Three Alarming Ways Your Personal Story Limits You

You know how, sometimes, it’s impossible to remember everything that you need to buy? (I know, I promised a blog post about personal story, but stay with me, this is an allegory.)

Recently I had to run errands — and I had to remember to buy my favorite pens, and my husband’s very specific brand and fragrance deodorant. I didn’t write a list — there were only two things to remember — and I regretted it.

Because I only remembered my favorite pens. (Papermate Flair Medium, by the way). Tim had to go out to buy his deodorant later — a huge pain.

I could think of many excuses why I couldn’t remember to buy one of the two things for which I went to Target. Maybe it was naptime and the baby was screaming. Maybe I was squeezing the visit between hectic appointments and I was distracted. What it comes down to is: The story I was telling myself about my Target trip didn’t include my husband’s deodorant.

My personal story that day was “I really need a new pen.” Maybe I would’ve remembered the whole list if I had changed that story to “My family really needs pens and deodorant.”

Stories encode information — stories help us recall things. They help us recall solutions to problems, they help us recall our beliefs, and they help us remember our relationships. And the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves — our personal stories — can sometimes get in our way instead of empowering us.

Three Alarming Ways YourPersonal Story Limits You (1)

Here are three ways our stories get in our way:

1. Your personal stories set you up to believe something about yourself.

We use stories to hold meaning. I have struggled over the past five years with depression, and there were many days where my beloved would ask me, “How was your day?” It was a neutral question, but the story I told was from neutral in my head.

I’d say, “Well, I took a nap with the baby. It was a really good nap, about 3 hours. And then we ate a late lunch, and it was already time to go pick up big sister.” In the milliseconds between each sentence, in the pause, I attribute meaning.

I took a nap — that means I didn’t get any chores done. It was a good nap — for the baby, the adult was inefficient, no work time either. Already time — that basically means I wasted the whole day. Even though it was a neutral question, the story I tell is full of meaning; on particularly bad mental-health day the meaning of the story might be the last straw. The meaning I’m attributing to the story is: I’m lazy.

I’m not really lazy. Meaning is not black and white, up and down. There could be many other meanings to attribute to a story. In this case, an alternative meaning is that I was exhausted, doing the best I can. Or that I was being too hard on myself.

But when we attribute meaning to a story, we decide that’s who we are, and it’s hard to shift, because stories make train tracks in our minds. (Shifting stories is an advanced technique I’m going to be teaching in my Story Circle, beginning in November.) The train tracks bring me to my next point.

2. Your personal story only presents one solution to a recurring problem.

Humans use stories to take shortcuts. Instead of coming up with a unique solution to a problem every time a problem presents itself, we remember stories. When we’re faced with what seems like a new situation, we go back in our minds and begin looking for stories that are like what we’re experiencing. Terrence Garguilo, of, identifies one function of stories as jumping off points to abstract thinking. The kind of comparison I’m talking about here is very abstract — Situation A is like Situation B.

For example, I can tell you the story about how I was six years old, and my babysitter laughed at me because I thought I had $100 in my piggy bank. The meaning I attributed? “I am bad at counting money.” My solution? Cry because I was embarrassed.

That situation is like when my beloved has created a new spreadsheet for our budget to be helpful and I don’t understand how it works. Since they’re similar situations, I apply a similar meaning (I’m bad with money spreadsheets), and a similar solution (eat lots of chocolate because I was embarrassed.)

In reality, are these situations the same? No, they’re not. They vary in my age, the level of complexity in the money problem, in the intention of the other party. But because stories encode meaning, and we compare one situation to another, we often get stuck in one “solution” because we think that’s the only way to act because a story tells us “who we are.”  I think this is what coaches mean when they talk about money blocks — we act out the same story over and over, even if the meaning isn’t true, and even if the solution encoded in the story we’re using as a template isn’t helpful.  Why? Because:

3. Your personal stories have you believing that something will always be true.

I think the best example for this is the way that the character Joy in Inside Out thinks about Riley’s Core Memories. If you haven’t seen the movie, Joy lives in Riley’s head with four other emotions: Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness. The Core Memories are stories that are aspects of Riley’s personality. Joy created all the memories, but as Riley gets older, the emotion associated with each memory is shifting — Sadness comes into play. Joy, however, wants to believe that the meaning of the stories will always be true. The plot of the whole movie is about trying to justify the meaning of the stories remaining solely joy.

Because stories are something we come back to again and and again (train tracks, remember?), though the details may change in the telling, the meaning attributed, and the solution presented is almost always the same. And when we cling to our stories in this way, we are not allowing ourselves to grow and change.

How can you begin to examine your stories? 

Practicing Empathy is creating a free Facebook group called A Storytelling of Women, where you can show up as your real self, with all of your real and raw emotions. Where you can be honest with what’s really going on — instead of performing what you think others want from you. You’ll be challenged to be vulnerable, to deeply examine and challenge your stories, and come out on the other side with an understanding of how those feelings and the meaning of your stories both serve you and hinder you. It’s a soft place to land as you work to take your stories from static and damaging to dynamic and empowering.

A Storytelling is an out of date collective noun for crows. Now it’s a collective noun for us, those who gather together to tell our stories.  Our stories are tools for our journey from shame, blame, and ambivalence to worthiness, sovereignty, and deep knowing.

Click the picture below to be taken to the Facebook group, request to join, and I’ll add you and welcome you within 24 hours.


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