The Stories We Tell Ourselves

By January 12, 2011Blog
We’re all living in a storybook.

It’s a storybook of our own making, generally.  The stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  The shades of paint we color ourselves in with: we are the ones that make brave choices, the ones who honor the truth above all else, the ones who maybe know a little more what’s going on than the people around us.

Or: we’re the ones who could never learn to do ballet. We’re not the sort of people who move to France and write novels.  We would never know what to do with ourselves hitchhiking across Europe.

The stories serve to give us roadmaps to who we think we are.  When the next important decision comes up, we can refer to the map and say: “Yes, I can see that I’m meant to turn left just here, because I’m the sort of person who Makes Responsible Decisions.”


It gets even more interesting when you account for all the people whose lives are intertwined with your own: the story of you and your mother, the story of you and your lover, the story of you and your rival.  When these people surface, you can pull the volume down from the shelf marked with your names and know what your story looks like. I love him very much. I could never forgive her for that. He will always let me down.

When I started taking a look at these narratives, they began to pop up more and more frequently around me.  I’d be listening to Radiolab, and they’d make some stray comment about how the story you tell yourself about an injury can decrease pain, or how some people think the soul is just the story of yourself told back to you.  

A friend sent me a story from NPR about a man who had literally lost the plot of his life.  His story had gone off the rails.

And it kept hitting me, this idea that we’re all stories. 

Which is kind of powerful.  Because you can change your story at any time. 

I stumbled on an article tonight with words that landed heavy:

“People associate themselves very strongly with the decisions they make (even something as simple as enjoying coffee or going to bed late), but they don’t realize that they would be just as happy being the opposite kind of person, and be just a much “themselves.”
But no, there is no risk in changing. The real risk in staying the same.
I plan to be unrecognizable in 5 years. I plan to surprise everyone.
You should too.
Now, tell me how.”

People become so desperately attached to the shape of their story that it becomes terrifying to change.  I relate to that, I think– not always consciously.  But I’ve had more than one conversation in the last few months making light of the fact that I believe, on a deep level, that things can and will never change in my life.

It’s not a defeatist thought.  It’s not even a sad one.  It’s just this notion that that, maybe, somewhere along the way, a person decided what kind of story they were going to be, and never thought they’d be anything different.  Not good, nor bad. It just is what it is.

A friend of mine sent me an email on New Year’s Day, on my birthday. She’d pretended to write a letter as her eighty-year old self, back in time to her present self.  That list was full of advice, and full of things she knew her future self would tell her to do.

Can you imagine standing at the very end of your story, and looking back?  What would you say, from that precipice, to yourself now? To chase, to change, to give up or to give in to?

For myself… I’m not sure how to answer that.  

But here’s what I hope.  They say that every seven years, all the cells in your body die and are replaced by entirely new cells.  It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. But if you take a snapshot of yourself and one seven years later, every cell that occupies your body is completely different.

It’s madness to think of.  Because, then, what is the “self” we speak of– the soul, for the spiritual.  If every physical fiber of ourselves is different, what is the connective tissue that we identify as the “I”?

I like to think it’s the story holding us together.

And if every cell in our body can die away and replace itself, slowly, in the night, without our noticing… there’s no reason why one day, just as gradually and stealthily, we might find ourselves characters in a story that looks exactly like we’d hoped.

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  • Hayley Campbell

    When I was a kid my Dad always told me to picture your life as a novel. If you don’t like the way it’s going, change the story. He thinks about this quite literally given he makes entire books out of his life.

  • olga

    That makes me love your dad. Everyone does it, so it’s a powerful position to realize that you’re doing it and actively decide to write the story yourself.

  • Suzie Grogan

    This is wonderful. It has really made me think about the assumptions I make about myself and about the other people in my life. It would be better if life didn’t throw random things at us in the middle of our narrative but perhaps that should just be a different way to take the story forward…

  • Keith Quigley

    I’ve never thought of my life like a story, but it makes so much sense. So much of modern life is focused around individualism and emphasizes to us when we’re young that the things we do matter. But even the old folk tales are about a singular hero on his adventures.
    Thank you for bringing up such an insightful idea. It has already changed how I view the last few months and the next few months going forward.

  • Ross

    The trouble with the idea of thinking of your life as a story is, the notion carries with it the implication order and meaning in every event, which is perversely unrealistic. Stories are written by writers, who feel compelled to make every event tie into the central plot somehow (since there’d be no reason to include irrelevant occurences), and to make everything turn out for the best because that’s what makes the audience happy.
    Real life, by contrast, consists of events caused by different people with unrelated or conflicting motivations, and many events are truly random and/or meaningless. Also, things seldom work out for the best because there’s no God or writer to make that happen.
    It’s still a pleasant thought, though.

  • Raliel

    So true….we cast our selves as story characters…..I cannot help wondering if i may have ended up the villain in a Gothic melodrama by accident though