Do Stories Shape Our Reality Or Does Reality Create Our Stories? Yes

A delay on the train has me running late for a meeting on Morton Street in Manhattan, in need of a coffee. Desperate need, although I have already abandoned my plan to sip it leisurely in the Starbucks a few blocks from my meeting while I prepare. Getting the coffee is not negotiable, hence, the rush. The heel of my sandal gets stuck between two cobblestones as I race through an intersection at a speed no one should be moving in those shoes on that street, carrying an oversize, overstuffed bag. I go down in a spectacular splat as sheet music and notebooks and snacks fly absolutely everywhere, and it feels as if people in all nearby shop, park bench and car are either laughing at me or annoyed with me. And of course. judging. The cacophony of car horns from drivers further down the block, no doubt instantly angry about a hold-up they are unable to see the reason for, heighten the urgency with which I scramble my things together. No injuries, thankfully, except for my ego, which urgently screams out for the creamy latte it has been promised.
 A guy sitting at his laptop near the window makes direct eye contact with me as I sit down in the coffee shop hoping to recover my courage through caffeine. He looks at me closely like he wants to connect but I am too rattled by my humiliation to read his intention. 
 “New shoes,” I say.
 “Nancy?” he asks, in a voice indicating he did not know what Nancy looked like, and it was Nancy he hoped to see.
 “No,” I say, more loudly, as if that will help bridge the obvious communication divide. “New shoes. Not broken in,” which made no sense but was the first thing that came to my defensive mind. 
 “Sorry, I thought you were looking at me.” he says. “You’re the third person I thought was Nancy.”
 “Oh, I thought you were looking at me,” I say. “Sorry….” 
 “Klutz!” is what I think he was thinking but did not say. A second later Nancy appears, their meeting seems to go on as scheduled and it is clear that I am not, nor ever was, part of his story. 
 This moment with the guy in the Starbucks is not the only time the intensity of my emotions evoked a story that turned out to be entirely made up. But the stories that we tell ourselves, “whether they be false or true, are always real,” as Maria Popova writes in Some Thoughts On Hope, Cynicism and The Stories We Tell Ourselves. “We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness.”

Our internal story impacts our perception in important ways. It shapes our sense of what is possible, and can throw shade on hopes and dreams. A young person who flounders academically and struggles for passing grades can carry an internal story about failure that not only haunts every job interview as an adult, but the jobs she sees as accessible or the goals he views as attainable. An older person who buys the story that new love, new projects and new thinking are all in the rear view mirror can miss the openings that do exist and dismiss interesting offers to go in an untried direction.

Seth Godin takes this on in a blog posted titled The Stories We Tell Ourselves:

“Here’s one: “I’m too old to make a difference, take a leap, change the game…” (Sometimes, I hear this from people who are 27 years old).
 This is a seductive story, because it lets us off the hook. Obviously, the thinking goes, the deck (whichever deck you want to pick) is stacked against me, so no need to even imagine the failure that effort will bring. Better to just move along and lower my expectations.”

We know that age is not a barrier to creativity nor curiosity nor the will to change course, and neither are race, gender or any of the other demographic differences among human beings. So, since stories have this power to persuade and influence our sense of the world and what is possible, it makes sense to expose ourselves to stories that empower and inspire. Listening to stories on podcasts such The Moth, RISK!, Strangers and a growing number of other innovative programs is an entertaining and accessible way to imagine realities people have lived, get energy from their struggle and maybe see in ourselves some of the heroic qualities we learn about.

“What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better,” writes Paul Bloom in “Imagining The Lives Of Others” on the New York Times Opinionator blog. “In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.”

There is research showing that a well-told tale has far-reaching impact on emotions and behavior.

“Empathy, Neurochemistry and The Dramatic Arc”
“The stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does,” stated researcher Paul Zak at The Future of Storytelling 2012, according to journalist Elizabeth Svoboda in The Power of Story on Aeon.com. “When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened.” Our capacity for empathy and imagination connect us to the lives, and stories, of others. And we can tell ourselves that we possess the creativity to reconstruct negative narratives we carry around, because thinking and believing in that narrative makes it true.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is an approved provider of Continuing Ed for social workers by NYS, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories-with a twist-told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.