The Stories We Tell Ourselves

02 June 2015 · 18 comments

As Kim and I slowly make our way across the United States, we’re learning a lot, both about ourselves (individually and as a couple) and about others. We’re spending extended time with family and friends, and we’re meeting strangers in the places we stay. Through this constant exposure to a diverse population of people, we’ve come to realize how each of us tends to live out the stories we tell ourselves.

Many people we’ve met, for instance, are living a story in which taking a year off to travel is impossible. It’s not that taking a year off to travel is actually impossible for them, but that these folks believe it’s impossible, and that’s the story they live.

At the same time, there’s a small handful of people who decide to live a different story. We met a man near Sedona, Arizona who had been living the “I can’t travel” story but decided to re-write the ending. He quit his corporate job on the east coast and moved to Arizona with only the vague outline of a plan. He’s now giving donation-based tours of the Sedona area while maintaining a modest lifestyle. He decided to live a different story, one that (so far) has a happier ending.

We don’t just tell ourselves about travel. We tell ourselves stories about every aspect of our lives — and most of these stories can be changed, if we have the guts and gumption to change them.

  • We all know folks who live stories in which they are the victim of circumstances, in which fate has laid them low. My mother is a prime example. Ever since she was a girl, she’s told herself a story in which her mother didn’t like her and favored her siblings. She’s allowed that story to dominate her life, to define her as much at sixty as she did at sixteen. My father tried for decades to get her to live a different story, but he failed.
  • My ex-wife lived a story in which she hated camping. She didn’t want to spend the night outdoors in a tent or a camper or anything else. In this story, camping was a bother. Now, thanks in part to her current boyfriend, she’s re-written this small part of her life. Today, Kris enjoys camping and how close it brings her to the outdoors (especially birds!).
  • As part of the story I told myself, I was an introvert. I didn’t like meeting new people. I couldn’t make small talk and I was overwhelmed by crowds. But in discovering the power of “yes”, I changed the story I was telling myself. I discovered (decided?) that I enjoyed chatting with strangers, that meeting new people was part of playing the lottery of life. Now I’m happy to make new friends.

Generally speaking, no one story is more true than any other. Each tale is simply a different way of viewing our life. If one story makes us unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s possible to tell ourselves a different version of the story, one that creates a more positive experience. (It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant.)

My mom’s story that her mother treated her poorly didn’t have to dominate her life for fifty-plus years. At any time, she could have chosen to live a different story. But she didn’t. Now it’s probably too late.

Similarly, I know folks who’ve struggled with family members or former friends. They’ve fought over something and the relationships have suffered as a result. These folks tend to tell themselves stories in which they cannot repair the relationships because the other party has made it impossible to do so. But again, that’s just a story. In almost every case, it’s possible to write a different ending, one in which the person repairs his relationships by choosing to tell himself a different ending.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Tyler Tervooren. He and I were both going through a lot of life changes, and we were each trying to re-write parts of the stories we’d been telling ourselves. Tyler shared a technique he was using to change his belief systems.

“I have a list of qualities I want in myself,” he told me. “I’ve written them on index cards in a specific format and I read these to myself every day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “one card might say, ‘I am the sort of man who always keeps his promises.’ Another might say, ‘I am the type of man who makes exercise a priority.’ I have about twenty of these cards, and I review them every day. This is a way for me to stay focused on what’s important to me, and to remind myself of my values.”

What a great idea!

The bottom line is this: If you don’t like the story you’re living, only you can change it. You are the author of your own life. You didn’t write the beginning of the story, but you have the power to choose the ending. In so many ways, life is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Choose an adventure you love instead of one that makes you unhappy.

I know, I know. All of this is easier said than done. Once you’re thirty or forty or fifty years old, you’ve had decades to tell yourself certain parts of your story. You may have written yourself into a corner. Changing plotlines can be difficult. Still, it is possible — and nobody else is going to change the storylines for you. It’s up to you to live the story you want.

1 Brian June 2, 2015 at 14:02

Ah so true, but believing in the possibility of this is the first step. All about changing your mindset, once you do that you can take any path you want.

2 Mehalia June 3, 2015 at 06:25

I really enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for writing it and sharing your experience. I agree people identify with certain stories and that’s that but it doesn’t have to be.

3 Ben June 3, 2015 at 06:30

Great post, JD! Stories like these are such a refreshing reminder that it is possible to pull ourselves out of the day-to-day. It’s all up to us. Happy travels and keep ’em coming—

4 Andrea Anderman June 3, 2015 at 07:10

After reading your posts, JD, for years, today I was inspired to write. Talking about changing your story speaks to me at this juncture in time. After spending my whole adult life trying to find a satisfying career, all the while working, in mid-life I ‘found’ myself in teaching. But there was a part of classroom teaching that put me under stress, despite the joys, and so at 61 I’m giving up a secure job that I at least partly loved . I am in transition now, but very sure of this, and excited about the next chapter. This will include a less secure financially occupation but infinitely less stressful (tutoring), exercising and taking care of my health, creative and altruistic pursuits that have been on the back burner for years, and most importantly, real quality time with loved ones. Let me take this opportunity to thank you for being one of those, through your blogs and sharing your beliefs and experiences unselfishly, for inspiring me and countless others to listen to my heart and really live. Signed, all the way from Israel

5 Tom June 3, 2015 at 11:37

Great post – applicable to any time in life, but particularly so for folks like Andrea who are seeking renewal through a change in careers. I myself retired after 36 years at one organization and have found opportunities and personal rewards working in Real Estate sales. Perhaps the best part is helping a family find a new home to enjoy. We all are truly the authors of our own story and future – if we are willing rewrite our old story. Thanks for sharing your journeys and be sure to visit beautiful Virginia!

6 Carrie June 3, 2015 at 18:08

Thank you. This is a great article told in such a positive manner. My dream is to live in a sunny warm place. ( I now live in Chicago, which I love except the winter) I am looking forward. Enjoy the travel !

7 JanetS June 3, 2015 at 23:27

Love this! Great post.

8 Jon June 4, 2015 at 10:09

Hi JD,

This article really hit home for me. On November 29, 2015 I decided to quit drinking. On June 29, 2015, I wrote in my diary about what I learned. Here’s what I wrote…

*

It’s been six months since my last drink of alcohol. I’m in a reflective mood and want to write an essay about what the experience has taught me.

More than anything the experience has taught me the power of the stories that I told myself about alcohol. I started drinking as a teenager. Even then I told myself that was what people did. I told myself stories that helped me fit in as a young man growing up in a small town in rural Saskatchewan. A small town that I didn’t really fit into. I wasn’t a farmer. I didn’t listen to Garth Brooks. I was a punk skater kid. I got beat up for piercing my ears. I didn’t dare tell anyone that I was a poet, or that I wrote poetry. So I told myself a story that helped me fit in. And in telling myself that story it came true. I drank hard all through high school and university. I got in trouble with the police. I got in trouble with girls. In a lot of ways I’m lucky that I didn’t end up dead, I got into so much trouble.

There were other stories at play too. There was the story about how that’s what you do when you are from small town Saskatchewan. You drink and drive. You go booze cruising because there is nothing else to do. I imagine that story plays out no matter where you live. It’s the teenage lament – there’s nothing to do. I just didn’t have the imagination to tell myself a different story. I didn’t have the willpower to do the things that I wanted to do, like attend a writer’s retreat for young people, or be a leader. We tell ourselves these self defeating stories and then they come true and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

There is the story that I told myself about how I deserved to drink after a long week. I’m not sure how that explained why I would get drunk in the middle of the week, or the middle of the afternoon, or for an entire weekend, or for an entire week, or for months on end, but that’s the story I told myself. That’s how I grew up.

In the six months of not drinking I’ve learned that power of the stories that we tell ourselves. And that these stories go way back. To maybe even before we were born.

My grandpa was an alcoholic. He drank vodka out of the bottle, the crazy Russian bastard did. He spent most of his life napping on the couch. I see now that he was probably hung over and/or drunk the time I knew him. I don’t know if that’s true. I know he was a trouble maker. And a really good man. He had a mischievous twinkle in his eye that no one has ever had since except for my little girls. I love that mischievous twinkle. So my dad and my uncles grew up with a story of drinking. My dad drank a lot. He was a bad alcoholic, textbook case, and it killed him. He died in his sleep. We don’t talk about if he killed himself or not, but he killed himself. He had a story that was so toxic and wrong that it eventually killed him. He paid the ultimate price for his story. That’s the power of stories.

So in six months of not drinking I’ve learned the power of story, the stories that we tell ourselves, and the stories that we tell others. Now more than ever, stories are everywhere and everything. We tell our story online, in the feed that we share to the world. We tell our story in the emails that we write, the text messages that we send, the Facebook updates we post, the Twitter links that we share, and so on. All of these pictures and posts and updates combine to tell a story.

Before I quit drinking I stopped using social media. I deleted my Twitter account and disabled my Facebook account. I deleted my blog of three years and counting. I found every account I’d ever started and deleted it all. Because I knew that I needed to focus on just one thing for at least one year, and also because I knew that I needed to learn to tell a new story about myself.

My goal is to take seven years to become an entirely new individual. In seven years every cell in my body will be replaced with new cells and for all intents and purposes I will be an entirely new individual. I want to let go of all of my old stories, what people think of me, the message that I send to people, all of it, and focus on just doing one thing, and that is telling a new story of myself. Quitting drink is part of learning to tell that story.

Quitting drink has had all kinds of simple, mundane benefits. I save a lot of money. I’m never hungover. I have a better outlook on life. All of this contributes to a sense of control and power. Of being in control of my time and money. And so on a higher level, that’s freedom. I don’t need to worry about life as much. I’m not beholden to anyone. Some of this is rooted in the story I tell of myself. But the story that I tell myself becomes real. It becomes money in the bank. It becomes time with my kids. If I tell myself a story that I have to drink to fit in and a have to drink to belong, then that’s the reality that I’m left with.

Quitting drink has given me the gift of time and money. So that I can start to clear the clutter out of other parts of my life. I have the time for other projects and other pursuits. I’m getting stronger and in better health. I’m taking care of my back. I’m putting in place a couple of other simple rules… morning pages every day and yoga every day. So I can add a couple of positive habits for the negative habit.

I learned the importance of replacement habits, too. Now I come home and open a can of club soda instead of coming home and opening a beer. It’s such a simple thing, but having a cool drink after I get home is what I live to do. I tried juicing and making a smoothie, etc. but there is something about opening a can. Now I drink club soda everywhere I go now. I can still go to the bar.

Actually, one last thing before I go. The other day I was at the bar after work and I wanted a drink so bad. The old stories flooded back over me. It was the end of the year. It was a celebration. Everyone else was drinking. I really wanted a drink. But I didn’t take one. I learned to just watch the feeling and let it pass. That was an important lesson and something that applies to every aspect of doing less and doing with less. It’s the importance of being present and being aware and taking note of your surroundings and all the things all around you.

It’s not so much telling a story, but being part of your own story. Because so much of what happens in a life happens to you. All that you can control is how you respond to it. And one of the best ways to respond to a lot of things is to simply observe.

*

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Have a good one!

Jon

9 jdroth June 5, 2015 at 10:14

Love this piece, Jon. Thanks for sharing.

10 Sara June 4, 2015 at 10:52

Very well said! I get so frustrated with people who use their own minds to make themselves absolutely MISERABLE, and then say ‘ but those are the facts’. How you choose to interpret the ‘facts’ is always up to you. Each and every person has the ability to change their life at any time. Thank you for the reminder.

11 PawPrint June 4, 2015 at 16:54

Thank you for a very insightful post, JD. Sharing about your mother really got me thinking about how I’ve written my story so far (I’m in my 60s), and what I need to do to rewrite it.

12 Bryan June 5, 2015 at 17:58

JD,
I have been following you for years from your original blog site to here. This is the first time I have posted on either site. It is amazing all the stories we have and how well our mind can keep playing those tapes over and over again. I enjoyed your post and will look for more updates on your road trip.

….and speaking of on the road. We have the same aspirations of taking a couple years and traveling -perhaps 30% to 50% of the time. I wished I would have known you were coming through Sedona from your last blog post. We have lived here for the last 3 1/2 years after relocating from northern California. We would have loved to meet up with you and Kim. Your picture of the Devil’s bridge area is taken from an advantage point toward Enchantment. My wife and I had our wedding reception there!

If you could hook us up with the guy in Sedona you mentioned in your post – that would be great. We would love to meet him.

Please plan on passing back through and we will give you some great BLM sites you can camp at in the area.

13 Edward June 11, 2015 at 10:36

Great article!! I tell this to people all the time, especially when they get disappointed–“What story did you tell yourself?” There are lots of problems with how people view themselves–they were called “princess” when they were young too much, they believe in “fate”, “soul mates”, “forever homes”, “destiny”, “happily ever after”, and a whole lot of other hogwash that gets in the way of enjoying what really happens versus mental invention and expectation. People are get disappointed in visiting a place like Paris because they expected something–a handsome stranger, a moonlit stroll with champagne by the Seine where there are no other tourists, a rose delivered to their door,and other Hollywood movie nonsense.
Once you give up on the stories is when the fun really starts!! Travelling with no expectation is such a blast, the unexpected is what makes life truly worth living.
My favourite quote (which I am getting on my arm the day I retire early): “The future is unwritten.” – Joe Strummer

14 mom June 12, 2015 at 20:57

I am in an Assisted Living place as you know and I am happy here. Unfortunately, my good friend Nesta passed away on Monday. It is hard to lose good friends.

15 Dave June 17, 2015 at 21:29

Dude!!! I feel compelled to address something here that you seem to take as a given. For example, you’re speaking about your mother when you say “At any time, she could have chosen to live a different story. But she didn’t.” That’s about like saying Richard Nixon could’ve chosen to nuke the hell out of the Soviet Union, but he didn’t. Yes, that’s true. He could’ve. He didn’t. What does that tell us??
I’ll leave aside the specific issues relating to your mother’s story because I suspect it’s rarely as simple as “she could’ve chosen differently”, but to a very specific and very focused point, I’ll admit that’s true. Everyone living could make a different choice at some point. To use a D&D framework, it’s not always as simple as “do this and become +3 better, do that and become +1 better.” It may be that you live one way or die another. You seem to take as a given that Spock’s comment in Galileo Seven, “Mister Scott, there are always alternatives” equals “all alternatives are a choice between positive choices.” That’s flatly NOT true. Depending on how you choose to define the problem that’s true in the most cynical of senses- we could all elect to stop paying rent, stop paying for food, stop paying for medical treatment, stop living… You could simply choose to just die. That’s a false dichotomy.
As a practical matter very few people can in fact simply stop participating in the rat race, opt out and choose to wander around the United States in an RV for a year without regard to their other obligations. BECAUSE THEY HAVE OTHER OBLIGATIONS. Could they have chosen another alternative? Sure. They could’ve chosen to graduate from high school, worked at a decent job for 20 years, accumulated a chuck of change and purchased an RV, obtained food, gas, insurance, etc. for a year. Or, they could’ve chosen to become homeless vagabonds and live off of the handouts of others. Or they could’ve chosen to marry, raise children, have a fixed place to call home and a mortgage. They also could’ve chosen to live off of the proceeds of their trust funds and their parent’s largess. Well, except for those who didn’t have parents who had the ability to establish trust funds for their children. You know, people like YOUR mother and father. They didn’t leave a trust fund for you or your siblings. Very few people possess the means to purchase food for 2-3 months in advance, much less 12 months + an RV + gas + insurance + health insurance, etc., without having income during that period of time. Even fewer possess the ability to purchase food and a place to live for that period of time. That assumes that they don’t have any other obligations such as student loans, credit card payments, etc.

What you’re depicting isn’t a life that the average individual can share. It just isn’t.

16 April June 20, 2015 at 06:23

I think you’d like the book The Well of Being, although it’s hard to get your hands on a copy right now! It’s a children’s book for adults, and it’s about the stories we tell ourselves and how they were once useful, but now keep up small. Amazing watercolor illustrations too.

17 April June 20, 2015 at 06:24

*us :)

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: