The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Every experience we have ever had plays a part in how we understand the world, how we understand where we are in our lives, and how we understand who we are. But so much of this is framed in the way we tell the story about the person we believe ourselves to be. And I don't mean how we explain who we are to others (although this will also influence how we feel about ourselves) but the main factor is how you are speaking to yourself, and how you tell the story of your life in your own mind.
Throughout childhood we are collecting feelings, memories and experiences, some good, some bad. Some of these you will remember very clearly, others will leave you with a vague sense or an emotion but no clear picture. All of them come together to play a part in how you feel about yourself. You may have had parents that praised you and lifted you up and this has given you confidence and good self esteem as an adult. Or you may have had some negative experiences, with parents, teachers or even other children criticising you and these experiences have become stored away in your psyche and part of who you are. The problem with this way of forming identity is that the past can stick around for a very long time, sometimes a lot longer than actually makes sense. The things we have internalised may not be true. They may not have been true when they were first incorporated as part of the self, but there's a good chance that even if they were then that they aren't now..
We all grow and we all change. Who you are today is not who you were yesterday, and it certainly isn't who you were 10, 15, 20 years ago when most of us created our core beliefs. One of the most common issues that clients come to therapy with is feeling like a failure and not feeling good enough. Sadly, it can take only one instance of being told you are not good at something for this to become a lifelong narrative. Human brains are unfortunately very good at storing negative information as we have evolved to be very tuned in to anything that might be a threat to us. For instance, if you have an experience at school as a young child where a teacher tells you that you are not very good at art (which is ridiculous in itself as art is so subjective!) then you begin to tell yourself the story that you are rubbish at art, even though up until then it has been your favourite subject. The more you think about what that teacher has said, the more your internal narrative becomes "I am no good at art. It doesn't matter how much I enjoy it. I will never be an artist because I am not good enough". Eventually you stop trying and you stop making art because of this belief. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You never become an artist, not because you are bad at art but because you believe you'll never be good enough so you stop trying. More importantly you stop making art all together, something that previously brought you much joy, because now there is a sense of failure attached to the activity.
This is the power of story you are telling yourself.
I'm no exception to this either and I can give you an example from my own life. In the past, especially during my teenage years and my early twenties, I didn't know what I wanted to do and because of this I chopped and changed my jobs and what I was studying and I quit a lot of things many many times. During this process I began to build up a self image that I was a quitter, that I never stuck anything out and this made me feel crappy about myself. I didn't really understand why I couldn't seem to find satisfaction in the subjects or industries I was in and therefore I felt like a failure or like there was something wrong with me. This was the story I told myself and it seeped into my whole life, affecting my self esteem and my mental health.
Eventually, when I decided to return to studying, I sat down and thought long and hard about what I was really interested in before considering the courses on offer. I had always found people, emotions and the way they navigate life extremely interesting and I had always enjoyed caring for and helping others. I put these things together and realised that studying psychology would probably interest me but that training to be a therapist would be an even better fit as I would learn how to use my knowledge to help others that were struggling. Finally I had found something that really made sense to me, and spoke to the core of who I was as a person. As soon as I begun studying I knew this is what I was supposed to be doing.
The surprising thing was that I never QUIT. After all those years of thinking of myself as a failure and a quitter I had found something that didn't make me feel like that, regardless of how difficult it was. I even experienced some very traumatic times whilst studying and suffered multiple bereavements and I still persevered and completed my training, proving to myself that the story I had been telling myself wasn't actually true. It was just a story. I started understanding my past in a different way; I hadn't been a quitter, I just knew when things weren't right for me and didn't waste precious time on them when they weren't what I was supposed to be doing. This story was a new one. This story was a strong one. And now I have launched a business, something that takes a huge amount of courage to just show up, persevere and put yourself out there, something I would never have been able to do whilst I was still telling myself that I was a quitter and a failure.
The stories we tell ourselves, really do matter.
The thing is, with nearly every experience we have we can choose to tell ourselves a positive or negative story about it - and this really matters. Maybe you are telling yourself that nobody likes you, so you stop going out when invited... but maybe that's not the case. However when you stop going out people start thinking it's because you don't like them and so they stop inviting you, and it becomes an endless loop. Maybe you are telling yourself the story that you are not good enough to get the job you really want and so you never apply for it, then guess what (spoiler alert) you don't get the job because you never even applied! Even in situations where somebody has treated you very badly you still get to decide the story. You can choose to tell yourself the story of being a victim or you can choose to tell the story of being a survivor!
This is why I love to work with clients in a narrative way, we look at the stories you are telling yourself, we unpack them, explore them and look at them from different perspectives. We then work to reframe your past and experiences in a way that is healing for you now, and then you get to retell your story in the way that you want it to be told.
You have the power to tell a different story about your life and therefore you also have the power to live a different life.
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, stressed or depressed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. Helping clients learn how to tell themselves a different story is something I find powerful to use in my therapy sessions. If you would like to find out how I can help, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together. Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.