The toxic stories we tell ourselves

We live within stories. It matters what those stories are. They can make or break us. And they can be changed.

Take a moment and remember a time when you’ve been living as if under a spell. When you were hooked on thinking or feeling things that, in hindsight, were clearly out of touch with reality. Maybe you were obsessed with your own failures. Maybe you couldn’t stop caring about a manipulative or abusive person. Or maybe you were stuck in depression without knowing why you got there and what to do. 

What were you telling yourself at that time? How were you trying to justify it, normalize it, explain it away? What was the story you were telling yourself?

Photo by Florin (2020)

Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, plays, 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.

Through stories, we try to make sense of what is going on, find meaning, cope with problems. Through stories we find the power to push through. 

But there are also stories that reinforce fragility and weakness. Stories that keep us captive into various fictions about that we desperately need, what we fear, what would make us happy or unhappy. Stories that keep us stuck in fear and dependence.

“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. 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 genocide.

Learning to tell a different story

Self-narratives are part of our sense of identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.

Toxic stories are persistent and powerful. 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 but frames them differently. 

One powerful way of telling a better story about yourself is to tell it as if you were speaking to a dear friend. Somebody you care about. You are not blind to their faults and weaknesses, but you see through them. You see the suffering, the struggle, and the humanity of it all. “I failed again” becomes “You did your best. It didn’t work out this time. It happens to all of us.”

Self-reinforcement works. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less difficult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

Another way of reframing the story is to identify the hidden assumptions of your self-narrative and question them. It may be that you’re feeling responsible and guilty for everything that didn’t work out. It may be that you’re unable to accept and forgive yourself. It may be that you have a deep-seated fear of loneliness or failure. Once you start seeing behind the curtain of the drama playing continuously in your head, the drama starts losing its edge.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, we are encouraged to identify our cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them, and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between us and the story we tell ourselves.

Once there is enough detachment, we recognize the story as a story. An artifact. Something that was made and can be unmade.

Toxic stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Gaining perspective. Getting out of our little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy, and a sense of shared experience. 

Focusing on others shifts the attention away from our suffering, which changes our perception of how intense or pervasive this suffering is. More importantly, however, it also offers perspective and insight into our situation. We recognize ourselves in the struggle of others. 

Through them, we can look at ourselves from the outside. We see ourselves as human beings going through grief — but we are not identifying anymore with the grief. 

Through them, we sense that all this hurt is not only ours — it’s a common human experience. And there are so many who had it way worse than us. There’s a certain humility that comes from detaching ourselves from our own suffering. Even in our suffering, we’re not that special. The world has not conspired to hurt us. It’s just the ebb and flow of life.

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