Monday, 24 August 2015

Five Crappy Stories We Tell Ourselves (And Why it's Important to Change Them)

One of life's game-changing moments for me came when I realised that I had been telling a series of stories about myself and my life, and that those stories were a choice and that they could be changed at any time. Some of my stories were deeply ingrained. They had been running unchecked for years and they were having a powerful negative effect on me in the process.

Many people have this same realisation but they don't 'bring it to consciousness'. They see, in brief moments of crystal clear self-assessment, that they are telling themselves harmful tales, but they choose to brush the information back under the rug and continue with their behaviour. Bringing the understanding to consciousness means doing something about it, not just once or twice but on the daily. It means that you live your life armed with the knowledge that stories are powerful and that they can be insidious or illuminating - wondrously inspiring or woefully depressing.

Nowadays I regularly take a look at the stories I'm telling myself about the projects, relationships, challenges and situations in my life. I ask myself if the narrative I have constructed is fair. I ask myself if it's helpful. I ask myself if it's the only story available to me or if there are other, more empowering ones to choose from. A long time ago I used to tell myself that I would always be deeply depressed, weighed down by my own complexity and alienation. The stories I had constructed about my mental health challenges painted me as a lost, lonely victim, unable to shake off the invisible bonds of misery and madness. It would be years before I could see my way to telling a different kind of tale - one about self-acceptance, overcoming adversity and being authentic in a topsy-turvy world.

For a long time I told myself a story about a certain man who was my other half, my everything - it was a classic love story in which two people completed each other (and each other's sentences). When he left me for another woman, the story could have taken a dark turn. Fortunately, I was already waking up to the simple fact that stories are legion - you can always pick another one. That doesn't mean that life won't hurt - of course it will, and you can't bypass that. But you get to choose your response. You are not enslaved by your stories - you are writing them. You have the privilege of creative license and you are entitled to change your mind.

Now that I try to remain super conscious of the stories I tell myself, it's much easier to spot some of the most common ones which tend to blight people's lives in some way. Here are five of the most widespread crappy stories..

Story #1
'I will go after my big dream but I need to wait until..' This classic tale is all about waiting for The Perfect Time. The Perfect Time is a strange, mythical place, believed in by so many but visited by so few.. As with all stories, there are many variations on the central theme. Some people are convinced that they need to wait until a partner, child or parent has it all figured out before they can actually go out there and live their own life - the classic tale of the long-suffering martyr. Others are waiting for the economy to improve, or they're waiting until they lose a bit more weight, gain a little more confidence, move to a different area or find the right angle on their big idea.. Obviously, it's not always the right moment to make your move, but stories about The Perfect Time aren't really about finding a realistic starting point, they're about fear. If you keep telling yourself that you're waiting for The Perfect Time and that all you need is for The Perfect Time to arrive, you're probably kidding yourself. Your story is just a form of self-sabotage.

Story #2 
'I'm not the kind of person who can..' As the central character in your story, it's only right that you see yourself as multifaceted. You are in possession of hopes and fears, weaknesses and strengths - a whole plethora of quirks and characteristics! Watering yourself down into a one-sided cardboard cutout isn't conducive to a good story. But so many of us are walking around painting ourselves as stereotypical villains, victims or doomed damsels in distress! We highlight whatever we lack and downplay what makes us great. We also make huge assumptions and generalisations about our abilities. People use everything from their star sign to their education and social background as excuses for why they can't do something. One popular way in which people love to tell themselves this kind of story is through professing to be victims of their parents' mistakes and behaviours. For example, you may have picked up some crappy money monsters from your mother and proceeded to tell yourself a story about how your inability to spend wisely is due to picking up her bad habits. Or maybe you blame your foul temper on your father who always used to take his frustrations out on the family.

Story #3
'The world is just so..' Such a sweeping generalisation about the way the entire world works can't possibly be healthy! Although you know that the world is a heck of a lot more complex than that, it's tempting to convince yourself that it's all bad all the time and therefore it's hardly worth getting out of bed in the morning let alone bounding around after your goals. When you decide that the world is out to get you, that failure and pain are inevitable and that the odds are always stacked in favour of defeat, you've basically got yourself a major attitude problem. It's the kind of thing we berate surly teenagers for, yet we can sometimes find ourselves stuck on the same shitty carousel! Time to stop the ride!

Story #4
'People are just so..' The trouble with this one is that it's so relatable and obvious that it's almost impossible to talk someone out of it! So many of us, myself included, have been heinously betrayed by someone we cared for. So many have experienced bullying, abuse, manipulation or outright deceit and treachery at the hands of at least one human being. Those experiences are among the ones which mark us the deepest. They take a long time to recover from and perhaps even longer to learn from. It's obvious that a certain degree of ill-treatment on a long enough timeline would encourage some people to decide that everyone pretty much sucks. The thing is that when you take this view on life, you're letting the people who hurt you hurt you again and again, because you're letting their crappy behaviour keep you small and sad. Don't give them another piece of yourself every time you turn your back on the world, and hey - don't deny someone the chance to be good to you either. Quite often we end up pushing good eggs away because we tar them with the same brush as the rotten one who made such a nasty impression on us!

Story #5
'It's not as easy as that..' Have you ever refuted someone's encouragement with those exact words? Ever shut someone down as they tried to spur you on, interrupting them to insist that it's not easy, it's hard, it's really hard to get where you want to go? Sure, everything is more complex than it looks from the outside. But when you choose to focus on the obstacles and you underline those obstacles with red pen, you slowly begin to fulfill your own prophesy. Another way in which people tend to do this is to insist that others have it easy because of _______  fill in the blank. 'It's easy for her - she's always been super confident', 'It's fine for him - he started his business with money from his parents.' Zooming in on whatever other people have been able to use to their advantage in life and using that stuff as an excuse to do nothing is one of the oldest tricks in the book and, honey, it won't wash! Just because something requires commitment and effort does't mean it's impossible. Just because someone may have had the benefit of some resources that you don't have doesn't mean you can't make it on your own terms.

Maybe you are relying on one or more of these five stories to keep you safe in some way. Maybe the drudgery of telling such stories feels a lot more low risk than the idea of making a change! If you recognise any of these yucky tales or you've identified some different ones which are equally unhelpful in your life, I dare you to start changing the way you spin the yarn!



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