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Owning Your Story

A Personal Perspective: We repeat stories over and over to ourselves.

Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Last weekend, I met a woman who made me think about the stories we tell ourselves. I was traveling to one of my favorite towns, Big Bear, which is a place I’ve been traveling to for years. I love this town, specifically because of the Alpine Slide, a human-made slide that goes right through the mountains. I struck up a conversation with the woman working the slide, and I learned a bit more about her life— she lived in Big Bear for 20 years, during that time she divorced her husband, and she loved working at the Alpine Slide.

After my ride, I thought about her situation. This woman had two different ways to view her situation. The first was to remind herself that she was a middle-aged woman, divorced, and working at a job that many teenagers worked at. She chose to tell herself the following: I'm so lucky because I get to live in this beautiful mountain town and work a job where people are happy to be. Which story would you rather tell yourself?

A better question is: What stories do you tell yourself each day? Are these stories that build you up, fill you with gratitude and put a smile on your face? Or are they the stories that fill you with shame, anger, and guilt?

Many people choose to tell themselves the negative story instead of the positive ones. One of the reasons we do this is jealousy. If we compare ourselves to others, there will always be people above us and below us. We have to ask ourselves if comparing ourselves to others is helpful, or harmful? Since someone will always be more successful or beautiful, it makes more sense to simply focus on what we have going for ourselves at this moment.

Let’s look at another example. Two of my friends adopted and raised two young adults, both from different parents. The boy never mentions or thinks about his birth parents. He is more focused on his gratitude for his adoptive parents. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the girl has gone through some psychological struggles around feeling rejected by her birth parents. The question is: What story is each of these individuals telling themselves, and which story leads to joy and happiness, and which story leads to disappointment and suffering?

Here’s one of the tricky parts of telling stories. Sometimes we don’t know why people do the things they do to us. We may be involved in a car accident where the party who caused it drives away. Or we may have been given up for adoption as a baby. When we don’t have answers, we have a tendency to fill in the blanks.

Sometimes we do have the answer to our stories, for instance being raised by parents who mistreated us. Even when we have all the information, we still have the power to make decisions about the stories we create. In this example, we can choose to tell the story that our parents were terrible, or we can ask ourselves if these stories are leading to our happiness. Even when we tell stories that are based on facts, they still have the power to be unhelpful and lead us into unhealthy thought patterns.

This is a key piece of storytelling that plagues many of us. We have a tendency to repeat these stories over and over to ourselves. This may be because we are asking for penance or hoping that if we repeat it enough it won’t happen again. In reality, when we repeat things over and over again, sometimes we fall back into the same actions or behaviors we were trying to stop.

Recently, I read a study that looked at war veterans coming back home, they found that most of them have a very hard time reintegrating into society. One of the main reasons for this: These veterans were replaying the events that happened overseas, over and over again. This didn’t apply to all veterans, though. The folks who came home and seemed relatively well-adjusted had one thing in common, they weren’t repeating the stories of the war in their head. They let those stories go.

We can always hang onto the stories of our lives, but it’s important to recognize when these stories are creating more negativity than happiness. can be extremely freeing when we give ourselves permission to let go of our own stories. You may find newfound happiness and lightness that wasn’t accessible before.

A few years ago, my son and I were go-karting, and I got into an accident going at around 50mph. I didn’t get seriously injured, but it did take me around six months to fully heal. During that time I didn’t have a story to create, I was only focused on healing my body, which wasn’t injured by somebody else, I injured myself as a result of living my life.

But let’s say someone experiences an injury from their partner, or perhaps from a parent while they were growing up. In these scenarios, we can create a lot of stories in our heads. And again, these stories may be true and it’s normal to think about these stories. While we may not have the power to heal our physical bodies, we do have the power to heal our mental suffering. And while it’s not easy, it can free us from suffering.

If we pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves, I believe that our lives will be better. This is because we can choose to focus on stories that build us up, or better yet, cease telling ourselves stories at all, and redirect our attention to simply living in the moment.

Let’s look at one last example of a scenario that may seem negative on the outside, but in reality, led to a positive outcome. I know a few people who lost their jobs and instead of telling themselves that they’re a disappointment and need to find a new job ASAP, they decided to do something different with their newfound time. They sold their belongings and moved into a van to travel the country. They had the option to tell themselves a negative story about their luck and circumstance but instead used their time to create beautiful stories every day as they explore the country.

I don’t want to underplay the need to heal from things emotionally because that is extremely important to living a happy and fulfilled life. But, if we’re still angry or upset from something that happened years ago, it may be time to examine the stories we’re telling ourselves and see if they are helping us harbor these negative feelings. Once we let go of that anger or hurt, we make so much more room for positive feelings and beautiful experiences.

Once we recognize the importance of these positive stories, we can take it a step further and understand how vital it is to also live in the moment. It takes effort to release the negative stories we tell ourselves, but once we do, we’ll find that we have so much more time to experience the magic of life every day.