Every person grows up carrying a narrative about who they are. Most of that story is formed early in childhood with new chapters added to include adolescence and experiences as adults.
The childhood stories are mostly formed by our parents and significant care-givers’ narratives about who they think we are.
Mom says, “Tom’s a dreamer and very creative.”
Dad says, “Tom’s smart but lacks academic discipline and focus.”
These are often the stories parents needed to tell themselves to explain you to them. They had dreams and expectations – even if unarticulated – and you stepped into them. Unless they were consciously aware, you were part of their unexamined narrative.
Our stories are also shaped by perceptions of who our parents were: “My father was unable to understand me and I never got the recognition I needed. The only support I got was from my mother.”
Then teachers, family members, neighbors and peers add-on to the story “With your grades, Tom, I’d aim for a less competitive school if you want to get accepted.”
While some of those perceptions may contain truths, other peoples’ stories about us are often a product of their projections.
Eventually themes emerge from these stories. We patch them together, mix them with our own experiences and create the stories we tell about ourselves.
Many of the themes are universal – the things I did as a kid – the things I was most afraid of – the illnesses I had – the illnesses my parents had – the home I grew up in – the fights between siblings – the loneliness/privileges of being an only child – achievements in school and sports – under-achievements in school and sports.
Of course a huge part of the narratives that form are the narratives of our parents, Most of us carry a big part of the generational stories of our ancestors. The story also contains cultural add-ons that define who we think we are. The stories of “others” that we carry can enrich and inspire who we are or can plant burdens and limitations some of us hold for our entire lives.
There are usually two parts to our stories – the ones we tell the world and the ones we tell ourselves. Sometimes they are in conflict.
Editing the Story
Unless we revise our childhood stories, we can arrive in adulthood with competing, confused and inaccurate stories of who we are – and what we can be.
Unexamined stories can collide with realities we face as the “stakes” of life get higher and more complex. College. Jobs. Long-term relationships. Financial responsibilities. Parenting. Illness. Aging. When we come up against these challenges we often find that we’re already carrying narratives about who we are or who we can be in those situations. We realize that many our early narratives were ingrained with beliefs about many of life’s central themes from our earliest experiences. We carry Dad’s philosophy about money, Mom’s issues about her looks and always the cultural imprints of the times we were raised.
The narratives that operate outside of our conscious awareness define our lives. It gets harder to keep up with the story as life’s experiences challenge untrue or unrealistic narratives. Because inner speech preoccupies most of our waking life, we’re always editing the story lines even as we speak, especially if our stories are laden with tales of victimhood and rejection. Attachment to those stories reinforces living in the problem every time we tell it.
In his ground-breaking work with children in the 1920’s psychologist Jean Piaget noticed they began to talk to themselves between the ages of three and five. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman write, “When a child builds a house of blocks, she might often verbalize her actions, “Now I’m going to put the red block on top of the blue block.” When she’s done, she might say, “Now everything will fall down,” as she pushes the blocks over.” Piaget called the activity, “egocentric speech” and it demonstrates how language begins to dominate our daily lives.”
The problem is parts of our stories become coping and defense mechanisms that we use for self-protection. Old emotional wounds are often part of the story. Unhealed, we tell the story over and over as a way of seeking relief from the pain.
In The Story We Tell Ourselves, Jason Gray writes about the role lack of awareness of our story plays in how we respond emotionally, “Another voice takes over like a ghostwriter when I’m not looking. It is the voice of my broken nature and it speaks loudest when I stop being intentionally responsive and instead become merely reactive. – left to the mercy of whatever story my emotions, physical condition, state of mind, hormones, etc want to tell me at the time. When I’m exhausted I’m inclined to tell a different story than I would if I were well rested. When I’m sad, I may come to believe the fiction is true. When I’m lost in my own insecurity, I find rejection in the eyes of every character in the scene. When I’m angry I may set my world on fire, burning up entire chapters of my life.”
Unless we change our inner speech we’ll continue to reinforce the same narratives. There is a definite vocabulary we use when telling our stories. Even if our story is “working,” we risk limiting our experience by telling the same stories over and over. Since our stories constantly reflect the past (whether they are “real” or not) it is hard to stay present in the moment when we’re storytelling.
To be sure, some of our inner speech is inspiring and restorative. It supports us in getting through the hard times and helps us to motivate and shape our emotional states.
Escaping the Limitations of Our Stories
Often we forget that we are constantly creating our stories, choice by choice, day by day. Even though we may cherish parts of our past stories, they are never reflective all of who we are. We’re always bigger than our stories. Too often our stories reflect some version of our “little me.”
Our stories can never define who we are. All of our narratives deserve our conscious inspection so that we can unpack the beliefs, assumptions and expectations that keep them alive. Every story we tell is in service of a need. Needs drive the narrative. Our parents needed to tell themselves and others a story about who we were. We emerged from their shadow to either repeat (and live) their story or write a new script.
Creating new narratives doesn’t mean that we disinherit the truths of our past. It doesn’t require us to create far-fetched ideas that don’t resonate with our realities. Changing our stories requires careful exploration of themes that more accurately express who we truly are and where we want to be.
The biggest part of any person’s story is their ability to recreate their narrative – an amazing gift we humans can exercise any time. Unless we challenge the myths embedded in our stories and expand our thoughts and feeling beyond what has been we’ll get stuck in our stories.
As you review your storylines, think about the source material you’re drawing from. What stories you were told speak deeply to who you are now? Do you believe them? Imagine meeting people in different circumstances – in business situations, on a plane, socializing with friends – what do you want them to know about you? What’s the most important thing for them to know?
Author Byron Katie asks a powerful question, “Who would you be without your story?” I invite you to consider the question.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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