The stories we live in

I would lie if I said that I started this blog having a detailed plan for going forward. But one thing I knew well: it would be about the spellbinding power of stories.

It would be about how stories take hold of us, enlighten us or push us into submission, make us happy or miserable. How we get to live inside our stories for years or even decades, and what this does to our life and our sense of self.

The perfect runaway moment. Lisbon, November 2021.

Obviously, I am talking about stories in a broader sense: novels, folk tales, legends, and all sorts of fiction or semi-fiction (such as childhood memories). But most of all I am talking about self-narratives – the things we tell ourselves about who we are, what we are capable of, and who we can be.

Stories are enchanting. They pull us in and make us live in their universe.

I remember reading a novel about fifteen years ago. I only had a few dozen pages left and I slowed down my reading so I can make it last longer. I simply didn’t want it to end. It wasn’t the suspense, there was nothing dramatic left to happen. It was the bitter-sweet pleasure of extending my presence in that world. The emotional connection.

That was a story I didn’t just read. I lived in it for a while. I inhabited that space together with its characters, and I was miserable, lighthearted, or emotional along with them.

I also remember living through moments of intense shame, guilt, or inadequacy. Often, it was hard to tell why I was feeling that way, and why the intensity. I knew it was linked somehow to my insecurities, my desire to please, my unlimited capacity to second-guess myself, my desperate need for validation and approval.

These insecurities, doubts, shame, and inadequacy were also part of a story. One that I kept on telling myself (or that kept on playing itself, like a song on repeat) under the radar of self-awareness. One that was rooted in a core belief of defectiveness.

The problem with self-stories is that we can get stuck in their universe even if the story is hurting us. We don’t exactly know how we entered into that universe in the first place, and we are unable to find our way back out. It’s like a door that simply disappeared and now there’s uninterrupted wall all around.

A novel can deeply touch us and stay with us for months or years, but they are still narratives that we can take distance from. With self-stories, this detachment becomes much more difficult because the narrative becomes part of our identity. It becomes the basis of how we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

I don’t think that the way out of this self-destructing blockage in a toxic story is to try and get rid of stories altogether. We need stories to find meaning and purpose, to come to terms with good and bad experiences, to heal, and to help others heal. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Learning to tell a better story offers a way out of toxic self-narratives. Learning to tell a kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts but frames them differently. A story that starts from accepting everything.

In relationship we are hurt and in relationship we heal.

Through stories we hurt ourselves and through stories we heal.

7 thoughts on “The stories we live in

    1. Yes. It’s a sad irony that there’s almost nothing in our “normal” education (at home, at school, or in any other context) to make us aware of this and somehow prepare us. We learn it the hard way.

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  1. Very good observations here. Stories can help us heal or they can break us. Sometimes we need to remember that there are also other ways of making sense of the word, and we need to remind ourselves that our mental models are much richer than stories, which by definition have a linear structure. Visualising and sharing mental models to nurture shared understanding and to co-create refined, revised, and new mental models based on new insights is what I have been doing professionally for over 25 years, I’ve even written stories about it 😄 https://jornbettin.com/2017/08/22/are-you-a-model-builder-or-a-story-teller/. The following article touches on the limits of stories in the context of mental well-being https://autcollab.org/2022/12/28/healing-from-autistic-trauma/. To stay healthy I am compelled to write, and I am also continuously refining my mental models and often include non-linear visual diagrams of these models in my writing to break through the limitations of stories. Non-linear representations remind us of the vast possibility spaces that surround us, and they counteract the potential dangers of stories to lock us into a fixed scenario or pattern that may or may no longer be relevant. I will stop here. This is one of my pet topics.😜

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    1. Thank you Jorn for your visiting my blog and for the useful info! I’ve already read your post on healing from autistic trauma and I’ll certainly read the other one you mentioned.

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