We all tell stories. That’s how we humans make sense of our changing circumstances and the unpredictability of the world around us. Stories help us gather together the disparate pieces of our lives and weave them into coherent patterns of events. This is a very useful skill. But sometimes we can get lost in our stories, and when that happens we “lose touch with our actual experience,” as Tara Brach puts it.
Helpful Stories or Harmful Traps?
Getting lost in our stories means we begin believing our stories more than we believe what’s actually happening around us.
So even though we may have demonstrated over and over again that we’re capable of completing complex projects at work, we still believe stories we were told (or told ourselves) as kids about our not being very organized.
Or, you might be a really good parent, but still believe that you’re the selfish person your stories always said you were.
That’s the double-edged sword of our story-telling minds: on the one hand, stories bring coherence and meaning to our lives; on the other hand, they can become traps into which we fall over and over again as we refuse to see the reality around us in favor of continuing to gaze at the plot line we’ve repeated in our heads so many times before.
Self-Stories and Other-Stories
And, of course, the pitfalls of stories are not limited just to the ones about us. We also do a very good job of telling stories about the people around us. Stories about our parents and what they did or didn’t do right. Stories about our siblings and their shortcomings (or perceived (im)perfections). And last, but certainly not least, stories we tell about our spouse or our children.
Sometimes these stories are true. Often, though, they are simply one version – one perspective – on the other person’s life, actions, or qualities. When we saddle other people with immutable stories about who they are or what we can expect from them, we run the risk of never seeing something new in them.
More importantly, depending on our position in that person’s life, we can actually help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I’m constantly telling my child that he’s stubborn and obnoxious, it’s going to be much easier for him to play into that story than it will be for him to show me something different. Same goes for a negative story about our marriage, or a particular aspect of our spouse.
Remember, They’re Only Stories
The fact is, storytelling is written into our DNA, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. But just because our brains like to tell stories, it doesn’t mean that we have to believe them. Half the battle is found in simply recognizing our story-making habits, and being intentional about distrusting the stories our brains tell us. I’ve found one particular tactic to be especially helpful in this area.
The next time your brain is telling you (or repeating) a story – whether it’s about you or someone else – take a moment to stop and ask the question: “What’s not true here?” That may sound silly, but stopping to ask that question gives you a moment to change direction and think a different thought. Yes, maybe the story really is true. But maybe it’s not quite as true as you thought.
What about you? Do you ever find yourself trapped by the stories you tell? Do you ever trap anyone else?