The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Ryan Eidson  —  March 27, 2014 — Leave a comment

The question before us today: What type of stories do we tell ourselves?

I constantly have a story in my mind about myself. It’s like an eight-track player. The songs change every few minutes, but after a while, the loop comes back around and I’m listening to the same tape over and over all day.

You experience this as well. Each one of us does. A loop that reminds you of who you believe you are, where you came from, and where you think you’re going.

Every day there’s a story in your head.

Occasionally, someone takes the eight-track tape out and puts another one in. It will keep looping, too. It’s the same artist, different album. The instruments and style of music are similar.

If you’re feeling great on a particular day, the music is advanced, upbeat, and full of major chords.

If you’re feeling down, the songs are unpolished, primitive, and full of unrealized potential.

Do you just leave yourself to circumstance to determine which tape plays over and over in your mind? Or can you do something to change this?

The Playground of a Child’s Mind

I’ve found that the stories we tell ourselves change over time.

Young kids think they can do anything. Take a class of first graders. After each child finishes his or her crayon drawing (which will later appear on the refrigerator), the teacher asks the class, “Who is an artist?” Unless someone is upset from a broken crayon, every kid will raise his hand.

Two hours later, that class plays with simple musical instruments. Ask, “Who is a musician?” and each one will reply, “I am!”

Listen to their giggles and playful screams on the playground that afternoon. Hear the children talk to one another as if they’re a firefighter, super hero, or princess.

Yet when these same children get to high school, their responses will be so much different.

Of all the teens who sign up for art class electives, very few will claim to be an artist.

Of the 100 students in the school band, only a handful consider themselves musicians.

Their time of free, open play diminished. They don’t dream as much as they used to. Sure, they dream of when they can get out of school.

The stories that these kids tell themselves has changed over time.

Why is that?

Call In the Reinforcements!

I developed a visual model of what happens with the stories we tell ourselves. You might call this self-esteem, self-worth, or “the voices you hear in your head.”

Here’s my theory:

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves: The Existing System

The stories that you hear and believe influence your worldview.

Your worldview (how you see yourself, others, your place in history, etc.) determines the stories that you share with other people. You’re reluctant to share with others what you believe is not true, and you’ll quickly fan the flame of information you believe is true and will help other people.

The stories that you speak, write, and share with others reinforce the narrative in your head: the stories that you hear and believe.

Stories such as…

  • “I could never learn to do ballet.”
  • “I’m not the sort of person who writes a book.”
  • “No one in my family has ever done that before.”
  • “I’m just a country bumpkin. I don’t think I could ever go overseas.”
  • “All my projects have failed. I could never have a successful business.”

And the cycle goes on.

“We tell ourselves stories not only for profound reasons but for mundane ones as well: to process the ambiguous and complex events that unfold every day around us, or even to try to understand the issues presented in a major Supreme Court case.” —Linda Greenhouse, New York Times, February 6, 2014

Now the question is: if you don’t like the stories that keep looping through your head, if you want to regain the childhood curiosity you once had, what do you do?

There is the narrative you’d like to tell yourself, but then there’s the story (worldview) you continue to live by.

What if you could bridge that gap?

Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Empty stories, such as the captivating titles of tabloid headlines, lead to destruction. Intuitively, you know they’re not true.

Some stories draw you in and force you to keep digging deeper. They lead you to truth.

This means that no story is morally neutral.

“You can change what you are and you can change where you are by changing the input into your mind, and you have a choice on that. Shift from a fault-finder to a good-finder. Negative self-talk becomes positive self-talk.” —Zig Ziglar

Taking these into account, we expand on our earlier model.

There are two points where you can change the cycle of pessimism and bring forth hope:

  1. Change what you feed your mind. What do you watch on TV? What music do you listen to? (Have you ever paid attention to the lyrics?) Do you really need to listen to the news every single day? What are you reading? Who are you following online? Who do you subscribe to?
  2. Change the stories you tell others. Are you spreading gossip? Do your social media updates always talk about what’s going on wrong in your life? Are you always talking about gloom and doom? The words that come out of your mouth exert more power over you than you realize.
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This is how we modify the stories we tell ourselves.

At the same time, though, some people become so attached to how they’re currently living, that even though they get a glimmer of hope, it’s terrifying to change.

Nature goes in cycles: seasons, growth, change; decline, death, spring resurrection—and we can, too. Perhaps the death of our old dreams, our old systems of taking in information, our old ways of talking, can be washed away, and we can step out and do what each one of us does best. Instead of being conformed to what society or our local town expects us to do. Instead of “working at the factory because that’s what everyone else around here does.” Instead of doing the same old thing.

“If every cell in our body can die away and replace itself, slowly, in the night, without our noticing…there’s no reason why one day, just as gradually and stealthily, we might find ourselves characters in a story that looks exactly like we’d hoped.” —Singer-Songwriter Olga Nunes

These Are Your New Stories

Now you can say…

  • “I am the sort of person who saves money every month.”
  • “I can get my book done this year.”
  • “I will find the best people to help me with my endeavors.”
  • “I can try that new thing and explore my depths of creativity!”

How do you learn to tell better stories? By hearing great stories.

To your (internal) storytelling,

Ryan Eidson

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Ryan Eidson

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I have the unique ability to make complex ideas easy to understand. I am the author of A Couple with Common Cents and live in rural Missouri.