We'd been listening to Donny talk about his travels and somewhere along the way we became suspicious that not everything he was telling us corresponded with the facts. We finally asked him if what he was saying was true.
Donny was Irish and his eyes twinkled as he smiled and said, "Well, it's my story."
We realized then that Donny was weaving a tale; the point wasn't what had or hadn't occurred, but what the telling told us about him.
While Donny was quite aware that he was creatively arranging the facts, most of the time we aren't nearly as conscious of how our mental frameworks shape our perceptions of the world. We project these frameworks onto the world so automatically that we forget our narratives are actually our stories about reality.
Sometimes we deliberately modify our stories—"Honestly, the fish was THIS big!" However, studies in neuroscience show that our stories inevitably shift over time whether we want them to or not. Every time we remember something, we change the content of our memory. Even if we wanted to report "the truth, and nothing but the truth," it turns out this is difficult to do.
Stories do help us make sense of what is going on. They provide coherence for life's events and can explain how things are related. Every culture has its shared stories which helps those who belong feel connected and frees them from having to explain and negotiate absolutely everything. Spend time in a place or with a person who doesn't share your stories and you'll discover just how much you rely on shared narratives for ease and understanding.
Stories are also very helpful—some would say essential—when we are communicating our ideas with others. They are an elegant and effective way to make our thoughts meaningful and memorable. For example, you can try to explain democracy, or you can tell a story about a family that moved from an undemocratic culture to a more democratic one and how their life changed. Chances are that the first account will be dry and unmemorable, whereas describing their journey will carry more impact and resonate with the listener.
On the other hand, stories aren't reality. If we cling to them like they are, then we can be blind to other realities, including those about ourselves. In this way our stories can limit us and preclude opportunities for learning and growth. Some of our stories can entrap us in world of few positive possibilities. We cannot see alternatives, solutions, and options that are right in front of our noses simply because they don't fit our story.
We once had a client tell us how she was always being let go from companies and wasn't sure she would be successful finding a job in a competitive market. When we delved deeper into her story we learned that she was usually the last person to be let go and only as the company was folding after a number of years. Instead of telling herself how marginally valuable she was, we helped her shift her story to reflect her loyalty, adaptability, and value to organizations over time. Consequently she interviewed well and soon had a job.
We are all tellers of tales, and by becoming more aware of this, we can begin to choose how we craft our stories. We can start by noticing the patterns in the tales we tell, what we leave out, what we emphasize, our choice of words, etc. We can make similar observations as we listen to other people's stories and by so doing deepen our understanding and appreciation for their realities.
As we become aware of how we shape our stories, we are able to separate ourselves from them so they no longer define us so completely. We become more open to new stories and input—even those that challenge or contradict our old stories. Our sense of ourselves and the world expands. We can then use our new awareness to create more life affirming narratives which give us greater insights into our difficulties and a more enriching sense of the possibilities beyond them.
Write a "true" story about yourself using different voices. Tell the story as someone young, old, new to this culture/planet, and as a newspaper reporter. How does the story change? What impact do these different stories have on you as you tell them?
Next time you are at some type of impasse, check to see how your stories about yourself and the world might be contributing. Then imagine you have successfully moved on and sometime later you are retelling the story about this time. What would you say about how you overcame the impasse?
Happy Tales to You!
Beth and Eric
[Originally published November 1, 2010 and updated and re-published on July 1, 2015.]
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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