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 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.
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?
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.
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.