Everyone loves a good story. So which one are you telling yourself?
When I was little, I loved to tell myself stories.
I’d skip up and down our little street, singing made-up songs about my life, and lie on my back in the grass for hours, staring at the clouds and pretend-interviewing myself. I’d explain that my parents got divorced when I was only two years old, and that they hated each other and had been fighting in court over me for years. I’d say how hard it was being the baby of a big family of both step and biological siblings, and how unfair things were for me.
This storytelling didn’t really stop when I got older; it just became more internalized. I was less aware of what I was doing, but I was still doing it. In college, when I signed up for an introductory algebra class I’d already passed in high school, rather than the advanced one I really should have taken, it was because I was telling myself a story about how bad I was at math. When I didn’t audition for a part I really wanted in a play at a community theater, it was because I’d convinced myself I didn’t have enough experience and wasn’t any good anyway. And when I was raped by a stranger at a party, I told myself I’d asked for it, because I’d been loose and wild and stupid.
All of us tell ourselves stories, whether we’re aware of it or not. We’re constantly processing and arranging all of the information that’s coming at us, trying to make sense of it all.
We have to find a way to fit our experiences into our ideas of who we are, who our loved ones are, and what the world is like – and the way we do that is by crafting a narrative in our own minds. It’s how we decide what relationships to enter into, what jobs to apply for, and how we think we deserve to be treated.
What’s wrong with telling stories?
The problem with creating these personal narratives is that we can get stuck in them – and if you’re telling yourself bad stories (I don’t deserve love, I fail at everything, I’m stupid), it can keep you in a negative spiral with no way out.
We’re wired to seek out what scientists call “confirmation bias” – meaning, we look for things that confirm what we already believe about ourselves. We gravitate toward situations that reinforce who we think we are and what we think we deserve.
Think of the girl whose parents didn’t go to college, and therefore thinks that she, too, has no business going to college. She’s extremely intelligent, but she hangs out with the bad crowd at school and signs up for remedial courses. No one ever encourages her to apply to college. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the child of wealthy, well-educated parents, who might be a little dim-witted, but who never doubts that he belongs in the upper echelons of society. He sails confidently through life, enrolling in every honors course and applying to Ivy League colleges, never questioning his place in society.
What’s your story?
We know that people hang on to negative experiences longer than positive ones; it’s a leftover survival mechanism from our caveman days, when we needed to remember that time we almost got killed by a sabre-tooth tiger more than we needed to remember how nice it felt to cuddle up with our babies and fall asleep.
All these generations later, it’s still easier for us to believe in the bad stuff more than the good. Fortunately, research has shown that we can actually rewire our brains to overcome this instinct, and start changing the stories we tell about ourselves – thereby changing the trajectory of our lives.
How to start doing this? Two psychologists at Stanford University, Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman, published a study in the 2014 Annual Review of of Psychology that outlined the benefits of self-affirmation: telling yourself that you are strong, capable, valuable, and loved can actually make you feel that you are all of those things.
“Timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years,” Cohen and Sherman wrote.
And telling yourself the opposite – that you’re weak, stupid, unworthy, etc. – can lead not only to negative outcomes, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the saying goes, “what you focus on expands.”
Writing a new script
So how can you begin to change the story you’re telling about yourself? One way to start is by journaling; get back into that child-mode of storytelling and write down the things you believe to be true about yourself.
Who are you? What do you want? What do you think you deserve? You might be carrying around some beliefs you didn’t even realize you had; some beliefs you’re ready to let go of.
Start telling a new story about yourself. Write affirmations on Post-Its and stick them on the bathroom mirror. Find a poem that speaks to you – the you you want to be – and stash a copy in your wallet. Cut your hair. Start wearing red lipstick. Or stop wearing makeup. Do something you never thought you’d do.
And remember: you are the sole author of your own life. Make it a good story.
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Comment: What stories do you tell yourself, that you’re ready to let go of?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.