The Stories We Tell Ourselves

We live within stories. 

Forest sunset, May 2023

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 repeating to ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think, and feel.

“I am not worthy of love”, “I’m never doing anything right” – 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 narratives that have real-life consequences.

I want to focus for a moment on shame, fear, and guilt as ingredients of self-narratives.


When I was 8 or 9, I was caught with a semi-nude photo of an actress in my pocket. The photo was mildly provocative at best. It was nothing really. 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.

It took me so much time to shake off the shame. I am not talking about that episode – it was just a funny little moment of my childhood – but about shame itself. By the time that moment arrived, the shame was already there. Unshakable. Fed by rivers of dirt that made sure the Great Lake of Shame never ran dry.

Because that’s what self-narratives do. They become part of us.

In Steve Mc Queen’s movie “Shame”, the main character struggles with his sex addiction, 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 like 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. It takes effort even to see them as stories – that is, something we say to ourselves rather than something that is out there.

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.


I was bullied a couple of times but it didn’t go very far. I’ve never experienced famine, war, or anything similar. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job (and often two at a time) since I finished my studies. 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 expectations. Fear of being rejected, of losing someone’s affection, of exposing my vulnerability.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions about 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, 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 become 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, 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 ever true. Ideas of self-worth, competence, and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means undermining the story it is part of.


In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator describes a crime he has committed and attempts 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.

Book illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart

But then, the narrator starts 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 at all, we are bound to 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 wrong, dysfunctional, inadequate.

This may start in childhood as we develop our self-image. A kid who is mistreated by adults will usually not blame them, because adults are wise and surely have good reasons for doing what they do. Children will blame themselves: “I must have done something wrong.” Guilt may also be linked to tragedy and trauma that occur later on, such as the death of a loved one, or an abusive relationship. In these cases, guilt can really take on a life of its own, especially if it feeds on childhood scars.

Chronic guilt does not need a definite object. 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 us from dawn to dusk.

Getting beyond guilt depends on more than willpower or intellectual ability to cut through the fog and see clearly. It depends on self-forgiveness – the most difficult forgiveness there is. It depends on the capacity to forgive ourselves over and over again as we would do with a person we love.

A kinder story

Toxic stories can be undermined by learning to see them as stories and learning to tell a better story.

Most therapies include a method of identifying our cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and questioning them, challenging them, and finding alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between ourselves and the story we tell ourselves. Once there is enough detachment, we recognize the story as a story. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and can be unmade.

This opens the possibility to tell a kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts or experiences but frames them differently. One simple way of doing this is detachment: we look at ourselves as we would look at a dear friend. What would we say to them? What would we do? How would we help them out of their well of misery and self-doubt?

Can we turn this on ourselves? It can feel made up and forced, and that’s because we are often not our own dear friends. But this can be unlearned and relearned.

Toxic stories can also be undermined by paying attention to what others are going through. Getting out of our little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy, and a sense of shared experience. There’s a whole world out there and what we happen to go through is shared by so many others.

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 storytelling and the 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 live with stories – in fact, live inside these stories – for years or even decades, and what it does to our life and sense of self.

I feel that I’ve somehow drifted away from this recently and I’d like to reconnect with what made me start the blog in the first place.

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What Makes You Happy?

Looking back, I realize that for a long time I did not know very well how to make myself happy. I didn’t really know how to take steps in order to get closer to the situations, projects, mindset, values, emotions, or relations that would be conducive to happiness.

What’s more, I wasn’t prepared to allow myself to be happy. Being happy didn’t quite seem like a legitimate personal aim. It felt dodgy. Hedonistic. Self-centered. Surely there must be something there more valuable than happiness, such as constantly pushing yourself to do better and to please others.

I remember being asked by a girlfriend, a long time ago, what I have managed to do for myself that day. I remember how strange that question felt. Do something for myself? Daily? What a funny little notion.

I grew up in an environment that focused on preparing the conditions for future happiness rather than on being happy. Happiness was a projection, not a reality in the here and now.

I used to be angry about this constant drive to prove oneself and project oneself in the future. About the inability to just relax and accept what is there. It took so much unlearning on my side – before learning how to stop running and just breathe and look around. Now I find less and less mental space for anger. It doesn’t lead anywhere.

Before I could learn something about happiness, I needed to learn how to:

  • connect with people, including people with whom I may not have much in common
  • not take myself too seriously
  • appreciate what I have
  • do things as an expression of who I am rather than what happens to me.

I’m trying to practice all this but I feel like an eternal beginner.

I have been following the recent and not-so-recent research on happiness. I’d like to summarize here some of its findings. While most of these findings sound intuitive enough, the nuances and details are important. It’s the fine print that makes the difference.

So what makes us happy?

Social connections

Research has consistently shown that people who have strong social connections tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer lives than those who are socially isolated.

One study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that people who have strong social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer than those who are socially isolated (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). The study also found that social isolation is as detrimental to health as smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. Other studies have shown that social relationships can impact a person’s mental health as well. People who have strong social connections are less likely to experience depression and anxiety and more likely to have higher levels of life satisfaction (Cacioppo et al., 2008).

Research has also found that the quality of social relationships is just as important. People who have close and supportive relationships with friends and family members tend to be happier and more satisfied with life than those who do not (Diener & Seligman, 2002). Additionally, people who feel that they are able to rely on their social network during times of need are more resilient to stress and experience better overall health outcomes (Uchino, 2006).

The Harvard Study of Adult Development came to very similar conclusions. The study tracked the lives and happiness of 724 people from Boston over 80 years from 1938, and went on to study the children of the original participants. All participants were interviewed on how happy they were at different times in their lives, and why.

Study leaders Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz noticed that “Success in life is often measured by title, salary, and recognition of achievement. Those who manage to check off some or even all of the desired boxes often find themselves on the other side feeling much the same as before.”

The authors say that happiness is not a destination to be reached, but a process that comes from good connections with other people. “One thing continuously demonstrates its broad and enduring importance,” they write. “Good relationships.”

Purpose and meaning

Purpose refers to the sense of direction and motivation in life. Meaning relates to the belief that life has significance and value beyond oneself.

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that individuals who reported a stronger sense of purpose in life experienced higher levels of well-being. This effect was mediated by a sense of coherence and self-acceptance (Mascaro & Rosen, 2006). Another study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that a sense of meaning in life was positively correlated with overall life satisfaction and subjective well-being (Wong, 2010).

Research has also found that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is associated with various positive outcomes, including increased psychological well-being, greater life satisfaction, lower rates of depression and anxiety, and better physical health (Ryff & Singer, 2008; Martela & Steger, 2016). For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that individuals with a sense of purpose had better health outcomes, including lower levels of disability and mortality (Boyle et al., 2009).

Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the relationship between purpose and happiness. One theory suggests that having a sense of purpose provides individuals with a sense of control over their lives, which can promote positive emotions and reduce stress (Ryff & Singer, 2008). Another theory suggests that having a sense of purpose allows individuals to derive a deeper sense of satisfaction from their actions and accomplishments (Steger, 2012). Engaging in activities that align with one’s values, passions, and beliefs can foster a sense of purpose and meaning, leading to increased happiness and well-being.

Being in nature

Studies have found that spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood, and increase feelings of well-being. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that just a 20-minute nature walk can significantly improve cognitive function and reduce symptoms of depression. Another study conducted by the University of Exeter found that people who spent time in nature each day reported higher levels of happiness and a greater sense of purpose in life.

In addition, being in a natural environment has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.

But why does nature have such a positive effect on our happiness? One theory is that it helps us feel connected to something greater than ourselves. When we immerse ourselves in nature, we become more aware of the natural world around us, which can create a sense of awe and wonder. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of gratitude and a greater sense of purpose.

But why does connecting with nature have such a positive effect on our happiness? One theory is that nature provides us with a sense of awe and wonder, which can be a powerful emotional experience. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “experiences of awe can promote greater well-being by shifting people’s focus away from themselves and toward a broader sense of connection and meaning in life.”

Connecting with nature can also provide us with a sense of perspective and help us put our problems into context. As one study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology notes, “nature may provide a salient reminder of the larger world beyond the self, which could lead to greater feelings of connectedness to the larger social and ecological systems.” (Ryan et al., 2010).

So the circle closes. Connecting to others and connecting with nature are reinforcing one another and they are both reinforcing the sense of purpose and meaning that seem to be so closely connected to perceived happiness.

It’s nerdy but, since I refer to these people in the paragraphs above, I might as well give the full reference here.


Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.

Boyle, P. A., Barnes, L. L., Buchman, A. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 574-579.

Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M., Berntson, G. G., Nouriani, B., & Spiegel, D. (2008). Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(6), 1109-1114.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(4), 41-43.

Spreitzer, G. M., Sutcliffe, K. M., Dutton, J. E., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549.

Keniger, L. E., Gaston, K. J., Irvine, K. N., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). What are the benefits of interacting with nature?. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 10(3), 913-935.

Mascaro, N., & Rosen, D. H. (2006). Existential meaning’s role in the enhancement of hope and prevention of depressive symptoms. Journal of Personality, 74(5), 1255-1276.

Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531-545.

Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L., Gagne, M., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(2), 159-168.

Ryff, C. D., & Singer, B. H. (2008). Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 13-39.

Steger, M. F. (2012). Making meaning in life. Psychological Inquiry, 23(4), 381-385.

Wong, P. T. (2010). Meaning-in-life and optimal functioning. In Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 679-687). Oxford University Press.

Uchino, B. N. (2006). Social support and health: A review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29(4), 377-387.

White, M. P., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B. W., & Depledge, M. H. (2013). Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24(6), 920-928.

Cultivating Attention

Photography cultivates a certain awareness and attention to detail. You walk on the street, all senses awake. There’s this detail here and that situation over there. You can see things developing into something that could be a good photo. You anticipate. You position yourself in the right place and wait for the right moment.

Sometimes (in fact, many times) that place was far from being the right one. And the right moment passed before you could react. Or never arrived. But the experience is still yours to enjoy. It wasn’t pointless.

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Tender is the night

I suddenly woke up as if an alarm was going off somewhere. A high-pitched noise drilling holes into the fabric of reality. But there is nothing. The silence is complete, definitive, almost painful.

I dreamt of you. Again. You were looking at me with that look of calm detachment. Not even disappointment. Not even resentment. Just coldness, as if you were looking through me, beyond me, to whatever else was there once I was out of the picture.

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All paths lead back to where I stand

All this unchecked wild growth. This gracious abandonment. These plant seeds flying around, offering themselves to anybody, offering themselves to nobody. This whirlwind of life coming together in this very moment, unplanned yet fully in sync. Not asking for a witness, not needing to be acknowledged, just being there.

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The past present

I woke up early, too early, like so many times before. There’s a beautiful sunrise out there, for anybody who’d care to witness it. Not me. I am struggling to wake up after I struggled to go back to sleep. Not feeling quite ready to start the day, yet far away from that coziness of being under the blanket and just turning over for another hour of sleep.

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