Stories We Tell Ourselves

Posted by on Sep 10, 2016 in Identity, Self-Care, Therapy

Stories We Tell Ourselves

“He said he had been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music, and at the very end… there was a dreadful screeching sound… He added, really quite emotionally, ‘It ruined the whole experience.’ But it hadn’t. What it had ruined was the memory of the experience… He had had twenty minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing…” — Daniel Kahneman, TED2010

Two Stories of a Saturday Morning

This morning, I sat alone at an outdoor cafe. The cool breeze was refreshing after many days of stifling heat. I had the chance to be quiet, to enjoy my book, to watch people,– families and couples, friends meeting for coffee,– and to wonder about their lives. I had nowhere I needed to be. When a gust of wind blew my glasses off the table, a man picked them up and returned them to me with a kind smile.

This morning, I sat alone at an outdoor cafe. Of course, I chose the one day it was cold, and my hair kept blowing in my face. I was the only person there who wasn’t with anyone. I’m sure I looked pathetic just sitting there with my book. But I had nothing else to do with my morning. To top it all off, my glasses fell on the ground, and a stranger had to pick them up for me. How embarrassing.

Stories of Memory

I’m glad to say that the memory I actually hold of this morning is the first of those two stories. It took some effort to come up with a second possible version. But as I wrote the second scenario, I thought about how much power our subjective interpretations of events can have over our whole sense of reality and well-being.

We all talk about our lives as though we are telling facts: “This happened, and then this, and then…” We connect the dots of our days into narratives, often unaware that we see and feel everything through a subjective lens. In his TED Talk, Kahneman states: “There is an experiencing self who lives in the present… And then, there is a remembering self… The remembering self is a story teller. Our memory tells us stories. That is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.”

Here are some stories I’ve heard recently in the therapy room:

“I finished my presentation and sat down at my desk. Everyone was looking at me and whispering. They thought I was stupid.”

“I was driving and getting ready to park, and she freaked out. She always does this. Why doesn’t she trust me?”

“I gave him a look to say that I wasn’t having fun and wasn’t okay, but he ignored it and kept talking to the person.”

“I asked my dad to visit me in a dream, but he didn’t. He never does. He must not love me any more.”

“About that schedule problem– I’m sorry I was such a pest!”

“While we were watching the movie, he kept putting his hands on me,– on my knee, around my shoulder, on my stomach… All he cared about was sex.”

When Your Stories are Hurting You

The stories we tell ourselves are important and healthy when they help us to make sense of our lives. We need these narratives in order to build a coherent sense of self and personal history. We also need them to build a shared sense of meaning in our relationships. But these stories can sabotage us, too, especially when we become stuck in certain ways of interpreting events.

Thoughts are not facts. Your “remembering self” may be sabotaging you. Try stepping outside your thoughts and observing them neutrally. Just be curious. Look for common themes, black and white thinking, and blanket statements in your stories: “This always happens to me.” “Why am I so…?” “They think I’m…” Imagine that you’re wearing a pair of tinted glasses, through which you tend to see and understand many of your experiences. Maybe you’re prone to telling yourself stories about:

  • your worth or desirability
  • your competence
  • your safety
  • your needs in relation to others’ needs
  • your sense of agency/helplessness
  • your sense of possibility

When you’ve identified a theme, just be aware of it. Notice when it comes up. Consider that it may be coloring the stories you tell yourself– about what happened with the man at the checkout counter yesterday, about the sudden change of plans with your friend, about your upcoming job interview or date. Training yourself to observe your thoughts in this neutral, nonjudgmental way can empower you to see your own part in creating the memories you carry.

When Stories Clash: Conflict in Relationships

“I’ll tell you why we’re disconnected after twenty-five years of marriage. It’s because he got so involved with the kids that he forgot all about me.” This was her story. And she was telling it (vehemently) as fact. Of course, I turned to him, and he had a very different story, also told as fact.

In my opinion, every relationship involves two subjective realities. Each person is wearing a different pair of tinted glasses,– experiencing situations through a unique lens, and then telling personal stories about what has happened. The major work of therapy, when we’re addressing conflict in relationships, is to provide a safe place in which both realities can exist and be understood.

Most of us try to resolve conflict by convincing the other person that our own subjective reality is the absolute truth. We want to be heard, and if the other person would just get it, then everything would be all right. So we assert our stories as fact. The problem is that, in this model of conflict resolution, only one person gets to exist and be valid. The other person has to agree or disappear.

In my experience, intimacy and connection can happen only when both people are able to share and hear about both realities with openness and compassion.







About Lynn Davies

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. I have been in private practice for over fourteen years and have experience working with adults and adolescents, addressing a variety of issues: anxiety, depression, relationship problems, past or current trauma, eating disorders, self-mutilation, bereavement, parenting concerns, boundaries, and self-care.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for the information

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *