“People fall so in love with their pain, they can’t leave it behind. The same as the stories they tell. We trap ourselves.”
— Chuck Palahniuk (Haunted)
If we are truly serious about moving forward with our own growth and healing, we need to start listening to the stories we tell ourselves. We get our listening ears attuned to hearing what is truthful and real, and what is embellishment or faulty plot lines.
Most of are familiar with three story themes; the helpless victim story, the evil villain story and the invincible hero story.
These story themes are deeply embedded into our collective consciousness and although we may move ourselves from theme to theme, we can probably identify one theme that we know very well. We know this story theme well as we use it to frame events, relationships and experiences in our lives, over and over.
So let’s look at each briefly.
1. If we are telling victim stories we might hear ourselves saying things like “it’s not my fault”, “why do these things happen to me?” or “that person is so <fill in the blank>. If we are in victim story telling mode, we will highlight the actions of other people, and minimize our own. We may over emphasize our innocence, good intentions or noble efforts. We will not be looking at our own behaviour or words and how they may have contributed to the problems we are facing. We will also have many excuses, rationalizations and justifications for why it is not possible for us to change the situation. We might catch ourselves saying things like, "This always happens to me." "Things will never change" "I can't manage this."
2. If we are telling hero stories we might hear ourselves saying things like, Ï have tried so hard, so many times” or “No matter how terrible so and so is, I treat them with kindness and regard "or “many people would have give up, fought back, gotten angry, broken down …. but not me”… When we are in hero story telling mode, we will focus on all our efforts, our good intentions, the many ways we try to make things better or create change. We keep ourselves in the best light and make sure that others see us from there as well. Unlike the victim story, when we are telling hero stories, we will pay less attention to the things that aren’t working, and more attention to what is working …. due solely to our efforts of course!
3. When we telling villain stories, might hear ourselves talking about the person or peoples terrible behaviour, the awful things that they say, or believe. We will exaggerate other people’s bad behaviour and we will attribute all sorts of the worst motivations to them. We say things like , so and so always … they never …. – we make a single conversation or situation into always and forevers. We only see the bits of people that suit our story, and we stubbornly refuse to see the other parts of who they are. We might resort to scapegoating, but, we will do it with righteous justification … after all, we are the good guys in our story!
Why do we tell these stories? Are we bad people? Liars? Is there something wrong with us?
Not at all. Story telling is the way we make meaning of the things that happen to us, and the way that we feel about our experiences. Stories can liberate us, celebrate our victories and comfort us when the going gets tough. Stories can also be the way we let ourselves off the hook and divorce ourselves from the responsibility and accountability of engaging fully in our own lives.
We will always be story making creatures, yet if we are to move forward, we need to learn to catch ourselves in the stories we are telling.
We need to challenge our conclusions and realize that no matter how compelling the story we are telling, it may not be completely factual, or representative of how other people are perceiving or experiencing the same circumstances.
It may also be that our stories trap us, or other people into petrified versions of ourselves that can never capture the fulsomeness of being a whole person.
It takes effort to tune into our self talk and really hear the things we're telling ourselves. It takes effort to notice the stories we filter our lives and experiences through. The rewards of being able to truly listen to what we say is it is quite possible that we can stop ourselves mid story and change the plot.
We can look at the places we are trapping ourselves in an unhealthy story and we can choose to transform them into life enhancing, enriching, empowering stories. Stories where we are more than just a villain, or a hero or a victim. Stories where we are whole human beings, living in a limitless human story.