experiences.
Surround yourself with the right people as you transition into better stories. Replace negative people and naysayers with those who uplift and support your new story.
No matter what type of narrative you choose, remember that your story has not ended. If you’re breathing and alive, your story is still unfolding. If you’re going through a dull and low period right now, know that the wheels of destiny will turn around, and you will be up again. Your moment will come, so don’t give up!
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What stories have you been telling yourself about your life and the world? Are they empowering? If not, how can you rewrite them?
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