The Stories We Tell Ourselves, and How They Influence the Life We Lead

The Stories We Tell Ourselves, and How They Influence the Life We Lead was first published in The Busy Lifestyle Magazine.

We all love a good story

A good story has the power to draw us in, connect with the characters and their emotions, making us eager to accompany them over every hurdle and cheer them on, all the way to the very end. It doesn’t even matter if the story is true or not, we want to be part of it because it somehow makes us feel alive. It may even inspire us to change something in our own lives, and that feels empowering.

But there are many types of stories, and not all of them leave us feeling warm and fuzzy, or inspired. We don’t need to go as far as politics, the media or commercial tactics to understand just how impactful, and manipulative some stories can be. We just need to look at the stories we tell ourselves to understand the way they shape our lives, for better or for worse.

The stories we tell ourselves

Human beings have a magnificent and powerful capacity: imagination. We can project ourselves into the future and imagine the impact a particular decision may have, before we even take it. We can imagine different scenarios and different outcomes, and even if reality will probably turn out to be very different, connecting with the various options is a reassuring way to make decisions and move forward.

But what is the origin of this faculty we have, and how might it be creating problems for us now?

Stories as a survival strategy

Our vital capacity to create a story makes a lot of sense when we look back at the living conditions our ancestors had to deal with thousands of years ago. Danger was much more prominent and we had to be ready to fight or run for our lives on a daily basis. We did not have the luxury of time to gather as much information as possible regarding a potentially threatening situation. We took the little information we had and our brain filled in the rest so that we could react quickly.

Did we hear a threatening growl? Did we get a glimpse of something large moving behind the trees? Our brain would sound the alarm, picturing the scariest predator in our memory’s repertoire. Whether the picture was right or wrong wasn’t important, it was the warning signal that was our lifesaver. There was no room for the benefit of doubt. Sticking around to get the full picture was often way too risky.

In today’s environment, however, this primitive instinct to fill in the blanks can play tricks on us. Tricks that can have a huge impact on the way we perceive the world and live our lives.

What story do you live in?

The reason that our own stories are so powerful is because we tend to believe them. We think that we have a clear understanding of a situation regarding others, and ourselves, and based on this knowledge we come to a number of conclusions. We rarely stop, however, to think about just how factual (or complete) this information really is.

The beliefs we have about ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, our character traits and our faculties to change, rarely stem from reliable sources. They are built on experience. Maybe we overheard something unpleasant people said about us, or we get stuck on that one event that did not go too well. To create a damaging belief, it doesn’t take many occurrences. It can take as little as one. Once we plant the seed of belief in our brain, we focus on finding confirmation. It’s much easier to confirm a belief, than to question it, because we do this at a subconscious level. It does not require active challenging, and that’s where the danger lies.

So if the stories we tell ourselves are really based on beliefs or assumptions, and these stories are holding us back, how hard would it be to change the story we live in?

Do we have to change beliefs to change our story?

Changing our story does take a shift in our mindset, and this sounds like a very hard thing to do. We hear about motivational gurus advocating a better and more positive way of thinking. But this takes conviction, and how can you convince yourself to change a belief that seems deeply ingrained? Beliefs are emotional things, not analytical ones, so simply deciding to think differently seems virtually impossible.

Just because provoking change takes some sort of shift, doesn’t mean it needs an overpowering tsunami to have an effect. We don’t have to turn our world upside down and question everything we ever believed in. That would not only be very challenging, it would be absurd. The beliefs that are worth reviewing are the ones holding us back, not the ones that have a positive impact on our lives. What would be the point?

Challenging negative beliefs starts with one simple question

Changing a mindset starts with a challenge, and what better way to challenge a belief than by asking a question? When we are telling ourselves a story that is made up of obstacles, and we are in a mindset that makes us truly believe that those obstacles are there, try asking yourself this simple question: “Is this story based on pure facts or am I possibly making an assumption?”

If you can’t back up your beliefs with concrete facts (and someone else’s opinion about you certainly isn’t one), then acknowledging the idea that you are making an assumption is actually quite empowering.

Even if it shakes your belief system a bit, you are suddenly in a position to have an impact on that story you are telling yourself.

Searching for the truth

Now that you have established that the story is just a story, you have the power to change it. The question is, do you want to? In other words, does it serve a purpose or does it hold you back? Sure, you can go on a quest to try and find the truth, but chances are, there isn’t one truth to find… unless you are doing some scientific research. A more pressing question is whether or not the truth, or the story, is actually useful to you.

If this is not the case, then the land of assumptions has a lot better things to offer.

If we assume one thing, we can assume the opposite

I once had a client who only saw barriers to everything she would have wanted to do. After a 5 minute monologue stating all the reasons why she would not be able to follow her desires, I asked her that very simple question: “Are these statements based on facts, or are they based on assumptions?”

It did not take long for her to admit to herself that her beliefs were based on assumptions. I then suggested — seeing that we were in the land of assumptions anyway — that she might try to assume the opposite, just to see how that would look and feel. Her whole body language and expression changed instantly. “Anything is possible” was her reply. In a matter of moments, her mindset had changed, and she saw the benefit of giving her beliefs a bit of doubt. At least, now she did not feel like a victim of circumstance, with no control over her future. Now she could take action and see where that would take her.

Taking ownership of our story and making it real

Once we realize that our story is just that, a story, it gives us the opportunity to change it, and that’s empowering. Although we cannot control everything that happens in our lives, focusing on the things that we can impact changes our story tremendously. Taking ownership of our story is the starting point.

Now we can move from a scenario where we are the victim, who has no control over their life, to that of the hero, who takes matters into their own hands.

Just like in every story, the hero can only impact the things within his or her control, so it’s not about creating the land of rainbows and unicorns. It’s about getting out of our own way so that the hurdles we need to overcome are real ones, and not the ones we fabricate which serve no purpose but to hold us back.