We live within stories. 

Often we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, movies, video games. But there are also national myths, collective stories of greatness, and mental scripts we keep telling ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think and feel.

“I am not worthy of love”, “I am defective”, “we need to defend the purity of our race”, “our civilisation is under threat”, “my political opponents are brainwashed idiots” – all these are not isolated statements. They are part of a wider web of beliefs, values and practices that define who we are. They are part of a narrative that has real life consequences. Believing in your essential defectiveness can lead to personal tragedy. Believing in a looming threat to the purity of the race can lead to war and gonocide.

When I was 8 or 9, I was caught with a semi-nude photo of an actress in my pocket. Judging by the standards of today, and in fact by any standards, the photo was mildly provocative. A black and white photo of a woman exposing her legs up to the thighs and smiling at the camera. But being exposed like that made me feel incredibly ashamed. It felt as if a dirty secret had been revealed to the whole world and now I have to live with it. And I never really shook off that shame. I am not talking about that episode – it was just a funny little moment of my childhood – but about the shame itself. By the time that moment arrived, the shame was already there. Fed by known and unknown traumas of childhood. It was already part of the story I was telling myself about who I am and what I am capable of. I’ve struggled for a long time to undermine and reframe this story.

Because that’s what some stories do. They become part of us.

In Steve Mc Queen’s movie “Shame”, the main character lives and struggles through his sex dependence, spiraling out of control. The sudden appearance of his sister, who has fallen on tough times and asks to live in his apartment for a while, disturbs his habits and enrages him. At the same time, this new situation strikes a cord of fragility and affection that were hardly visible before. Just as myself in a different context, he struggles with shame. And it’s not just the shame of his sex dependence, it’s the shame of what he has become, of the type of person he is.

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)

Toxic stories are persistent. Part of the reason is that it takes time and effort to realize their toxicity when you’ve been living with them long enough. It takes a shift of perspective, a degree of critical detachment, to start seeing them for what they are. But even then, realizing their toxicity will not be enough to get rid of them. No matter how harmful, we may choose to hang on to the story because giving it up feels like giving up part of ourselves. It feels as if we don’t have anything else to hang on to.

Toxic stories are powerful but they are not invincible. They can be undermined by learning to tell a better story. A kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts or experiences but frames them differently. Bad stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Getting out of your little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy and a sense of shared experience.

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