Why Story telling isn’t just for Children.

A big part of what I do for a living is listening to your Stories. I listen to The Story – the pattern or Timeline of your life & all the major events & circumstances that you have negotiated, survived, or created & that have contributed to who you are today.  I also listen to the many smaller stories that sit in the gaps in between these seminal events & I listen to how you have responded or reacted to them, what patterns of behavior or emotions you may be repeating.

Our ability to tell our Story is a vital part of who we are – our self-expression, our Truth. We have an amazing ability to create, to use our imaginations & construct incredible characters, mythical creatures & whole fantasy worlds. Story telling is a massive part of being Human & of our own unique family cultures as well as our wider geographical cultures. Here in Ireland, Stories are integrally bound in the makeup of the population & an important part of communication – the Irish are fabulous story tellers & musicians.

Stories can be used to deliver uncomfortable or challenging news or lessons & of course Fairy Tales were all about teaching children a moral code or giving them boundaries eg ‘don’t go into the woods after dark, its not safe’, ‘beware of Wolves in sheep’s clothing’ etc etc. I don’t think any of us would claim that any of these ancient Stories are literally true but they enable us to remember better & are embedded in our sub-conscious ready to come out whenever a suitable trigger comes along.

We like to think that all of these Stories – although clothed in fantastical costumes – hold absolute Truths, things that are irrefutable & universal. They are comforting, why, because part of their function is that they allow us to feel vindicated, supported, backed up. We take these Truths for granted as being ‘True’ & we hardly ever question them.

What is ‘The Truth’? If we understand that we all have a different view or perspective of the world & that perspective is what creates our world – eg. the glass half full & glass half empty thing – what is true for me is not necessarily true for you. So is it right or fair that those of us that see the glass as half empty should decide how the glass half full people should live their lives, or the other way around? What may be a prison for one person represents safety for another.

The Stories we tell ourselves determine our continuing experience of our worlds & all the people we come across & we are particularly skilled at ‘filling in the gaps’/joining the dots. What does this mean? It means that if we are given bits of information & not the whole story, we will make stuff up to get from one ‘dot’ to another. It’s not deliberate or even conscious, it’s just driven by a need to ‘make sense’ of the information & act appropriately. Trouble is we can only work with what we already ‘know’, what we have already experienced & what our sub-conscious mind has logged as being relevant to us. So what happens is, without the full story we shape the bare ‘facts’ to fit with our version of the world, we omit the bits that don’t fit that version, we exaggerate the bits that do & we make general conclusions to reinforce it. How often do you hear yourself saying something like ‘Oh God He always does that….’ or ‘You never do that….’? Do you ever stop & reflect to say ‘Always? Really he ”always” does that, is that actually true?’ It very seldom is, it simply allows us to justify our reactions to whatever the trigger is. We feel validated by the ‘fact’ that this isn’t a one off, it’s something that’s repeated.

We almost never take responsibility for our own ‘Truths’, our own Stories. It’s easier & more comfortable to apportion blame, to tell ourselves that the other person ‘Made me’ feel that way or react in that way. What happens next is usually a fight of some kind, a battle of wills as to who is in the right, whose ‘Truth’ or ‘Story’ is more right than the other. We fight until we are exhausted & then we retire into our separate corners & eventually we can give up all together.

What if instead we could press pause & become conscious of the ‘Story’ we are starting to tell ourselves when we are triggered by an outside stimulus? I love the work of Brene Brown who advocates practicing the phrase ‘The story I am telling myself right now is …….’! I can’t tell you how useful I have found this, it does several things:-

  1.  It allows a pause before launching into a knee jerk reaction
  2.  It encourages an awareness that we have choices in how to respond &
  3.  We become aware that we are about to tell ourselves a story that will have absolutely nothing to do with the other person.
  4. It opens us to the opportunity of exploring why we are telling that story & changing it.

Let me give you an example – many years ago a very good friend of mine suddenly started refusing invitations to meet up, she became cold & distant (I thought).  Almost immediately I started telling myself that I had done something to offend her or upset her, that she was rejecting me because I had somehow screwed up. After a few more refusals I had started to ‘remember’ that actually I had always been the one who kept the relationship going, that she had seemed ‘off’ on previous occasions…..I started to feel hurt & angry – why was she treating me like this, after all I had done for her etc etc.

All my insecurities came out to play! I didn’t realise at the time, but deep down I had an old fear of rejection, of not being good enough, ‘perfect’ enough. So my friends behavior made total sense to me within that ‘Story’, that framework that I had constructed about myself. I never thought to challenge it by simply asking her – what’s going on? I forgot that this was not typical behavior for her, I never considered that her actions were perhaps nothing to do with me at all!

Very fortunately for me – my friend eventually called me. She explained that her marriage had come to an abrupt end, that she had been confused & sad & totally unable to talk about it with anyone. She was ashamed, felt she had failed & couldn’t face confiding in me largely because she knew I would support her & encourage her to make tough decisions. So in conclusion,  I had spent almost a month making up a Story that had no basis in fact, made me feel terrible & almost lost me a very good friend. We both learnt valuable lessons from that & I’m delighted to say that we are still firm friends now! There could have been a very different outcome – if my friend had not felt able to reach out to me, would I have lost a valuable friendship and concluded that my old feelings of rejection were correct, had been validated? Perhaps I would have been even more wary about future friendships or any behavior in others that reminded me of that feeling of rejection?

Becoming aware of the Stories we tell ourselves & allowing the possibility that those Stories can be changed if they are keeping us stuck or feeling small, is the start of becoming Conscious. It gives us some control, it offers some light to show us the way towards more light, more freedom, to put down the burden of constantly telling ourselves Stories that make us responsible for the actions of others. We have enough to be responsible for – our own feelings, emotions, understandings & actions, we cannot also be responsible for others too.

There is always more than one Truth. Next time you become aware that you are ‘spinning a Yarn’, stop, allow yourself to recognise that you are starting to tell a Story. Then recognise that this is just one story,& ask yourself these questions:-

  • Can I tell myself a different story, one that is more positive, one that invites a happier or more productive ending?
  • Why have I chosen this Story to tell?
  • Do I need to tell myself a Story at all?
  • Can it be OK that I don’t know why this person has said or done whatever it was?
  • What do I need to feel OK with not knowing?

It’s not just in our connections with others individually that we come across Stories, Most of the ‘facts’ that we are drip fed in the news, social media, magazines, books & even educational courses, are presented in a way that reinforces & upholds the views & world of the authors. There is a hidden agenda – sometimes conscious & sometimes unconscious. Part of many of our cultural Values & beliefs are embedded in a powerful collective consciousness that is often driven by our vulnerabilities, just as I was with my friend.

When we are being driven by our sub-conscious beliefs & the Stories we allow it to tell us, we are not thinking clearly or rationally – it often seems like we are & especially if we can gather others around us,who it seems, see the world in the same way. We are actually busy making sure that we are safe in what we know, that we can stay the same as we’ve always been, we can continue doing what we’ve always done. It’s sometimes frightening & challenging to be asked to take on a different Story, to allow for the fact that there will always be more than one Truth. Subconsciously we feel that we are fighting with our backs to the wall, we resist any attempt to change & we often will use any means at our disposal to keep that change at bay. We can use ridicule, insults, aggression & even violence to fend off the possibility of change. It’s what drives racial hatred, prejudices of all kinds and fanaticism in anything including Science, Medicine, Healing, Culture & of course Politics.

We stay locked in our little dark prisons, clinging to our Stories for dear life, fighting anyone who dares to try to open us up a little or suggest an alternative view.

What if we could stop & ask:-

  • Is this true, where’s the evidence?
  • If what I believe is just a story (a different perspective), what alternatives might there be?
  • Can I accept that I may need to check things out before acting on any ‘information’ that I’m being fed?
  • Can I also accept that not everyone has the same view as me, that we will all be telling ourselves different Stories?
  • What is the immediate danger to me if I accept that my view is not the only view?
  • Can I respond by opening instead of closing?

Resources: –

Watch this Youtube video where Brene Brown talks with Oprah Winfrey about The Stories we tell.

To read more about what I call our ‘Primal Codes’ or ‘Our 7 Behaviourial Codes’ and how they drive all our behaviour, see my previous Blog series in the menu on this page.

Read Dr Kelly Brogan on the current Global Pandemic, our reaction to it & the wearing of Masks.

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