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.

Alone in a room

As parts of the world are going into a new period of isolation to fight the pandemic, I look at how life has changed and the upside of isolation.

As we withdraw from each other in the flesh, we may begin to appreciate better what we had until so recently: friendship and love made manifest by being together, simple gifts like a shared joint, a head resting on your shoulder, a hand squeezed, a toast raised. And in this sudden stop, we will also hear the sounds of nature — as our economic machine pauses for a moment and the contest for status or fame or money is canceled for just a while. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal said. Well, we’ll be able to test that now, won’t we?

Andrew Sullivan – How to Survive a Plague

What are the things we cannot live without?

Well, we may be forced to redefine that list. And maybe realize that some things we thought we need are dispensable. Or even that we are better off without them.

For all its disadvantages, isolation gives us the opportunity to pause and just notice. To see the aimless agitation, the moments when we’re simply not there.

We’re not there because we are too busy distracting ourselves.

The first step is to recognize that some of what passes for activity is just distraction. The second one is to ask what we’re trying to distract ourselves from. This may take a while, because it’s about facing things what we fought to keep away at all costs. It’s about facing one’s demons.

Is it loneliness? Anger? Shame? Old wounds that never healed? Lack of purpose and meaning? Whatever it is, it’s haunting us. Did we ever turn back to face it?

In one of her books, Pema Chodron talks about a friend of hers who had frequent nightmares. In her dreams, she was repeatedly chased by monsters. Often, in a desperate attempt to escape, she would enter a room and close the door behind her, only to hear the monsters break down the door and get closer. She was waking up screaming. This happened over and over again.

Pema asked her friend how these monsters looked like. To her own surprise, her friend realized that she could never bring herself to turn and look at the things chasing her. 

But this realisation stayed with her and it slowly permeated into her dreams. The next time she found herself trying to get away from the monsters, once she entered the room where monsters were usually following her she turned around. 

The monsters were there. For the first time, she could observe each of them. They were jumping up and down in front of her, but they were keeping distance as if held back by an invisible force field. They were scary but somehow not nearly as scary as they seemed before, when they were just a menacing presence without a face. In fact, the more she was looking at them, the less frightening they seemed. She remembers saying to herself in the dream that they look a bit like cartoon characters.

Then she woke up and the nightmares stopped.

The long black shadow

A trip in the dark in a cold December morning, to revisit a place of love and leave it behind.

“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.

What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.

As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.

She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.

What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.

That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.

Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.

The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.

Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.

As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.

She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.

The girl dragging her feet glued to a long black shadow has disappeared completely.

A night in Alfama

The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.

At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.

The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.

From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.

This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.

A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.

I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.

Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.

Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.

Everything is in flow

The small stream is at almost perfect standstill.

There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.

It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.

I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.

It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.

Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.

There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.

Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.

I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.

The stories we tell ourselves: guilt

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator describes a crime he has commited, while attempting to convince the reader of his sanity. After the killing, he dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. The description is meticulous and emotionally detached. There seem to be no feelings involved. No regret. No guilt.

But then, the narrator start hearing a thumping sound that grows louder and louder. Unsure at first, he realizes it is coming from beneath the floor. It can only be the dead man’s heart, beating as a sort of premonitory bell. The beating becomes unbearably loud. Banished from conscient thought, guilt infiltrates itself to the surface.

Guilt is part of life. We all screw up from time to time and, if we have some sort of moral compass, we will feel guilty. Sometimes we are forgiven by those who we have harmed and sometimes not. Sometimes we manage to forgive ourselves and sometimes not.

But guilt can also turn into an obsession that undermines us. An obsession that does not depend so much on proof of having done something wrong, but rather on feeling of bad or dysfunctional. A feeling of deep inadequacy.

This may start in childhood, when we develop our self-image. A kid who is treated badly by his parents will usually not blame them, because parents are wise adults who surely have good reasons for doing what they do. He will blame himself for their behavior: “I must have done something wrong”.

Guilt may also be linked to a trauma that developed later on, such as the death of loved one or a toxic, abusive relationship. Guilt may have been cultivated as part of such a relationship, resulting in dependence and low self-esteem. Some of us are more susceptible than others to this kind of emotional blackmail.

In these cases, guilt can really take on a life of its own, especially if it grows on childhood traumas. It embeds itself into your self-story, like a renegade voice interfering with your inner voice, constantly whispering that it’s your fault. It sucks the life out of you.

Guilt built into the self-story may not be conscious and may not be about something, about particular wrongs. It is more like a fog – covering everything, blurring everything and preventing you from seeing at a distance, from seeing the true shapes of things and gaining detachment. Like an imaginary thumping sound coming from beneath the floor, it accompanies you from dawn to dusk.

Getting beyond guilt depends on more than willpower or the intellectual ability of cutting through the fog and seeing clearly. It depends on self-forgiveness – the most difficult forgiveness there is. It depends on the capacity to forgive yourself over and over again, like you would do with a person you love.

It’s precisely this capacity that is undermined by abuse and trauma. Rebuilding it is a bit like re-learning to walk after an serious accident. Because you are not simpy dealing with guilt, but rather with a mental script, a story that has embedded itself into your sense of identity and self-worth.

The reality of stories

In my native language, one standard formulation to start a folk tale is “There was, once upon a time, because if it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it”. There are different versions of this formulation, some of them going on and on about a miraculous past and place where the events took place.

“If it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it” is about the substance and reality of stories. Obviously, stories are not real in the sense in which a news report is real. So what could this mean? Are we invited to delude ourselves into believing something that is clearly false?

For me, the short answer is the following: stories are not historical events (although they may echo events from the past), but they are “real” in the sense of condensing the living experience of our ancestors. They carry a meaning and they speak about things we all care about. They wouldn’t have survived from one generation to another otherwise.

Travelling to the other side

Let’s imagine how stories were told. A child sits close to the fireplace while grandpa tends to the fire. It’s dark outside and the room is a small island of light, safety and warmth in an ocean of darkness. There are no distractions, just the crakling of fire and the shadows on the walls. Grandpa starts to speak slowly, as if somebody else is trying to speak through him.

“Once upon a time, in a far, faraway land, there was a good king living in his castle by the sea…”.

“How far away, grandpa? Where we went to the seaside last year?”

The child needs to establish a foothold of the story in reality. This doesn’t need to be here, in the midst of our lives. It can be faraway, underground, through the rabbit hole, on a different planet. Children understand that folk tales and fairy tales take place in a misterious place that can be governed by different laws. But they are curious and want to know how this place functions.

As a storyteller, you may be able to get away with “far, far away” when you start off. But you have to reveal more about the world of your story as you go along. No matter how far away that place is, there must be a way of getting from here to there. It may be a magic mirror or a long travel through places that get weirder and more dangerous as you go along. There has to be a point of contact with the here and now.

Discussing in what sense stories are real may seem like a play of words but it’s not. If stories are somehow real, they are meaningful. They have a logic and a structure that we may be able to decipher, even if they are very far from our usual logic and structure.

Therefore asking where is “far, far away” is a way of establishing a point of contact with the world of the story. Many elaborate formulations to start a folk tale are exactly about this – creating a link with our reality. Then the story can go on and the horses may fly and the dragons may speak.