The story is more than the storyteller

We listen to stories and tell stories as a way of dealing with change, impermanence, fragility and trauma.

Scene from Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Stories connect us with the world by showing what brings us together. They show us that our experience, no matter how particular or bizarre it seems, is part of the broader human experience. That our suffering is not only our own.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

James Baldwin

Stories are also a way of learning, or relearning, the difference between what is essential and what is not, between what happens on the stage and what really matters, happening backstage.

There are anonymous stories, as most folk tales and fairy tales are, and stories with a known author. But, irrespective of whether the author is known or not, good stories are going beyond the storyteller. They are telling more that the narrator intended to say.

Stories are simultaneously particular and universal. They are about a particular course of events, but they can speak to many people from different circumstances and walks of life. We can relate to them personally. This is not because we recognize ourselves in the concrete elements of the story. It’s because the story tells something that goes beyond its specific plot and context.

The moral of the story may be explicit or not. The story may reward some of its characters for being virtuous or for having proven themselves worthy – or it may not. Regardless, no good story comes with a fixed frame of interpretation. No good story is reducible to a moral message. The possibility of interpreting it and making it part of your own experience, as a reader or a listener, is what makes stories meaningful for so many people.

Take “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 movie. You may or may not have seen the movie, but it’s very unlikely that you haven’t seen a remake or at least an allusion to it in some other piece of work. From The Magnificant Seven (1960) to Star Wars (1977) to various episodes from recent series such as The Mandalorian, there there have been many ways of retelling this story or building on it.

Kurosawa’s movie is about a band of rōnin (masterless samurai) who are hired to defend a village of poor farmers from bandits. It is deceivingly simple. What is beautiful about it, apart from Kurosawa’s unique way of framing the scenes and building the plot, is the underlying story. A story of unplanned human kindness and cooperation in the face of adversity.

These samurai are not pictured as superheroes coming to the rescue. One of them is actually lying about being a samurai just to get hired. Others have their strengths, but also their flaws. They seem like a weird bunch at first.

However, they manage to do, as a group, what none of them could have achieved on his own. I don’t just mean victory against the bandits. They manage to be better together. Braver, more accepting, less selfish. They manage to somehow pool their strengths so that they are mutually reinforcing. To accept each other’s weaknesses so that they don’t undermine their collective quest.

The rōnin are successful in defending the village and getting rid of the bandits once and for all. But this succes comes with a heavy price. Four of them die in the final battle. “We have lost this battle too”, remarks one of the remaining three. “It’s the villagers who have won.”

You could draw some straightforward moral message from all this if you really wanted to. But the story is richer than any possible message or conclusion.

Is this about confronting adversity and managing to hold your ground? Yes. Is it about spontaneous generosity and kindness towards strangers? Yes. Is it about facing your own limits? Sure. It’s about all this and many other things. This is what makes it so powerful. This is what makes it speak to so many people that have never found themselves in those particular circumstances, but recognize themselves in the basic human experiences underlying all this.

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.

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 stories we tell ourselves: fear

I’ve never experienced war. I was not targeted by political repression or terror, although I’ve seen it happening around me. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job continuously since I finished university. In fact, for most of this time I’ve had two jobs at the same time. Still, I feel like I’ve been living large parts of my life in fear.

Fear of what? What could have possibly been so scary?

Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa (1954). Mastery of fear was part of the Bushidō code.

I guess you could call it fear of myself. Of not performing well enough, not being sufficiently successful or sufficiently liked, not being up to the expectations. Fear of being rejected. Fear of losing someone’s affection. Fear of writing a text like this and putting it out. Fear of exposing oneself.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions on the current or the previous lessons. And I was pretty sure I had the right answer but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my hand and talk. What if I screw up in front of my colleagues? In fact, even when I was completely sure my answer was right I still had a hard time speaking up. I’d rather keep silent than expose myself.

In those situations there was a fear of speaking up. But fear does not need to have a definite object. After a while, fear becomes its own object. You don’t say exactly what you mean, you don’t do exactly what feels right to you, you don’t react when something unacceptable happens, you don’t say no when you feel like saying no. It’s like being caught in a web of fear and you don’t even know anymore what you are fearful of. Fear and avoidance becomes part of how you see the world.

The problem with this is that it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more you live in fear, the more likely you are to continue living the same way. Not saying what you mean becomes second nature. Not being able to say no becomes an invitation to be taken advantage of.

Fear also changes the kind of stories you tell yourself. Living in fear means giving up agency, seeing yourself as a passive spectator, a patient or a victim. It means seeing yourself as being controlled by circumstances, the actions of others or your own emotions. And once the story you tell yourself becomes the story of a victim, you will be more and more likely to think and behave like a victim.

Because self-narratives are part of what makes up our 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.

As pretty much anything else, fear can be tackled one step at a time. There are ways to re-learn to say what you mean and to do what you feel is right. The good news here is that self-reinforcement works both ways. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less dificult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you are encouraged to identify your 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 yourself and the story you tell yourself. Once there is enough detachment, you recognize the story as a story. Something powerful but man-made. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and that can be unmade.

Fear is only as strong as the attachment to our own stories about ourselves.

You may also want to read the first part of the “stories we tell ourselves” series, which talks about shame.

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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.

The stories we tell ourselves: shame

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.