The Danger of a Single Story

We all have stories about ourselves that we invest in, and we don’t think about how it impacts our life, but the truth is it can completely change how we experience our life. The stories we tell ourselves, the ones we were told growing up about who we are/ were and the ones we repeat have power and shape our lives and our experiences.

See this incredible TED talk below and read on…

Think about the stories you were told growing up, the stories you were told about the world? Was it dangerous? beautiful? filled with miracles? filled with people who are out to take advantage of you?

What were the stories you were told about your childhood? Were you smart? A difficult child? Always had trouble with math? No good with other kids?

What stories were/ are you told about who you are? Are you a victim? A survivor? A leader? A failure? A looser? A loner? A winner? Resilient?

What stories do you tell yourself?

What stories do you tell others?

What stories do others tell about you?

Which ones do you invest in and choose to retell yourself or others?

What stories do you tell your kids?  Your friends? About them? About you? 

Our stories about ourselves direct our attention. There is so much stimulation around us at any given time that we automatically apply filters to direct our attentionThe filters we apply are often chosen based on what we already believe, so if I believe that all people who wear yellow shoes are angry, I will automatically notice cases where this is true more than I notice all the times that isn’t true. This is how racism and prejudices are propagated. It is also how we validate and make ourselves feel more confident and invested in our own assumptions about the world.

file_101560_0_Baby_MirrorThese are all a part of how we experience ourselves called the “conceptualized self” and we have a tendency to get tangled up in the content of what we think of ourselves. In fact, if we can’t trust what we believe about ourselves, we can’t trust anything of our experiences. Because of this, we actually work to make what we believe about ourselves true. We discussed this in a previous post “What is your filter?”.

For example, if I believe the story that  “I am a good mother“, I will make decisions that allow me to keep believing that I am a good mother, like being really nurturing. If my story is that “I am not good enough”, I will choose to hang out with people who may not treat me respectfully or tolerate people who don’t treat me respectfully for a long time because that fits with my single story of myself.

So here is the problem, there are always many stories we have about ourselves. Some may seem good, like  “I am a good person”, “I do things for others”, “I get along with people”, “I am laid back”, “I work hard”, “I am a leader” etc. Some may be clearly not so helpful, like “I will never get anywhere in life”, “I am poor”, “I have anxiety”, “I am depressed”.

It is normal and natural to have some stories about ourselves that we get more invested in. This only becomes a problem when we become so invested in it that we start making our decision to make this true, instead of having our decisions based on what is healthiest for us.

It is not difficult to see how the clearly negative self-beliefs are damaging, but this is a problem even with seemingly “positive” labels. Consider “I am laid back”, if I invest in this single story, I may stop myself from getting really engaged or invested in things because of it. What about “I get along with people“? Well, focusing on this story may stop us from standing up for ourselves.  How about “I am leader“? This one can be a problem if we are in a situation where it is not appropriate for us to be the leader, or may prompt us to assume a leadership role before we have all the information because we have to make ourselves right. All of this happens unconsciously and automatically, based on the dominant stories we were told growing up and internalized, the ones we tell ourselves and the ones we tell to others.

So what can we do when we notice an unhealthy story?

  1.  Stop giving it so much air time. You don’t have to retell it to yourself or others if your don’t want to.
  2. When it comes up, LABEL/ NAME THE STORY it as a way to not invest in it so much. When we help ourselves see that it is JUST A STORY, it stops being so powerful.  The way to do this is to NAME THE STORY (ie. “The I am not good enough story” or the “I am bad person story” or maybe the “I am victim story”, the “scared story”, the ” I have anxiety story”, the ” I am never happy story”).
  3.  When it comes up, say “Thank you” to your mind for the story. This helps us remember that we are in control not our mind, and reminds us that we don’t have to invest in it. Just seeing the process and acknowledging it (observing our own thoughts and feelings) helps us get untangled from it.

Lets look at an example. Lets say “I messed up, I made a big mistake that hurt someone I loved, and I betrayed them.” There will be a strong emotional association with this situation, and a negative one at that. I will be prone to invest in the “I am a bad person story”. This might  stop me from standing up for myself when I am being berated by my partner, who is angry. This doesn’t get us anywhere and may even stop us from facing the circumstances that lead to the betrayal, like perhaps my partner had a role to play in it. In order to really move forward from a mistake, we need to face all the contributors. Investing in the “I am a victim story” or ” I am a bad guy” story, doesn’t help me move forward to live a healthy life.

So anytime I start to feel that way, I can:

  1. Reduce Airtime: by interrupting the unhealthy thought and replacing it with a healthy thoughts, like “I am more than just my mistake” or “Our mistakes don’t define us, it is what we do with them that matters”.
  2. Label it: “There’s that I’m a bad person story again”
  3. Thank your mind: “Thanks mind”

So… What’s your story?

As always, we would love to hear from you. Send us your questions and comments by email or on twitter @DrAdrianaWilson.

See you next week!