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How Your Personal Stories Motivate You, Give You Hope, and Keep You Stuck

Our stories tell us about ourselves and our relationships.

Key points

  • Your personal stories are important to your mental health and psychological well-being
  • These stories tell us who we are, who we have been, and who we will be.
  • Some of the stories about us come from experience, inner thoughts, or the world around us.

Mary* had arrived early for her session, as she generally did. As I opened the door from the waiting room to let her into my office, she said, her irritation palpable, “You kept me waiting. I hate to wait.”

I replied, “You know that we're starting right on time, right?" She nodded and then went on to tell me all of the ways that different people had let her down that day.

“You’re just the last of many,” she said. Mary could not let go of the idea that I was withholding from her by not seeing her when she arrived, even though it was before her actual appointment time.

In a recent YouTube workshop, author and psychotherapist Esther Perel talks about the importance of stories to our mental health and psychological well-being. She said that we all have “go-to stories,” which put our lives and behaviors into context.

These stories tell us who we are, who we have been, and who we will be. They also tell us what we can and can’t do and why. They give us hope, motivate us, and keep us stuck.

A young college professor came to therapy because he was severely depressed. As we worked together, I realized that he was trapped in a similar story but different from Mary’s.

Grateful for his many privileges, he told himself that he could never ask for anything for himself. He could not expect to be promoted, recognized, or rewarded for his work. He could not ask for more money. Like Mary, he felt helpless to change anything. The helplessness was part of his depression, but the story he told himself that made things even worse was his sense that he was a bad person if he wanted something more.

The stories we tell ourselves tend to fall into two major categories:

  1. Relationships. These include family, intimate partners, work relationships, and friendships.
  2. Self. Meaning all the stories you tell yourself about yourself, whether they have to do with how smart or dumb you are, how good you are at sports, what a kind or selfish or mean or loving person you are, and whether you are lazy or hard-working.

The professor’s story reflected how he felt about himself. “I’m bad,” he said. “Selfish and narcissistic. I have so much. How can I want more?”

Mary’s story reflected her relationships. Her parents had divorced when she was 10, and she had gone with one sibling to live with their father, while two other siblings stayed with their mother. “No one paid attention to what I wanted or needed. Didn’t they realize that a 10-year-old girl needs her mother?” she asked.

I asked Mary how she explained why her parents hadn’t thought about her need for her mother.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes, I tell myself they were just stupid. But I know they weren’t stupid. I guess I’ve always told myself it was because they didn’t care about me, or maybe they didn’t like me. So they didn’t give me what I needed.”

Mary and I talked more about this story for a long time. One day she said:

Looking at what happened from the perspective of an adult with kids of my own, I can see that maybe my parents really were stupid. I don’t mean dumb stupid, just not at all tuned into what a kid needs. And they so didn’t have the emotional or the financial bandwidth to give me what I needed. Neither of them could take all of the children. Maybe they shouldn’t have had kids in the first place, but who ever thinks about that when they’re young and stupid?

She grinned.

No disrespect intended, I guess. But I guess this means my story doesn’t work anymore. They weren’t withholding from me on purpose. They just couldn’t give me what I wanted.

A few sessions later, when she was once again early and waiting for me to let her into my office, I worried that once again, she was going to be irritated that I wasn’t opening the door early, even though I didn’t have another client in the office.

But this time, when I did open the door, she smiled and took a minute to take earphones out of her ears and turn off her phone. “I have a new story,” she said. “I’m glad you’re taking the time to take care of yourself. And I’m spending these few minutes before I start my session taking care of myself in a different way. I’m listening to some meditative music to get ready for therapy.”

Some of the stories about us come from the world around us. Therapists, unfortunately, often add to the stories about how parents were bad, neglectful, and abusive. Of course, sadly, there are all too many parents who do indeed fit that story; but other parents, like Mary’s, are sometimes simply overwhelmed and unable to meet all of their children’s needs.

How do you find your stories?

  • Keep a journal. Notice what you say about yourself and how you frame your experiences. Those are your stories.
  • Talk to a friend. Pay attention to patterns in how you explain situations, interactions, feelings. Those are your stories.
  • Start a meditation practice. You’ll begin to notice when you’re telling yourself the same old same old.

It's not easy changing the stories you tell yourself about yourself. And in fact, as the psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell once wrote, you’re better off with these stories than with no stories. We need our stories to know who we are. But once you know what your own go-to stories are, you might want to try to see if they keep you in a rut.

Ask yourself if there are possible ways to think about any situation other than the ones you normally go to. And see if maybe, just maybe, shifting your story even the tiniest bit makes a difference in how you feel.

* Names and identifying info changed for privacy.