Alternative stories

The same facts can be the subject of different stories. It matters what story we choose to tell.

Old puppets hanging on the wall in a puppet theatre (Brussels, 2019)

You may think that stories and storytelling are not your thing, but I am not talking about fairy tales. There are many kinds of stories. What do you tell yourself when things don’t work out the way you wanted, despite your best efforts? Is it about you being a failure? Is it about blaming others? Is it about feeling incapable and helpless? Well, this is also part a story. Maybe the most important story there is.

What is the narrative that we keep on telling ourselves (and the world)? Is it a story of helplessness or one of empowerment? One of fear and denial, or one of acceptance?

Are we even aware of the story we are telling? It may be difficult to cut through the smoke of self-deception and wishful thinking.

Self-narratives influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world. They can lift or undermine us. We can become their prisoners, despite having created them. They become so ingrained and normalized that we have a hard time recognizing them for what they are: products, artifacts. Something that was made and can be unmade.


Take Rashomon, the 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The movie focuses on telling and retelling the same event (the murder of a samurai) from different perspectives. The storytellers are a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and other accidental witnesses.

What is interesting about this is not simply the presence of different narratives, but the fact that these narratives can be wildly different. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting themselves. They highlight the personal circumstances and interests of each storyteller. The bandit does not deny killing the samurai, but claims it happened during a duel over the samurai’s wife. The wife tells everybody she has been raped by the bandit. One of the witnesses, a woodcutter, contradicts both the bandit and the samurai’s wife. However, his story has its own shadows and inconsistencies.

Everyone is a suspect. And everyone has their own story.


The presence of alternative stories does not imply relativism. It simply shows that there is more than one possible way of looking at what happens. It reminds us that stories do not offer accurate descriptions of facts, but interpretations and assumptions about those facts.

In fact, the possibility of having alternative stories is liberating. Both as individuals and as communities, we can question our received stories and we can modify or replace them.

There may be things from our childhood that crystalized themselves, long ago, into a story we kept on telling ourselves. Maybe it’s a story about not being loved. Maybe it’s about being somehow defective. Obviously, the story is rooted in things that happened back then. But there is nothing inevitable or necessary about this particular story.

As long as we keep on telling ourselves the same story, we will continue to behave as if the story were true. The possibility of change appears as soon as we start taking distance from our default narrative and recognize it as a story, not a necessary state of fact.

This is, after all, what different forms of therapy try to do. This is also how most people heal, with or without external help. It all starts with taking distance from what seems to be written in stone and recognizing that it is us doing the writing.

  1. Well put. One influential book when I was young, The Games We Play by Eric Berne, went a step further to show that not only we keep telling the same stories over an over, but also choose, trap and manipulate those around us who have complementary stories, to help us stay trapped in our own narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I remember that book, I read it while I was still working at the university. I was preparing a seminar on game theory, but I found it useful to add some psychological insight to it.

      Like

  2. “Are we even aware of the story we are telling?” Most of the time, not.

    I recently read about trauma. The doctor who was explaining its mechanism was insisting that the facts have a little importance. Decisive is the attitude we choose and the story we tell (or not) about it.

    A few years ago, I have notice that despite the fact that I do – obviously – remember the happenings of my life, with the ones that I did not like or the ones that did hurt me I have a very detached relationship: I chose to feel that they did not happen to my deeper me, to my soul and I review them with such surprising indifference. They were simply, calmly, without pain exfoliating from my emotional compartment like the dry part of an onion: light and moving away quietly. When I realized what was going on, I was grateful for the process.

    Thanks for the complex view on it! It is a topic that keeps my mind busy at times; a topic that I often choose to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, most of the time we’re not aware and it’s strange to realize how powerful that story is, despite the fact that it can stay under our own radar for so long.
      Obviously, I am also interested in the mechanism of trauma, as some of my posts probably show. I am glad to hear you have this emotional detachment from past wounds, which is what healing should normally do. I must admit I’m not there yet and I’m trying to repair the ship while at sea, so to speak. Sometimes I grow impatient but I know this is not something you can rush.
      Thanks for the nice words!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. with love and forgiveness, we can re-write all our healing stories; it takes time, indeed; I realized what was going on only when I needed to help others; my children, actually; and then my experience became a healing tool for them; all the best! p.s.: time is a good friend.

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