Stories have the power to create worlds, give meaning to life, inspire, form character, provide wisdom, and suggest direction. Stories can also limit, shame, erode confidence, and diminish us. Each story has the potential to go in either direction: creation or destruction. The difference lies in how the story is told and interpreted.
What are the stories that you tell yourself? Asking ourselves this question on a regular basis can heighten awareness of how our narratives either help or hinder us. When a story holds us back, we can choose an alternative narrative.
One of my core stories is rooted in the fact that I am a youngest child in my family of origin. My sister Kay is four years older than I, so I was always playing catch up. She had a few more years to develop her capacities, but why should that stop me from thinking I could do anything she could do? Sometimes this worked in my favor, pushing me to learn new skills. But sometimes my efforts to keep up ended in disaster.
I clearly remember the day Kay took her bike to the top of the hill where we lived. “Mom, look at this,” she called as she rode her bike expertly to the bottom of the hill, coasting to a smooth stop. Not to be outdone, I took my little red tricycle to the top of the hill. “Mom, look,” I cried as I sped down the hill, a blur of spokes and a flash of red.
If my trike had brakes at all they weren’t very effective. I crashed in front of our house. Loud weeping ensued. The old man who lived across the street hobbled over with his cane to check on me. I’d never seen him move so fast. Nothing was broken, but I had a huge scrape between my nose and upper lip that formed into a perfect little brown scabbed moustache. For weeks after, Kay would salute me and shout: “Heil Hitler!”
My experience of being a youngest turned into a story that shows up in several ways. When I walk into a new setting, I almost always feel as if I am the youngest person in the room. Translation: everyone else here is more capable, competent, and way smarter than I. And when I put myself out in the world in a way that pushes me to develop my capacities, it often feels dangerous. Teaching a new class or preaching a sermon in front of a large group of people can trigger that visceral anxiety that sends “red alert” signals through my body. The brain can not always distinguish real from imagined anxiety, but my muscle memory shouts out: “You’re gonna crash!”
I’ve learned how to work with this core narrative to identify strengths and find value in this story. The strengths evident in the story: I am able to take risks, to challenge myself to stretch beyond my capacities, to try new things and enjoy the ride. Lessons learned from this story: it’s good to check your brake system, showing off rarely ends well, and there is always help on the way, often from unexpected sources.
Are there stories you tell yourself that keep you stuck and don’t serve you well anymore? Once you identify the story you can ask some powerful questions of its purpose in your life: is there another perspective here? How does this story serve me? What do I have to gain/lose from hanging on to this story? How might I re-edit the story and write a new ending which is much more life giving?
Writer Vikram Chandra says: “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” What’s your story?