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.

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. Spellbinding. They pull us in.

We need stories to find meaning and purpose, to heal, and to help others heal. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it. But it’s important to be aware of what these stories are.

I remember reading a novel about fifteen years ago. There were only a few dozen pages left and I slowed down my reading so I can make it last longer. I 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, desire to please, need for validation and approval.

These insecurities, doubts, shame, and inadequacy were also part of a story. It was a story 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-narratives is that we can get stuck in their universe even if it’s hurting us. We don’t exactly know how we entered 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 and stay with us for months or years, but they are still narratives from which we can take distance. 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.

Self-narratives are part of our sense of identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it has ever been true. 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. 

Learning to tell a different story

One way of reframing self-narratives is to identify the hidden assumptions of our self-narrative and question them. It may be that we’re feeling responsible and guilty for everything that didn’t work out. Or maybe we have a deep-seated fear of loneliness or failure. Once we start seeing behind the curtain of the drama playing continuously in our heads, the drama starts losing its edge.

There are several techniques and therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, that encourage us to become aware of our cognitive scripts (the self-narratives). Once we do that, we can 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 suffering without identifying with it.

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.

14 Comments on “The Stories We Live In

  1. Truth! Reframing stories is important; we can’t just erase them altogether, but we need a better frame of reference to move forward.

    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.

    1. Exactly. They are compelling when we invest them with the power of reality, of things that are like this and cannot be otherwise. Thank you.

  2. 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.😜

    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.

  3. I loved the way you described the story you read 15 years ago, the paragraph where you told how and why you slowed down your writing. Something special about that feeling we all have, at times, when reading a novel that pulls us in.

  4. Yeap, who would we be without our stories? Research shows that many of our perceptions of ourselves are inconsistent with how others perceive us. It also points to the fact that our memories are reconstructions of what happened, stories based on facts, not the facts themselves recorded on a tape for later viewing. Memories can, and do, change. And even our sense of self is a story, a mental construct that enables each of us to function as a unity in this world. Stories are powerful. I have recently come across the cognitive work of Byron Katie and have found her questioning very interesting and powerful. Who would I be without this or that though? Goes right to the core. Thanks for the post. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we live in stories and recognize the stories for what they are.

    1. Thank you Alessandra. You hit the nail on the head there – who would we be without this or that thought or story? Sometimes we get to see at least part of the answer after, for one reason or another, some of these stories change or fade out. But as a rule they are extremely resilient. I’ll look up Byron Katie, sounds interesting.

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