“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
— Author unknown
“You tell the story, Jerry,” she said. “It’s always better when you tell it.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Jerry replied. “It’s still the same old story.”
“But you make it fun,” she said. “You make the story come alive.”
Everyone loved to hear Jerry tell a story. Maybe it was the enthusiasm he brought to the telling. It could have been the gestures he used or that he did the voices of each character. Whatever the reason, Jerry’s stories were indeed captivating. Looking back, Jerry’s renderings could best be described as based on a true story. Sometimes the sequence of events would be changed, the humour heightened or the mundane downplayed. Occasionally, characters were omitted, new characters were introduced and dialogue was rewritten or fabricated.
“That’s not how it happened,” some people would jokingly complain.
“That’s how it looked from where I was standing,” Jerry would reply.
I sometimes wondered what would happen if under oath Jerry had been required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For Jerry, it seemed that embellishment was the key to good storytelling.
We all tell stories and most of us are skilled storytellers. We may not be weaving tall tales to enthrall an audience but each day we’re spinning yarns that impact our happiness and success. What we’re unknowingly writing is a happy and upbeat or sad and depressing narrative. I think much of what we experience in life is the result of the stories we’ve written for ourselves. We filter the future and edit the past to fit our preferred narrative. In short, we are writing a fictional account of our life story and most amazingly, we’re buying into it.
Much research has been done on the validity and accuracy of early childhood memories. As a result, science has ousted the notion that memory is a static, unchanging photograph. Quite the contrary. Memory is fluid and stored in the form of impressions, images, feelings and sensations.
Research has shown us that the simple act of remembering can actually change the memory and quite dramatically. Unlike a pristine transcript of our life experience, we constantly edit, embellish, assign and reassign meaning to our reflections each time we visit them. It’s one of the reasons eyewitness accounts often vary dramatically from person to person.
For me, this point was driven home when, a few years ago, I had the chance to watch some old home movies. The footage had been shot by relatives when I was still in single digits. I recall excitedly telling my children about what they were going to see. The memories were so clear in my mind – the people, the places, the experiences. However, when I ran the film though the projector, the images were not quite in keeping with my recollections. People looked different than I remembered. Setting had changed and even the events were slightly altered.
It appears that the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. We change our past all the time to suit our need in the moment. We pick and choose details that support a particular attitude or idea. In essence, we are not consulting a photograph but rather, a canvas that is constantly being repainted. Like Jerry, we emphasize, replay and exaggerate the details to fit our story or omit details that no longer fit the altered version.
So the question becomes: what stories are you telling yourself? Are they stories that inspire and drive you to greatness or stories that tear you down leaving your self-esteem in tatters?
If you’re not living the life you want then stop to ponder the stories you’ve been telling. I know many people who perpetually write dramas for themselves where they are the victim of every regrettable circumstance. If the narrative of your life story is not one where you, the protagonist triumphs in the end, it becomes incredibly difficult to triumph in life.
The truth is, most people don’t know the narrative that is shaping their life. When I began to delve deeply into my belief system, I was shocked to discover that many of my stories had been written for me by the key people in my early childhood existence. Perhaps you’re still operating with stories written for you by your parents, siblings, teachers, ministers, culture and so on.
Our stories begin to define who we are and what we’re capable of achieving. It follows then that if our thinking and reasoning is done in story, our decisions and future outcomes will be guided by the stories we hold most dear – the ones we persist in telling over and over again.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” wrote American author and literary journalist, Joan Didion. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices … [imposing] a narrative line upon disparate images.”
Many of us may fear changing our story because our identity has become inseparable from the stories we keep repeating. That can make change challenging and frightening. Even if it’s fiction and at some level you know this to be true, you may find the task daunting. But just maybe if you can recognize the stories you’ve told ourselves, you can write something far better.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.