Healing Difficult Emotions, Self-Love and Self-Directed Kindness

Stories We Tell Ourselves and Why They Matter

Every day we tell ourselves stories about our own self and our life. And these stories matter greatly. They greatly affect our mood, our view of ourselves, and our ability to see life clearly.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

I have a diastema, which is a fancy name for a gap between my front teeth. (Shout out to all my diastema Friends.)

When I was little, I really liked my gap because I could shoot water through it at my cousins. I thought of it an awesome secret weapon.


And then I got older. I stopped seeing it as an awesome secret weapon, and I started telling myself it was strange and weird. Sometimes I told myself it was ugly. So I got really self-conscious about it.

And as I got older, I tried to stop saying mean things about myself, but I still was self-conscious about my gap.

One day I was looking at a picture on Instagram of a girl with a gap between her front teeth. I thought, “Oh my gosh, that is so cute. I want a gap between my teeth.” And then I laughed out loud because I realized I already did have a gap between my front teeth, which I often criticized.

And then one day, I was looking at a picture of myself and suddenly started thinking of my gap as charming, whimsical, cute, and, at times, mysterious and alluring. And I suddenly loved it.

In all this time, my gap didn’t really change. But the story I told myself and the words I used in my story did.

I have written new stories about my life at other times, too.

For example, when I was 37, I decided to go back to graduate school to earn my PhD in philosophy, despite having only taken one philosophy class in college and auditing a few others. I had been a middle and high school teacher for sixteen years when I decided to return to graduate school.

Earning my PhD was something I had wanted to do since seventh grade. And I was thrilled about the opportunity.

Because I was older when I returned, I was sometimes tempted to tell myself that I had been away from school for too long to be successful.

This story depressed me every time I told it. So I started telling myself another story.

I told myself that my sixteen years as a secondary teacher had given me invaluable life and teaching skills. These skills, I told myself, would profit me enormously in graduate school. And I told myself that although I might start out a little more slowly because of my time away from school, I would eventually pick up steam and succeed.

You can read an article I wrote for Tiny Buddha about my grad experience here:

How I Overcame the Stress of Perfectionism by Learning To Play Again

And sure enough, this story I told myself turned out to be true. It helped me tremendously.

As another example, my family moved around a lot when I was younger. I’ve lived in Oregon, California, Ohio, Guatemala (for a semester in college), and Kentucky. Sometimes I have told myself the story that I really missed out on being rooted in one place for a long time.

And perhaps this story is partly true.

But this story makes me feel bad, and it causes me to focus on what I am supposedly missing in my life.

So, long ago I started telling myself another story. In this story, all of the different places I have lived have greatly enriched my life; have taught me powerful lessons; and have helped me become a more flexible and resilient person. Plus, I have lived in some of the coolest places in the world.

For example

I have strolled the sidewalks of downtown Portland. And I lived in Oregon when Mount St. Helens erupted.

I got to live near Disney Land and Knotts Berry Farm when I was little, a child’s dream. And I have really cool memories of California beaches and palm trees.

I had mountain ranges right outside my front door when I lived in Colorado. And I got to see Val Kilmer perform as Hamlet when I attended Shakespeare Under the Stars at Boulder University’s outdoor Shakespeare festival.

I lived right next to Lake Erie when I lived in Ohio and could walk to it. And I attended college right next to the Football Hall of Fame.

I got to hike Volcan Aqua in Guatemala. And I got to work in a bilingual school where I met amazing students and faculty

I get to live in beautiful Kentucky now where I can ride my bike around beautiful horse farms. And I got to attend the University of Kentucky, which has one of the best basketball teams in the U.S. I also get to work at Georgetown College, which has been ranked the best college in Kentucky for job prospects.

When I tell myself this story, I get really excited. In fact, I felt awesome writing it just now.

What’s the point of all this?

And all of this is to say that you can, and you deserve, to tell yourself stories that make you feel awesome, adventurous, charming, fabulous, and whatever other words that make you feel happy.

And of course these stories need to be respectful of yourself and others. You also have total permission to focus on stories about your life that make you feel sad when you need to. Sometimes such stories teach important lessons. And sometimes forcing ourselves to tell happy stories can be painful. This is certainly the case when we ignore painful feeling that need compassion.

You might like to read this post about compassion:

Compassion: A Way Forward Through Suffering

You are the boss of your life, and you get to decide when to tell yourself sad stories and when to tell yourself more joyful stories.

But sometimes we let other people write stories about our life that make us feel horrible about our self, and we think they are true.

By the way, I really like this recent article about Sinead O’Connor that relates to the stories we tell about our own life as opposed to the stories other people tell about it: Sinead O’Connor Remembers Things Differently.

Or sometimes we settle for writing stories about our own life that make us feel bad as well, when we truly long for other stories.

No matter who you are, there are really joyful, amazing stories to tell about your life. You are a miracle. I can’t wait to hear your stories.

*****

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You might also like this story about one of the most important times I switched a big story in my life: The Great Love Story: Healing Our Shame

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