The Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Sharon Salzberg

Image Courtesy of Unsplash
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. — Joan Didion

OUR MINDS ARE WIRED TO create order, a cohesive narrative, and our stories are our anchors. They tell us who we are, what matters most, what we’re capable of, what our lives are all about.

Something happens to us in childhood — say, a dog bites us — and suddenly we have a story. We become terrified of all dogs, and for years afterward, we break into a sweat whenever a dog comes close. If we pay attention, one day we realize we’ve spun a story in our minds about an entire species based on a single incident with a single animal — and that our story is not really true.

The tales we tell ourselves are the central themes in our psyches. If we’re the child of an emotionally needy, alcoholic parent, we might conclude — unconsciously — that it’s our job to take care of absolutely everyone, even to our own detriment. If as adults we’re diagnosed with a serious illness, we may believe it’s our fault and create a story around that: We didn’t eat right. We stayed too long in a toxic relationship. Until we begin to question our basic assumptions about ourselves and view them as fluid, not fixed, it’s easy to repeat established patterns and, out of habit, reenact old stories that limit our ability to live and love ourselves with an open heart.

Fortunately, as soon as we ask whether or not a story is true in the present moment, we empower ourselves to reframe it. We begin to notice that nearly all of our stories can be cast in various lights, depending on our point of view. Sometimes we may be the hero of our story; at other times, the victim.

I think of Jonah, who was the first in his family to attend college. Even the first step of applying was daunting, and once he was admitted, he had to find a way to finance his education himself. That meant juggling long shifts at work and a heavy course load at school. He struggled to keep up in his classes. Still, as he proudly tells his story, the obstacles he overcame were a key to his success. Jonah graduated and got a good job, where he met his partner. A decade after graduation, Jonah says, “Look at me now.”

But Jonah might tell his story in a different way, with pain taking a more central role. There would be more memories of lonely nights, feelings of exclusion, worries about being an impostor. Jonah might describe how the world was stacked against him and linger over the people who had slighted him. It would still be a hero’s story, but one marked by frustration and bitterness.

Many of the stories we tell ourselves about love are like the painful version of Jonah’s story. We’re more inclined to regard past losses with self-blame than with compassion. And when it comes to the present, we tend to speculate and fill in the blanks: A friend doesn’t call at the appointed hour and we’re convinced he’s forgotten us, when in fact he had to take his sick child to the doctor. Our boss asks to speak to us and we’re convinced we’ve done something wrong, when instead we’re given a new project. Since we’re not aware that we’re spinning a story, these narratives can contribute to anxiety and depression, while constricting our hope for the future and eating away at our self-worth.

One of my students attributes his painful marriage and divorce, as well as other “failed” relationships, to his own feelings of unworthiness and self-blame. “I am so thin-skinned because I’m beating myself up 24–7,” he says. “Had I been more compassionate with myself in my past relationships, perhaps I would’ve had better coping mechanisms.” Through psychotherapy and meditation, this student has learned to question his negative storytelling and tune out the constant chatter of his inner critic.

Diane, whose partner had recently broken off their engagement, immediately blamed herself for being “unlovable,” even though she, too, harbored serious doubts about the future of the relationship. But instead of pausing and investigating the source of her story of unlovability with mindfulness and self-compassion, Diane leaped to a negative conclusion carried over from childhood.

If we heard a friend say, “I’m not worth much. I’m not interesting, I’ve failed at so much, and that’s why no one loves me,” we would probably leap to her defense. “But I love you,” we’d insist. “Your other friends love you, too. You’re a good person.” Yet so often we don’t counter the negative statements that crowd our own minds every day.

Instead, we might ask ourselves: If I look at what’s happening through the eyes of love, how would I tell this story?


Excerpted from the book REAL LOVE by Sharon Salzberg. Copyright © 2017 by Sharon Salzberg. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.