Storytelling. We all do it. Every day about every interaction, reaction, or action we’re a part of. It’s the way our minds are wired. Some (i.e. me) tell five million stories a day in their minds, others only a handful. However many we tell, as we process life we develop stories about ourselves, the world around us, and the people in it. We tuck them away nicely, and often unconsciously, in the back of our minds clueless to how much they are directing our lives and relationships.
There are a few elements that have a lead role in the kind of narratives we tell ourselves. Over time, these narratives become subconscious second nature to us, so it’s important that we are aware of the kind of foundation we are building our stories upon.
The first lead role that defines the voice of our stories is credited to our past experiences. The way we were treated, betrayed, or loved becomes a powerful influence for the narrative of our thoughts. Then our own assumptions about other people will play a heavy part in structuring our inner voice. How we judge, empathize with, or see others will ultimately take a lead role in the stories we tell. And finally, the third lead is our perspective. From childhood on our perspectives of the world and people, and therefore ourselves have been shaped little by little. This is perhaps one of the most forgotten elements in parenting. Perspectives are completely moldable, especially in the early years, but rarely noticed or intentionally shaped. Perspectives are never permanent even though they often feel like core truths. And with just a slight perspective shift, we can experience incredible breakthroughs and freedom in our lives. Perspective is extremely powerful. It’s the difference between racism and love, rock bottom and second chances, abuse and normal.
Each of these three elements that help write the stories we create in our thoughts are heavily influenced by our associations. We associate certain types of people, food, ideas, and things we don’t have enough data on with what we have experienced before that’s either similar or somewhat related. This is both helpful and dangerous, depending on the association.
Let’s look at some examples of my storytelling in action!
When I was going into my sophomore year in high school, I transferred from the small Christian private school I had attended from the third grade to a massive 5A neighborhood public school. To say I experienced a solid dose of culture shock would be an understatement. Imagine a very sheltered, kind, Christian teen entering a lively circus of heathens. I had no experience or data to draw any conclusions from, I didn’t know if I would be loved or hated, noticed or unseen, accepted or rejected. All my teenage dignity was on the chopping block for these hooligans and I was at the mercy of this unfamiliar and unstable institution. Anything that didn’t profess Christ as Lord was to be approached with caution. This life-long teaching now created a mountain of fear in me as this school, the teachers, and all the students were not only disassociated with God, they were forbidden to speak openly about him. I was forced to adapt to this new environment or disappear altogether.
I chose to become a wallflower for the first year. I pretended I was an introvert. It was fun and sneaky at first but quickly became horribly depressing. When I was finishing up my freshman year at the very safe and predictable old private school, I had people of all kinds telling me what to expect at a huge public school. A teacher (TEACHER) told me, “You need to be really careful. I was substitute teaching at a public school once and saw a big boy walk up to another smaller kid and shove him into the lockers and hold him there for no reason! You never know when someone will just walk by and grab you. Be very careful. I don’t know why you’re going there, God doesn’t call people to go to dark places like that.” I only wish I was exaggerating this story. So it was stories like that that helped me develop a lovely little terrifying story about public schools in my mind: People are mean and unpredictable and God is not present at this school. I am not safe with my beliefs and I have no allies since I don’t know anyone. Trust no one. Fear everyone.
I was scared but deep down inside (beneath the bad story) I was also ready to try something new, so I did my best. To be unseen, that is. I did my very best to be completely unnoticeable. For over a year, other kids would try to talk to me and engage with me during class and I would shyly smile and look down, pretending I was socially inept. I made a couple of friends in choir class, but for an unreasonable amount of time, I held them at arm’s length because I didn’t know if they would turn on me or humiliate me for no reason. After all, there was no standard to be Christ-like at this god-forsaken school, so how could I truly trust anyone? My story was protecting me.
I remember in sign language class this boy would always sit near me and ask me questions about who I was. Where did you come from? Do you have siblings at this school? Who do you hang out with? Oh, God. That last question was like poison in my soul. I didn’t hang out with anyone. I ate lunch alone. I pretended it was by choice, but really it’s because I had created a scary story in my head about this school and all these people and that fear was isolating me from what I really wanted. I wished I had friends in every class. I wished I had lots of people to eat lunch with. I wished I saw people I could talk to in the halls during passing periods. I was lonely and depressed, spending my days alone and without genuine friends.
I know we’re all still figuring out who we are in high school, it’s part of the gig, but had I known about storytelling back then, I could have substituted some different narratives and at least given myself and other people a chance. Instead of walking in with a blank page (no assumptions, judgements, or speculations), I chose to create a story based on other people’s past experiences and perspectives and I lived through that lens. I regret listening to that story for my entire sophomore year and most of my junior year. It was only towards the end of my junior year when I finally realized that school wasn’t that scary and I started opening up to more people. By the time my senior year rolled around I had everything I wished for my sophomore year- friends in every class, in passing periods, and at lunch. I was never alone. I was fully extroverted and free to be me!
I still have to remind myself to enter new experiences or relationships with a blank page. This is extremely difficult after being in an abusive marriage for so long. When someone tells you that you’re too much, too dominant, too talkative, too sensitive for so long, their voice begins to sound like your voice and that narrative becomes the baseline for every single story you tell yourself. It’s instinctual to run through a myriad of possible reasons why someone didn’t respond instantly to a vulnerable text you sent. Maybe she’s working. He could have left his phone at home. She’s probably busy with the kids right now. I bet he’s not the type who always has his phone on him. And on and on and on. Each part of the story we tell ourselves will either validate or debunk our worst fears, but either way, we’re subconsciously focusing on our fears. So, we pick one possible reason why she didn’t respond immediately and we either leave it at that or usually, we keep writing a story. Yeah, I think she’s working. She will probably get my text at lunch. Lunch comes and goes, no response. Maybe she saw the text and doesn’t know how to respond. Crap, I said too much. Or maybe she doesn’t check her phone until after work. I mean, how likely is that though? It’s 2018, who doesn’t check their phone until after work?! She saw it and it was too much to process. She probably thinks I’m crazy. I should have just waited. Dangit! And so we keep telling the story… because that one time that other friend didn’t respond because things were rocky in your friendship and she needed a day to think about it confirmed your worst feeling- relationships aren’t easy, life is difficult, and sometimes texting isn’t the best form of communication. But the story we write usually says She didn’t respond because I’m exhausting her with my sensitivity and pushing for connection. I’m just too much for her to deal with. Our friendship probably isn’t worth the hassle I’m putting her through.
Drama, insecurity, and tension are all byproducts of bad storytelling. And I have about 17,000,000 other examples of storytelling gone bad that I could share with you, but I think what we all really want to know is how to create better stories. Ones that give us peace and confidence; ones that support our true selves and love others well. How do we write those kinds of stories?
A friend of mine said to me the other day, “The awesome thing about creating your own stories is that you can erase them whenever you want.” There lies the key to better storytelling. Erase the bad ones, and start telling new ones. Put a filter on your mind that pays attention to the old story habits and stops them as soon as you recognize the janky narratives. Once you stop them, you can reassess what facts and data you actually have and create a truer, often shorter, story based more on reality and less on your past, your assumptions, and your limited perspective. It’s not complex at all and given a little attention and time, you’ll have a whole new story about yourself in no time.
Unconscious storytelling can wreak havoc on self-confidence, healthy relationships, and mental stability. Tuning into the narratives we play in our minds is the first step to being free from self-inflicted pain, drama, and neurosis. Clear the page, bring only the facts into your narrative. If you don’t have enough data to create a full story, then don’t fill in the gaps with speculation and assumption. Be patient as you get more data over time. A good story is always worth the wait.