We humans are born storytellers. Storytelling has been fundamental to our evolution as a species, our ability to communicate, to imagine, to empathise, to share histories, pass down the essence of our culture and families through stories helps us to bond, to create a common sense of identity, to learn and to grow both individually and as a collective. Stories delight, entertain, educate, inspire and motivate.
But often stories can harm us. We fall prey to propaganda as a society, we can be manipulated and controlled through stories. Stories speak directly to our emotions, and this makes us vulnerable to other people’s agendas. It is possible to look critically at the stories that you are being told, to see, for example, political bias, or to recognise when you are being ‘played’ by a lover, but it is not always easy to do this, particularly when the storyteller is skilled at their work.
And what of the stories we tell ourselves? How do they affect us on a daily basis? The stories we tell ourselves have a powerful impact on how we view ourselves, and because they are deeply entrenched in the subconscious, we don’t even recognise that they are stories, they seem to be cold hard facts. These stories can empower us to achieve great things, or they can paralyse us and keep us in a spiral of self recrimination and punishment.
This is very easily seen in addiction. As addicts (regardless of the addiction) we need compelling stories to be able to continue in the addiction, otherwise, the survival instinct would be able to extract us from the danger we put ourselves in. If you stand on a cliff edge, you are unlikely to create any stories about why it is perfectly safe and acceptable to step over the edge, yet if you are struggling with an addiction that is harming your health and all aspects of your life, you will have a library of stories to justify that.
When I was drinking and smoking, I had so many stories that enabled me to continue with behaviour that my logical brain knew was harming me. I even used these to justify the glass of wine I poured after looking up liver cancer and other ways my drinking could kill me!
I wonder if you will recognise any of these stories?
It’s ok, I’m not addicted, I just enjoy it. I can stop anytime
I actually thought this about smoking when I had been smoking for at least 5 years. I thought it right up until the time when I tried to stop for the first time! Given that I was asthmatic, and frequently needed my inhaler, sometimes mid cigarette or joint, clearly my body didn’t enjoy the smoking, but my storyteller convinced me I did.
This can’t be bad, everyone I know does it
It is pretty common for addicts to gravitate to other people who will make them feel ok about their behaviour, who they can indulge with. I surrounded myself with people who took drugs and drank heavily, so I could always feel ‘normal’ in my behaviour.
This story went hand in hand with…..
People who don’t drink are so boring, I can’t be friends with them
If you weren’t into drinking and drugs I couldn’t connect with you. I used to think it was because people who didn’t drink were simply not much fun, but nw, thinking back to how I felt in their company, especially if I was drinking, it made me feel ashamed of my drunkenness although I really didn’t realise that at the time. I felt judged by them when really it was my own judgement of myself I was feeling a lot of the time.
I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t [insert stereotypical alcoholic behaviour here]
I used to think that you weren’t an alcoholic if you only drank in company. Alcoholics were people who drank alone. Until the first time I bought wine because I was lonely in university, and I used to drink wine with my friends before I moved. Literally replacing friendship with wine! Once I had ‘broken the seal’ on that rule, I drank alone frequently, replacing that rule with ‘I’m not an alcoholic, I don’t drink vodka alone’. (yes, that one got broken and replaced with another too!)
I can control my drinking, I gave up easily when I was pregnant
When I got pregnant with Marcus, I stopped drinking and smoking immediately. I surprised myself with how easy I found it (most of the time). I was 36 at the time, and very conscious that my eggs had probably taken quite a battering over the years, so reasoned that if I was going to have a child I needed to do everything I could to ensure he was as healthy as possible. I stopped drinking, but it was only ever a break, I was not saying ‘goodbye’ to booze, merely ‘see you later’. When I finally had my first drink over a year later, it was like returning to the arms of a long lost love (albeit a cruel and abusive one….the hangover was severe!)
This isn’t problematic, I am just having a really stressful time at the moment
For 20 years? Yes, I did have a really stressful time, but when I was drinking more than the UK recommended weekly alcohol intake in one night, almost every night, is it any wonder? Alcohol raises cortisol levels, interferes with sleep (our greatest defence against stress), creates irritability and lowers self esteem, of course I was stressed! When alcohol (or drugs, cigarettes, shopping, gambling etc) are your only refuge in times of stress, you are going to be pretty stressed as you are simply numbing the feelings, not dealing with them
If I drink enough, I won’t feel this
My addiction started when my life got very painful at 20. Filled with self loathing and conviction that I was truly despicable, I drank to excess to try to blot out the pain and torment i was in. But this didn’t work. I would end most of my evenings in floods of tears in my best friend’s arms, too drunk to make any sense of what I was clearly still feeling, unable to find solutions in my unhappy state. And the next day, as the waves of self loathing returned to my sober, conscious brain, they were mixed with shame for my drunken antics and the after effects of the booze, further compounding the negative feelings.
I can’t be an alcoholic, I haven’t been sacked/arrested/forced into rehab
Maybe not, but I can clearly see now that this was through luck (the first 2) and dishonesty and fear of asking for help (the last one). I was, I suppose, a ‘functioning alcoholic’ — I got a good degree and other qualifications, held down jobs and maintained a semblance of a normal life. I didn’t get arrested although there are times I probably should have been. And the only reason I never went to rehab is because I lied about, and hid, the extent of my drinking from pretty much every one — even the friends I drank with on a regular basis (who didn’t know I drank alone as much as I did, or that I would frequently have a drink or two before I left the house to meet them), and after two disastrous attempts at asking for help with my mental state when I was 20, and getting nothing but punishment and criticism, I never asked again.
I am not going to drink tonight
Not drinking did need to be a conscious choice for me, and it was one that my addict brain fought violently against every time I made that decision. I often would make that decision in the morning, only to come up with several reasons why I ‘needed’ to drink throughout the day. This story would have the supplements of ‘just one or two, to take the edge off’, and ‘Ok, I can drink tonight, but I definitely won’t drink tomorrow’
I have to drink, I’m with my friends
I was sure that not drinking wasn’t an option if I was out with friends, and that drinking in this situation was always perfectly acceptable. Once, a friend and I tried to spend an evening together without drinking…we lasted about an hour at the most! We are able to now, but this should have been a wake up call for both of us, Instead, we simply accepted that we needed to drink when we were together!
I am sure I can think of other stories I used to tell myself, but will stop at this 10.
If you recognise any of these stories, or are starting to be aware of your own stories, and would like to look at making some changes in your life, let’s talk. I offer coaching services that can help you to develop strategies to deal with stress, reframe your view of the world, increase your self esteem, improve your relationship with yourself and the world, get better sleep and more. If you would like to find out more, take a look at my coaching page, or arrange your obligation free connection call here
You don’t have to be at the mercy of these stories, you CAN create new stories that tell of happiness, contentment and inner peace!
You’ve got this!
This article first appeared on Balance and Breathe