Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves have quite an impact on our lives.
(590 words)
IELTS Reading Questions:
Matching Information & Yes / No / Not Given

We constantly tell ourselves stories about who we are and the world around us, automatically layering these stories on top of experience; it’s one of the ways that we make sense of what happens in our lives. As writer Will Storr puts it, our brains create a story and place us as the hero at the centre of everything. As you will see, however, ‘hero’ might not always be the best word for this.

These stories are important. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains, they’re what make up our memories, and our memories guide our decisions and much of what we do. And the types of stories we tell ourselves can have quite an impact on our lives. While some can have a positive effect, there are some common story themes that limit our lives and cause us suffering.

One of these themes is believing that we are unable to make changes in our lives, says therapist Lori Gottlieb. She explains that when we think about our current problems, we tend to believe that we don’t have much freedom to change things, perhaps feeling trapped by our relationships, home, family, or even our past. Another unhelpful theme is believing you’re not good enough in some way, or, as therapist Esther Perel explains, stories that begin with ‘un’, such as, ‘I’m unwanted’, ‘unseen’, or ‘unloved’.

Another problem with our storytelling is what psychiatrist Paul Conti calls selective abstraction – taking one detail and creating a story around that detail. He gives the example of having a good day at work, but then being unable to find his keys as he’s preparing to go home. That detail then becomes the story of the day (bad day) and the story about himself (‘loser – you can’t even find your keys’). His mind created a whole story, including thoughts of not being good enough, from one negative event, he says.

Perhaps it’s clear by now that the stories we tell ourselves are not necessarily true. However, we don’t always realise this, and, as Perel says, these stories can become the reality of our lives. They affect how you feel, how you act in the world, and they can keep you stuck – the beliefs about who you are prevent you from creating new beliefs about who you could be. She says that one of the aims of her first therapy sessions with new clients is to get them to leave with another story, or at least with the idea that there can be another story.

It can be difficult to change or let go of our stories, however. Some of them have been with us for a long time, and, as Storr puts it, our storytelling ‘feels real because it’s the only reality we know’. Change can also be difficult as it means losing what’s familiar, Gottlieb says. She argues that we often have more freedom to change our stories than we realise, but one reason we don’t is because there’s something comforting about knowing how the story will go, even if it’s unpleasant. In contrast, making a change is to go out into the unknown, which can be scary.  

Still, it might be worth thinking about the stories you’re telling yourself, worth noticing the stories your mind creates when things happen. How true are they? Could there be another story? As Gottlieb explains, part of getting to know yourself is letting go of the story so that you can live your life instead of the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.

IELTS Reading Questions for Stories We Tell Ourselves:
Matching Information & Yes / No / Not Given.

Sources and links from Stories We Tell Ourselves

– The ideas from Will Storr came from his book The Status Game (Goodreads link) and his TED Talk about Storytelling.
– The ideas from Daniel Kahneman came from his appearance on Lex Fridman’s podcast (YouTube link).
Lori Gottlieb’s website. The information in this article came from her book You Should Talk to Someone and mostly from her TED Talk about changing your story.
– Esther Perel talking about stories (and other stuff) on the Peter Attia Drive podcast and her Short Youtube video about stories.
– The information from Paul Conti came from his interview on The Tim Ferris Show podcast (YouTube link). 
Image by Social Cut on Unsplash (edited).

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anne Mette

    I love this Nick, and I recognise it both from a personal and a professional side. What springs to mind is what Henry Ford was quoted for saying: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.’ That too is story that we tell ourselves… which can either support or hinder us.

    From the perspective of working as a therapeutic coach, I know when my clients become aware of the stories they tell themselves and then start to create other stories, that they are well on their way from becoming unstuck. Thanks again Nick.

    1. Nick

      Hi Anne Mette.
      Glad you liked the article.
      Thanks for the nice comment, quote, and the insights from your work.

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