We all have stories about who we are and how the world works. These stories are necessary insofar as they provide us a map with which to construct our lives and guide our behavior.
Unfortunately, there is often a restricting element to our stories. They are inherently limited. They are the product of our lived experiences and, as such, are confined to those lived experiences.
Our story is but one that we have pulled into existence out of the realm of every story that could have been. And there is no guarantee that our story is “right”. The subsequent drive to impose our story on reality blinds us to those aspects of reality that exist outside of that story.
Furthermore, because our foundational stories came into existence as the result of our childhood experiences, they were constructed to help us navigate the world of our childhood.
But the reality of our adult lives looks very different from the reality of our childhood. The effort to take what worked as a three year old and apply it 30 years later is likely to be ill-fated.
If our stories aren’t sufficiently updated to reflect our ever-changing reality, their utility will not only prove compromised, but their utilization will backfire entirely.
That is when it is time to distance ourselves from them, see them as mere “stories” about who we are but not “who we are” as such, and both find and decide on better ones.
Updating our stories is a difficult task. As we’ll see, we are motivated to maintain them, regardless of how out-of-date and even painful they might have become. And yet, their continual refinement is a crucial aspect to living a quality life.
The Birthplace Of Stories
To be simplistic about it, in the beginning of life we don’t know anything. Everything is a mystery. Everything is new and everything is the unknown. We ourselves, are a mystery.
As we live, we have experiences. With each experience, we watch our actions and we observe what happens as a result. We learn, for example, that “action x” is good, but that “action y” is bad. We then display increasingly more of “action x,” and increasingly less of “action y”.
During this same time, we take very seriously what the world (largely our parents) tells us about ourselves. We absorb, embody and become the various messages we receive.
The behaviors we display and the messages we receive serve as the foundation for the stories we later generate about ourselves and the world.
Let’s say that “action x” consists of those things that I do when I’m happy. Things like smiling and being nice to my sister. When I’m happy and behave in a happy manner, good things happen to me. Eventually, I tell myself a story that being happy is good and not being happy is bad. And I am a “person who is happy”.
Perhaps “action y” consists of those things I do when I’m angry. Things like yelling and hitting my sister. When I’m angry and behave in an angry manner, I get in trouble. Eventually, I tell myself a story that being angry is bad. And I am a “person who is not angry.”
Maybe I had the misfortune of having a mother who constantly communicated her disproval of me. She looked at me with distaste. She was harsh, critical and unloving. How could I possibly have emerged from childhood, then, without some version of the story that, “who I am is not ok?”
Or, it may be that my parents saw me as a burden, and treated me as such. I might, then, have emerged from childhood having formulated the story that, “I am an inconvenience.”
These stories were important. They gave us a template for how to act in the world. They helped us navigate our family system with some degree of effectiveness.
Not feeling that “who I am is ok,” for example, might have spurred me to exceed expectations, which brought me love and approval. Or, in feeling like an inconvenience, I might have learned to hide from my parents, which ensured that I was subjected to their punishment less often.
However, as mentioned above, problems arise when we incessantly attempt to put forth the stories generated in childhood across all spheres of our adult lives.
The stories Are Self-Generating
Unfortunately, abandoning our old, foundational stories (or formulas for how to live) is rarely an easy task.
In fact, unbeknownst to ourselves, we actively seek out evidence that confirms the validity of our initial stories.
This phenomena occurs because we necessarily see the world through the lens of the initial story. We see the world through the lens of “happiness is good,” “anger is bad,” “I am not ok,” etc. And, like fish who don’t see the water they swim in, we forget that we’re wearing these glasses in the first place.
In the same way that glasses with blue lenses block out green light and red light, the “I am not ok” glasses block out events that might lead me to recognize that I am, in fact, worthy.
In this manner, we end up “seeing” what we already believe.
We are more likely, then, to double down on an already-existing story/belief/formula, than we are to open ourselves up to a new one. We are built to generate the familiar out of thin air; we are not built to actively update our views of the world.
We would rather pretend to know, even if we don’t like what we know, than to admit how little we in fact do know.
Why Our Stories Lose Their Relevance
When our engagement with life is merely the product of already-had experiences (already-generated stories), we aren’t, by definition, taking current reality into consideration.
It is like trying to use a phillips head screwdriver (old story) on a flat screw (current reality). We have the experience of working really hard, but in the end we strip the screw, causing things to be far more difficult for ourselves than need have been.
Similarly, the stories that helped us navigate our childhood are not necessarily accurate (i.e. helpful) in our current reality.
Avoiding our anger with our parents ensured we didn’t get in trouble. But avoiding our anger as adults might make us appear weak and vulnerable and expose us as easy targets for malicious actors.
Exclusively expressing happiness as children made us easy to be around, but our effort to only be happy as adults means pushing much of who we are aside; i.e. self-rejection.
Believing that who we were wasn’t ok as children may have motivated us to do well in school. As adults, this story causes us to be very critical of ourselves, to not take in positive feedback and to retreat from social contact.
The point is this: when we are inappropriately attached to – and acting out – the stories of our past, we don’t have an experience of choice in our engagement with life.
As opposed to considering a variety of responses/interpretations when confronted with a life event, we quickly jump down a familiar, well-trodden path.
The more desperately we cling to a given story/interpretation, the more frequently we employ it regardless of circumstance, the more certain it is that the explanation is an inadequate, out-dated facade serving as a layer of protection against all that we don’t know.
Why Changing Them Is Hard
Updating our lifelong stories/beliefs/formulas is no easy endeavor. For starters, many of our stories aren’t conscious. The first step, then, is to bring them into conscious awareness. This can happen spontaneously; it can happen as the result of an ongoing practice of “going deeper” (such as is want to occur through the likes of therapy); it can happen through the feedback others give us; and/or it can happen as the result of careful observation of our thoughts, behaviors and the product of said behaviors (i.e. our life circumstances).
Once conscious, once compared against current reality and revealed as out-of-date, we are still reluctant to drop them. They have served as a guide for how to be AND given us a sense of who we are; i.e. “I am not an angry person,” for as long as we can remember. Dropping them feels “incongruent” and “not authentic”.
If I entertain the idea that anger is ok, maybe even necessary, my old map for how to behave is no longer relevant. I am in new territory and I don’t know how to operate in it. Furthermore, a pillar upon which I have come to “know” myself has been swept out from under me.
I now find myself vulnerable and naked, not knowing who I am or how to act. The panic that ensues is more than enough to send me running back to the land of the familiar.
How to detach from them/take them less seriously
Once we see our story clearly, we must recognize that it is the product of our (early) life experiences, which are profoundly limited. (Of the near infinite number of potential lived experiences, we embody but one.) We are confined to a single point of view.
Aware, as we now are, of the limited and self-generating nature of our stories, we can begin to question them. We can at least entertain the notion that the particular story we are telling ourselves does not represent the entirety of the truth. Maybe it’s just a sliver. Maybe even less.
We have now created space between ourselves and our story where none used to exist. (More precisely, where we didn’t notice space before.)
We see that the story/formula is nested in empty space, stretching infinitely in all directions. There is space above it, beneath it, behind it, in front of it, even within it.
The space is more real than the story. The story is a but a single appearance in something much bigger – and much more inexplicable – than it.
Taking advantage of the space, we can investigate the story. Look underneath it. Take out a hammer and do away with its unhelpful parts. Break off the pieces that we experience as useful and construct a new, more comprehensive and accurate story from them. Or, we may decide to turn away from it all together and head out into whatever lies beyond (not knowing what we will discover).
Realizing that we are not inexorably tied to any story/belief/formula brings with it an experience of freedom. We have more choice than we initially realized. We can choose how we want to show up, how we want to be, how we want to engage with life. We don’t need to mechanically follow an old, stale script.
The steps are as follows:
- What is? (make the story/formula conscious)
- Where does it come from?
- Is the story still helpful, or is it causing me unnecessary pain and suffering?
- Is there current evidence for the validity of my story? Am I going out of my way to create it?
- Is there a more accurate/helpful story out there?
More Accurate Stories
More accurate stories are stories that are grounded in reality. Are, as it were, stories that are generated as the consequence of engaging with life without the imposition of the lenses of our childhood.
The lenses act as a layer of protection insofar as they offer a sense of familiarity. When we do away with them, we open up to the world.
This allows us to take in heretofore “hidden” information. We then use said information to construct stories that are up-to-date and in line with our current reality. Instead of imposing our worldview on reality, we let reality inform us of the proper worldview.
So, I deliberately take off the lenses that color the world with the story that “I am not ok.” I may then become aware of all the experiences that show me my worth and value, just as I am. There may be people who love and praise me. Instead of writing them off, I now consider their opinion.
A new story, a more positive one, starts to grow. One that says, “perhaps who I am is ok… perhaps I am worthy of love and acceptance just for being me.”
“Anger is bad” becomes: “Anger, when used effectively and skillfully, can be a useful tool. It is important to have access to my anger, but not to be led by it.”
“Happiness only and always” becomes: “Happiness, when genuine, is lovely. But the effort to manufacture happiness leads me to reject parts of myself, which causes me more misery in the long-run.”
“I’m an inconvenience” becomes: “Apparently, some people value me and seem to want me around. Perhaps I’m more than just an inconvenience. Perhaps there’s more to me than I knew.”
The stories of our childhood were helpful in our childhood. It is likely the case that they are no longer relevant.
If we wish to update our story about who we are, we must first drop the familiar childhood story and, in so doing, be willing to tolerate not knowing who we are.
We must accept the insufficiency of our current story, and go into the unknown to see what we encounter.
We recognize that this is a continuous process. Stories generated today may not be relevant tomorrow, much less a year from now.
We don’t become rigid and stale and totalitarian in our present understandings. We don’t identify with our stories so strongly that we forget about all that we still don’t know. The journey into the unknown becomes something we commit to for the rest of our lives.
In the beginning of life, everything is a mystery. The big secret – the one that we all know implicitly and reject explicitly – is that it remains so until the end.
This means that our stories should be continually evolving, as opposed to becoming rigid, unchanging constructs attempting to withstand the test of time.