Our Stories Are Enormously Powerful, It's Wise to Pay Attention to Which Ones You Are Telling
Back in my corporate working days I worked with a senior American colleague who had been flown out to Australia to be the ‘expert’ on our project, it was a particularly stressful project and it was a role I really did not envy. We were in the early stages of getting to know one another – the period when you’re not sure how honest or politically incorrect you can be in their company. Although I thought it was obvious that the situation was a complete nightmare, I wasn’t sure how she was feeling about it. One morning over coffee she told me about her dream from the previous night and confided, surprisingly, that I was in it. Indeed, it was a nightmare.
Apparently we were trapped helplessly in a ‘haunted house’ and could not seem to find our way out, we were scaring ourselves to death in the face of ghosts, shadows, scary noises and ultimately our own fears. Interestingly she didn’t have to say anymore for us to instantly connect, bond and understand each other in a way that spoke volumes without saying much explicitly at all. From that point on, neither of us bitched or moaned about the work, the deadlines, the clients and the craziness of the whole situation – we just referred to the ‘haunted house’ and it became a running joke that brought light relief as well as empathy and support for each other.
This is the power of the ‘story’. It speaks to us in a way that boring facts cannot. Why? Because it engages our right brain, our emotions and our ability to create meaning through association. In essence, it allows us to download a lot of data about the world and make sense of it with both the right brain through imagery and the left brain through words. A story speaks to us and conveys meaning on multiple levels simultaneously, its elements have an ‘embedded’ meaning that works through the lightening-fast processing capacity of the subconscious brain. Consider all of the associations that come to mind when I mention the word ‘princess’ – before I have even finished uttering the word your subconscious has immediately dredged up lots of information on prince charming, magical castles, glittery frocks, wicked stepmothers, Woman’s Day magazine covers, demanding women, diamante encrusted dog collars and so on. If I was to call someone a ‘princess’ you would instantly create an understanding of that person in your mind and no doubt, make a few assumptions about them.
While stories can communicate a lot of meaning quickly and easily, they are powerful because they engage our emotional side and make us feel something. Although there are ‘numbers’ people who are good at remembering facts and figures, most of us will find it much easier to remember a good story. This is due to the feelings involved – we may not easily remember the date, time and place of a past event, but we will remember our experience of it. Think of a significant event in your life and try to recall the details of it without describing a feeling that you had about it – it is nearly impossible. When someone asks you to recall something about your wedding day it’s highly unlikely that your first response will be ‘overcast’ or ‘2pm Saturday.’ Instead you’ll remember how you felt…nervous, happy, completely in love…or a severe hangover.
The stories that we tell over and over again become our personal ‘history’ and will often highlight a particular theme or personal mythology in which we continually construct and reinforce our personal identity. For example, the “Reliable Hard-worker” who “is always left holding the can” or the “Black Sheep” who is “never accepted or good enough.” In essence, we use the stories we tell to help define who we are and dictate how we make sense of the world. Our personal mythology becomes so engrained and comfortable, our stories so familiar, that we begin to believe that those stories are evidence of a particular truth about ourselves. We begin to believe that these stories are the truth.
But stories are not objectively ‘the truth’ at all. They are still just stories. Stories represent our subjective truth – they provide an account of how we have interpreted and made sense of the people, situations and events in our lives. Stories only tell us something about our personal inner experience of the event, not necessarily about the event itself. I am sure you are familiar with hearing two different people tell a story about the same event in which the details of their stories differ significantly. Neither story is wrong, but neither story is an objective account of the event.
The story told always depends entirely on the storyteller. Our stories are completely unique to us as individual storytellers. They are told by us, primarily for us, through the lens of our own personal viewpoints and reflect our own distinctive experiences, interpretations and assumptions. When we experience something, no one else can tell us about that experience except ourselves. We tell ourselves the story of what happened. We are the storytellers of our own life and we use stories to help us make sense of ourselves. Our stories reflect back to us our version of our truth and help us to understand, process and even justify our emotions, behaviours and actions. We use them to maintain our personal image or identity and uphold our personal beliefs and worldviews. Given they play such a crucial role in determining how we feel about ourselves, others and the world around us, it is wise to pay attention to the stories we are telling.
So what kind of stories do you tell about yourself? About your life? I have had the privilege to hear many stories over the years and most of the time I’m sad to say that the central characters in these stories are cast as ugly, stupid, unloved, shameful, sad and worthless victims. Why do we tell such horrible stories about ourselves? Or more to the point, why do we let horrible stories dictate our life and limit our energy levels, happiness and well-being?
I feel that there are two key reasons:
We forget that we are the storyteller of our own life and therefore fail to take responsibility for the stories we tell
We mistakenly assume our stories are ‘truth.’
When we forget or fail to claim our inherent power as ‘the storyteller’ we tell or repeat stories from an unconscious and disempowered place. We hand our power over to the ‘story’ and let it determine our emotions, identity and even our future. Our stories begin to overpower us and we continue telling outdated stories we don’t even like or want to tell as if we have no control over them.
When we assume our stories are ‘the truth’ (and the only truth!) we give our power away by becoming attached to the story. We need to continue proving it is true or defending it when others question it. We assume our story is the only story. We have (naturally, because we’re the storyteller) made ourselves the central character in our story and cast others into specific roles. In order to uphold or maintain our version of the truth we insist that others must play along in the story, we need them to validate it and agree with it and play the role they have been cast in and we get annoyed if they don’t. We also ridicule or reject other people’s stories if they conflict with ours. This constant fight to maintain our version of the truth is not only draining and disempowering, it is the major cause of conflict in our relationships.
To claim our storytelling power we need to do two important things:
Claim our power as the storyteller
Decide which stories we want to tell and how we want to tell them
When we recognise that we are the storyteller of our own life – what power we have!! We get to consciously choose who we are as the central character. Why would you cast yourself as a victim when you could be a courageous hero or heroine? Once you claim your power as the storyteller you are automatically prompted to decide whether or not you wish to persist in telling stories in which you have no power, or you’re not beautiful, smart, talented or capable enough.
Consider a typical story of being abandoned, abused or dumped. It’s common to tell this story and cast yourself as the ‘victim’ – this abandonment, abuse or rejection happened to you. It was inflicted upon you and left you alone, hurt, disappointed and heartbroken. Yet how often do you alter this story to claim your courage, strength, resilience and your ability to survive and thrive in spite of the experience?
Once you have claimed your power as the storyteller you get to decide how to tell the story. An interesting thing happens once you do this. You assume responsibility for your feelings, your beliefs and your role. This may actually feel difficult or challenging because it sheds light on the underlying purpose or hidden benefits of your story. Remember that stories help us to uphold a belief, justify an emotion or reinforce a truth. For example, when you continue to tell the story that your husband never listens to you – you are using the story to justify feeling unimportant, upholding the belief that you have nothing important to say and therefore reinforcing the truth that you are unimportant and not worth listening to. What a terrible story! That feels worse! Best to just complain that he never listens to you!
So taking responsibility for your story means confronting some uncomfortable self-judgements. These are judgements about yourself that are so bad that you needed to project them on to the other characters in your story. But when you confront these judgements you have the power to decide whether they are really part of the ‘the truth’ of who you are. Only when you claim personal responsibility for your self-judgements can you forgive them, let them go and ultimately free yourself.
Another common resistance to ‘changing the story’ is that it can feel as though you are denying the ‘truth’ of what happened by just ‘pretending that it didn’t happen at all’. For example, to change the story of your 'broken-home childhood' do you pretend that your parents didn’t divorce when you were 8 years old? Not at all. Because the event – your parents’ divorce – is a fact and that is quite different from the story. Changing the story is not about changing the event. It is about exercising conscious choice and taking control of the story so that you are telling it in a way that empowers and frees you and which stops reinforcing negative emotions, limiting self-beliefs or disempowering self-judgements.
Changing the story also doesn’t mean denying your experience or emotions. Your experience of any situation is always true, valid and important. For example, it is perfectly valid to state that the event happened (he left you) and acknowledge the details (he verbally or physically abused you) and how you felt about it (hurt and humiliated). You were totally allowedto feel that way. Quite often we continue telling stories to justify the feelings we felt, as though we weren't allowed to feel them. However when you stop judging your emotions and allow them (however 'wrong' or painful they are) you no longer need a reason (the story) to justify your emotions - you are just free to feel them and let them go.
Once you've allowed yourself to feel the emotions of the story you are then free to acknowledge its gifts. So you were abandoned and humiliated - but what happened after that? You were alone – and you found yourself! You had to stand up for yourself – you found your voice, strength and courage. Then you attracted a loving relationship – due to the self-confidence you had gained. Changing your story enables you to reach for other, alternative and more powerful truths. To evoke feelings with a much higher vibration. It is empowering to remember that you always have a choice to cast yourself in the role of victim and evoke feelings of powerlessness or to cast yourself as a warrior and evoke feelings of powerfulness.
So when you tell your stories – consider whether these stories are empowering you. Are you still casting yourself as a victim? Are the stories you are telling contributing to a self-identity that is whole and loving? Have you found the opportunities for self-realisation, growth and expansion in your stories? What would a change in story reveal? What alternative truths has your story been hiding? Have you awakened and owned the character strengths and qualities in yourself that you never knew existed? Did your story prompt decisions that made you stronger, healthier, or change your life for the better? Are you scared to claim your role as a survivor, warrior, beautiful star, or powerful and courageous hero or heroine? All of these roles are waiting for you. These stories are waiting to be told. Our stories are powerful mechanisms for creating, upholding and communicating meaning in our life, it is the storyteller who has complete power over which stories to tell. And that storyteller is you.