The stories you tell yourself about yourself matter.
If you were the author of your life, what kind of story would you tell?
Would it be a tale of rags to riches? Heartbreak and tragedy? Or, would it be about failure and redemption? Or, an epic quest?
Who would you be in your tale? The hero? The villain? Or would you be the faithful side-kick who injects the story with some much-needed humor?
While this type of thinking might seem whimsical, these aren’t idle questions. A branch of psychology called narrative identity suggests that we weave our life events into an ever-evolving story that imparts meaning and purpose to our lives.
According to psychologists, we don’t just tell ourselves stories about ourselves— those stories then turn around and shape our thoughts, memories, and how we live our lives.
In other words, the story you decide to tell about yourself matters. A lot.
What brought you to this moment? What life events have shaped you into the person you are today? What are you struggling with, and why are you struggling? What are you working toward?
Although we often think of ourselves as fixed and definable creatures, our lives are in constant flux. We are ceaselessly bombarded with information, thoughts, and emotions, which then influence the trajectories of our lives.
How do we make sense of it all?
While it can sometimes feel like events in our lives have meaning in and of themselves, context is everything.
Imagine that I suddenly find myself, sore and exhausted, at the finish line of a marathon. I don’t remember running the race or the months of training I must have endured to get there. Do you think I’d feel any happiness or pride in the accomplishment? No, of course not. I’d just feel terrible.
Now, imagine I’m standing at the same finish line and I recall the months of hard work, dedication, and perseverance it took to get me there. Suddenly, my pain and exhaustion take on a new meaning and I’m overwhelmed with positive emotions. I‘ve connected my present circumstances with a broader narrative that explains and gives meaning to what I’m experiencing.
Our minds connect the dots of experience and weave them into a consistent and understandable history. This is the story of our lives. Without this narrative, what we experience would be mostly devoid of meaning.
But, it’s not just that we tell stories about ourselves that matters. The kind of story we tell ourselves about ourselves matters, too.
If this is the first marathon I’ve ever run, I’m ecstatic to have just completed the race. All that training paid off.
If, however, this is my eighth marathon and I was ten minutes slower than my personal best, I might feel disappointed in my performance.
In both cases, I ran the same 26.2 miles, but in each case I’m interpreting the event through a different lens — a different story — that I created. As a result, how I feel about the same event is different in each case.
But, this isn’t rocket science, right? It’s perfectly natural to expect different things from ourselves based on our past experiences.
While that’s certainly true, it’s easy to miss the insight this can also give you into the fundamental nature of your human experience:
How you interpret the events in your life depends on the stories you tell about yourself, which are up to you.
Re-telling your story
We are constantly torn between being the authors of our stories and being the characters in them. Often, we feel like we are just the characters, helplessly swept along in our ever-evolving stories like a leaf in the wind. We forget that we have control over the larger narrative.
So, we give up. We wallow in our misfortune. We interpret the events of our lives in the worst possible way. We feel like life, and everyone in it, have turned their backs on us.
It’s at moments like these that we need to remind ourselves that this isn’t the end, and that we are the authors of, and not just the characters in, our stories. We need to step back and remind ourselves that there’s a larger narrative at play – one that we have the power to define – and that our current struggles could be paving the way to something better.
But, this can be difficult. Sometimes, the present moment feels unbearable and overwhelming. It’s easy to feel stuck there.
Just remember that in every piece of fiction there’s a low point for the main character. This is the moment when they feel beaten and defeated — like all is lost. What do they do then? Often, they learn from their mistakes and failures and simply move forward.
This is an important lesson to incorporate into the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We won’t be stuck where we are forever. Things will change. We will change.
We each have the power to tell ourselves a different story — a better story. One that empowers us to overcome the obstacles in our lives rather than shrink from them. One that reminds us that it is on the journey and not at the destination that we will find meaning and purpose. And one that causes us to feel love and compassion for ourselves even as we stumble and fall on the difficult path that is life.
Stop telling yourself the same tired story. You aren’t helpless, weak, or a coward. You’re just human.
Instead, change your story. Remind yourself that you’re on a journey and that learning and growing are done best in the presence of mistakes and failures. And remind yourself that no mistake or failure defines the end of your story. There’s more to it than this.
Change your story and then watch how it changes you.
Thanks for reading!