I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell ourselves and how these stories manifest into realities. You might not consider yourself a storyteller in the conventional sense, but every day you tell yourself stories. A lot of these stories start off as facts and we add to them, creating fictional tales that we then take as truth and experience as reality. This sounds a little abstract so let’s look at an example…
Let’s say you have a difficult interaction with a colleague. This is a fact. You had an unpleasant interaction — let’s say it was a disagreement about how to present material in a meeting. That happened and it wasn’t fun. But the storytelling part comes in when you start imagining what it would be like to confront that colleague about the situation. In your mind, you imagine telling her off in detail. You imagine what you will say and how she will respond defensively. You envision your retort to her imaginary arguments. Though this interaction is happening only in your mind, you start to physically feel as if you are in that moment: your palms sweat, your heart races, your muscles tense. The story you’re telling isn’t real, but the way you feel is. You have turned ideas into your reality. You are mentally and physically living in a moment that doesn’t exist in reality.
We do this not only for future situations, but also past ones as well. Right now take a moment and think about the last time you were in an awkward situation. Imagine how it felt to feel socially awkward or to have just said the absolute wrong thing to the wrong person. You’re probably cringing right now just recalling it, and you’re probably feeling some physical reactions too — maybe tense muscles or sweaty palms. Even though that moment is in the past, if you tell the story to yourself in your mind, it starts to feel as if it’s happening now.
Pretty crazy, huh? When written out like this, it sounds like something that might make for a good mental patient case: made up stories that feel like they’re really happening. But we all do this to ourselves all the time. We rehash what’s happened or we create scenes that have yet to happen and they feel incredibly real. If we did this in a positive way — spent time dwelling on that amazing memory of a great day or envisioned how perfectly the nerve-wracking speech is going to go — this wouldn’t be such a problem, but when was the last time you spent a lot of time thinking about how wonderful something was or how great it’s going to be?
It makes sense to reflect (a little bit) on what went wrong — after all, that’s how you learn not to do it again — and it’s not the worst idea to consider what might go wrong so you might prepare and avoid disastrous situations, but I think it’s important that we be aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves, both about the past and about the future. These stories can very often feel real and they’re not. The past recollections are tainted by our memories (what now seems like the worst might not have been that bad in the situation) and the future is completely imagined.
The thing is: these stories have power over us. When we tell them enough, we start to believe them. Regardless of what actually happened, if we’ve created a memory of it and we keep telling that story, we believe that’s the truth. Likewise, if you imagine something enough and think it’s going to happen, it might actually become a reality. (Then you’ll confirm your own storytelling abilities by saying to yourself, “I was right! I knew I was going to feel so awkward on that first date and it would go terribly and it did!”) We also start to tell these stories to others (particularly stories about the past), which makes them feel even more real.
But, in truth, the only thing that’s real, that’s actually happening right now, is the present moment. Whatever is in your head is a story. It would be ideal if we could stop telling ourselves stories, but that’s a whole lot easier said than done. What I think we need to do is start being aware of these stories. Once you’re aware that what you’re telling yourself is a story — and not necessarily reality — you have the option to keep telling it, change it, or let it go.
We need to start asking: What stories am I telling myself? We need to start asking: Are these stories completely based on actual reality? (Hint: almost never; our minds can’t help but put a spin on things.) We need to start asking: Are these stories adding value to my life? (Hint: they’re usually not.) And, perhaps most importantly, we need to start asking: If I’m the storyteller, why not tell positive stories?
I urge you to ask yourself these questions this week and see if maybe you can counteract (or let go of) the negative stories you’ve been telling yourself. Become aware of your stories and decide whether or not you want to keep telling them.
Learn how you can positively transform your story in my new book, The Positively Present Guide to Life. The book is all about how to stay positive and present in various areas of life including: at home, at work, in love, in relationships, and during change. I’ve turned back to it often this year as I’ve gone through major changes and it’s been tremendously helpful. As a bonus, the book is filled with inspiring images that make it even easier to stay positive and present. You can learn more about the book here. (You can also get a sneak peek at the book, access a free download, and watch the book trailer!)