Are You Damaging Yourself With Stories?

Are You Damaging Yourself With Stories?

I met Steve Errey years ago and it was respect at first sight. He was perceptive, smart, gentle and honest – all qualities I like in a person. Oh, and he was confident… enough to proudly flaunt his bold, bright pink website.

Fast forward a few months and a shade of blue later, and Steve was still doing awesome stuff I appreciated. When he asked me for an interview on confidence, I stepped right up and poured my heart into it.

Now the tables have turned, and it’s Steve pouring out his heart by asking the smart questions that make you think twice – just like this post below. Enjoy!

Stories are important.

Some stories make us laugh. Some make us cry. Some move us to action. Some are so compelling and powerful that they leave us changed forever. And sometimes a story we heard long ago comes back to us with a timely message.

Did you know that your story might be harming you?

See, you’re constantly telling yourself a story – about where you’ve been, what’s happened to you, what’s going on in your life right now, where you hope to be heading or where you’re scared of going. There are stories everywhere.

But the stories your brain comes up with about you and your life are massively subjective. Your brain processed the information it had and presented you not only with a view of what fits with what you’ve learned but what affirms what you know (or think you know).

Your brain will always do what it can to make sense of your world and make you right.

In fact, if the stories you tell yourself were turned into a movie, it would have the disclaimer “dramatised from actual events” in the opening credits to let the audience know that while some events might have happened just as they appear on screen, others have been exaggerated, switched around or cut altogether.

Okay, But a Story is Just a Story, Right?

One woman I worked with had a story in her head that turned her into the victim. She was always on the backfoot, always looking for a way to save herself before falling victim to circumstance once again. She didn’t see that she’d be free if she only shifted her perspective away from being a victim.

Another woman told herself a story that cast her as the struggling artist. She felt that she had to struggle or suffer in order to create something meaningful. She didn’t see that her story kept her from creating the kind of work she hoped to create… and it stripped her confidence to boot.

Some of the stories you tell yourself keep you stuck. It’s up to you to figure them out. So what’s your story? Here’s what I want you to do:

  • Imagine they’re making a movie based on your life events and experiences – the horrible times, the good times, the silly times and the heart-breaking times. Your story will soon be a movie. What might that movie be called? Picture the title on your own movie poster. Play with this – just chuck down a few ideas no matter how silly they might seem.
  • Would this movie be a fair representation of who you really are, way down deep? Would this movie tell the story of all the great experiences you’ve had, of everything you’ve accomplished, of all the lives you’ve touched and of everything you hope for? If not, for what reasons?
  • Now picture a sequel to the movie. This sequel covers the part of the story that you’ve yet to experience, but it’s a vital sequel because the central character – that’s you – overcomes great difficulty, discovers who you really are and goes on to live a compelling, rich life filled with extraordinary achievements and people who make you feel alive. What would happen in this sequel for you to come out of the theatre feeling like it was the best damn movie you’ve ever seen? This one has the happiest of happy endings, but what would it be called?

The story you tell is up to you. You can either have that story enable you to move forwards in ways most important to you, or you can have that story remind you of the pain, the struggles and the reasons why you can’t have what you want.

Sure, you might not be able to control all the plot points and what other characters get up to, but you can always decide what your character does in response to those things.

And just to bring extra spark to the exercise, use the comment section below to tell me what your movie trailer would be. I’m curious to see what’s coming soon to theatres.

Post by Steve Errey

Steve is a superstar confidence coach who makes you want to build a life you love. He also makes a fantastic ragu, and while he can’t promise you a batch, he'll promise to help you find your natural confidence so that you can put your dent in the universe. Grab his RSS feed here and follow Steve on Twitter.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Well, my super heroine would be confident, creative, thin, do everything right and there would be a happy ever after.

    Please produce this movie ASAP because I’m having a hard time envisioning it.

  2. I think my ideal story would be about a more muscular verison of myself going round, helping others, doing good work, and being humble about it.

    It’s Superman, basically.

  3. My trailer would show me in a future dystopia, a Matrix-like world, where I would wage a war to set people free from the control of the Overload to live lives on their own terms.

    One way to look at our stories is to define our Explanatory Styles, as defined by Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology.

    Explanatory style reveals whether our general outlook on life is optimistic or pessimistic. Seligman’s findings show that is a hinge point from which success can be predicted, as well as pessimists having much greater incidents of depression.

    Also, it defines how we frame our failures. Pessimists tend to mentally explain a failure as permanent (instead of temporary), pervasive (instead of specific), and personal (instead of external).

    The good news is that optimism can be cultivated – not with mantras but by evaluating your thoughts and either distracting yourself or disputing pessimistic ones.

    Just as writing is rewriting, living is realizing and reworking.

    • My trailer has the heroine helping others because she cares about people, but also because she really likes the way giving makes her feel about herself. What she can’t always see, but the audience can, is that with each good deed she does for someone else, one of her own old wounds becomes healed.

      Oh. . . and her copywriting is in great demand and she makes lots of money. She, of course, donates half of her money to those in need.

      Nice post. Now I’ll be thinking about this all day. :)

    • @Kirk: Not sure I’d want my story to be set in a dystopia, but overthrowing an evil Overlord rocks.

      Your reference to explanatory style reminds me of Carol Dweck’s work, where she defines people as either having a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Her work is brilliant, highly recommend it.

      @Beth: Great story. Isn’t it always the way that being generous of spirit can be the most effective way of healing?

  4. Yay! Great post, and such a useful way to highlight it. Lots of people don’t seem to see that just like comic book superheros, the stories they tell about themselves, their experiences, and their origins form a whole [comic book] world around them.

    I use this technique all the time… I see myself as a lion-hearted adventurer. You know, the ones in the stories where it doesn’t matter what happens, he floats to the top like cream, smelling like roses? Nothing fazes him? That’s me!

    Sometimes, though, this creates interpersonal problems; people find me cocky, or flippant. I try to recognize that that is “their stuff” and disengage, because I get really frustrated with myself when I regress and start dredging up bad things that happened in order to “prove” that I’m not just “lucky”; I CHOOSE to be ‘lucky’.

    But if you could suggest a better way to handle this in a way that would address the other person’s resentment (not ignore it) would you please share? Pretty please?

    • Shanna Mann: Origins.

      Hadn’t thought of it like an origins story related to comic book lore, as a comic book fan I missed a trick there.

      I have a similar thing where people can find me flippant. I think people tend to take life too seriously and my first instinct is to look for the humour, the silliness or the quirkiness. While I don’t think you need to regress or stamp on your lion-hearted adventurer spirit, there might be times when it can be tempered with a little pace or empathy, or sometimes shifting the focus from how you see things to how they see things.

      But at the end of the day you gotta recognise that you won’t get on with everybody, some people won’t get on with you and that’s all just as it needs to be.

  5. My movie self is always taller. Sigh.

    I’ve met some of those victim story people, and a few are truly tragic. Those stories have kept me from digging my own pit and have helped me push forward through some pretty serious difficulties.

    Sometimes I have to focus on one chapter at a time, but that’s okay. The plot line is still there. The question I ask myself to keep the thread from breaking is, “Is this who you want to be?”

    Keeps me from writing a wrist-to-the-head melodrama. I’d make a lousy diva, anyway.

    Love the concept, Steve. People love to think of themselves as stars in a movie. Why not write a good script to go with it?

    • They can easily make you taller in post-production, no problem.

      One chapter at a time, for sure. I often think we’re all just writing it one page at a time, and it’s sometimes when we have preconceived ideas about how the story *should* go that we start struggling as we try to force it to be that way. You end up missing what’s on the page, right now.

      Thanks Stacey.

  6. Funny timing – my current status on another social network is:

    “We all choose the life we consciously decide to live.”

    Been there done that bought the entire apparel store.

    Everyone has a hole out of which they need to dig themselves…but they’re the ones who choose if they use a heavy-duty excavator or a broken toothpick to do the job.

  7. Hi Steve,

    You are so right about the stories we tell. I’m an essayist and write a lot about my own transformation in story format. For years I thought I was shy because when I started to wear glasses in third grade — and refused to wear glasses in third grade — it changed the way I interacted with folks. From outgoing to ingoing to majorly ingoing. Folks labeled me shy and I became shy.

    Only I wasn’t.

    Move trailer: Outgoing, insightful witty little girl gets labeled ingoing becomes emotionally crippled by ingoing and starts to wallflower all over her life, decides to experiment with being outgoing at a political fundraiser, surprises herself by her ability to be outgoing, takes the power of outgoing to the limit and returns to the inspirational rebel she started out as. A modern day Odyssey.

    thx, giulietta

  8. Two comments:
    (1) I’ve helped a number of people with their memoirs and autobiographies, and the most successful ones are those who undertake the writing process as a journey of self-realization. That is, in reviewing their life, they can consciously choose what parts of their story they want to highlight and be remembered for. (See http://lifelinespublishing.net/2010/08/18/the-geertsema-chronicles-an-exercise-in-successful-autobiography/ as an example of this.)

    (2) Your post reminds me of Donald Miller’s book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life (http://www.amazon.com/Million-Miles-Thousand-Years-Learned/dp/0785213066). Miller actually had someone who was interested in making a movie of his life, and as they were working on the script together, Miller found himself wishing the script were more interesting, more adventurous, more meaningful. So he actually scripted a new life for himself and started living that story!

    Thanks for this post, and for your fun replies to the comments!

    • Interesting comment Melanie, but doesn’t self-realisation mean that you’re totally honest with yourself, rather than editing your story so that it fits with a picture of your life that you’d rather have?

      • Yes, i think self-realization requires honesty, but it also involves an awareness that your WHOLE life story is not going to be interesting to everyone, not even your family! You’ll have to make choices about what to include in your book, and then you’ll have to make choices about how to present the parts you’ve chosen.

  9. Very interesting post. I would be thinner in my trailer, that’s for sure!
    My story is of a woman who has been through a traumatic, stressful period in her life, and came to the end of herself. The story on her blog tells of what she has been through, how she came through it and what she has learned. Her goal in telling these stories is to help others who are struggling and empower them to overcome their own personal battles. To overcome the stigma of being vulnerable and needing help.
    Bernice

  10. Steve, welcome to MWP man, a job well done.

    I didn’t know what to expect when I saw this title but you really discussed something here that can make or break all the success (or failure) we attain in this life— our thoughts and thus, our ‘story’.

    May we all start telling the right one.

    Thanks for the post.

    Marcus

  11. Love this post. I often talk about story on my site. I learned about narrative psychology in college, you’d have thought that would have made me ultra-aware of my story, but I started telling this waaa, waaa, waaa story for awhile. Then I realized what a boring and tragic story it was, and I rewrote it. And my life is turning around. Story is VERY powerful!

  12. Patrick Vuleta says:

    I’m hoping my story would be set the the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack.

    I took what you’re saying here as “Don’t use sob stories”. Which I agree with. A sob story tells us nothing of who you actually are. A struggling artist? There are thousands. You’re an ant.

    Adversity can be important but you need to focus on why it’s important. A lot of things I thought were bad in my own life actually turned out to be the best down the track. Tell us how that’s happened in your life.

    • Good point – the times when you’re rocked to your core can reveal some of the most important things about who you are and what life is all about. But that doesn’t mean that any of us would want our lives to be wall-to-wall adversity and struggle, right?

      Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack? Really?

      • Patrick Vuleta says:

        I like naval stories… in fact, when James and the team were designing my new site I suggested Horatio Hornblower as an influence.

        As for adversity, we don’t need to be rocked to the core to benefit. There have been fairly simple ‘mistakes’ I’ve made in the past that took me into a long term benefit. Getting over these mistakes has led me into alternative paths that have been more rewarding than the original intention.

        It’s why if someone asked me the question “would you change anything?” I’d answer “not a thing”. Because if I did things ‘perfectly’ I’m not quite sure where I’d be – and may not like it as much.

    • Dammit… the Pirates soundtrack sounds awesome… now I have to steal your idea. :P

  13. The trailer for my movie would involve a girl getting bullied, always single and depressed but very good at languages going to South America, losing a bunch of weight and gaining a load of confidence (as well as a series of men – sorry). Then she has to go home to resolve a big family issue and gets a ‘proper’ well-paid desk job – when the issue is resolved, will she leave again or will she remain stuck in the rat race forever?

    Just in case you’re wondering – she does leave again, lives somewhere with salsa dancing five nights a week, is forty pounds lighter and makes plenty of money from writing to the point where she sends her friends and some random strangers regular large amounts of money to help them fulfil their dreams as well. Oh and she has a large, male German Shepherd who goes everywhere with her. Except salsa dancing because he actually does have two left feet and the music is too loud for his doggy ears anyway.

    [This movie is currently in production - you can guess what point we're up to so far]

  14. Steve

    Good post – stories can be incredibly powerful. I’m a BIG fan of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey paradigm – you can use it for so many things in your business.

    For example, if you have any ‘fiction’ experience or screenwriting experience, you can use story to create a business plan. What you do is imagine where you want to get – that’s the conclusion of the story. Where you are now is the situation in the story start – and then you ‘outline’ the steps that are needed to tell the story of how you get from the start to the end.

    From that, you can make yourself a detailed business plan.

    Paul

  15. I couldn’t agree more with your take on stories!
    Our self-image and even our self is so determined by the stories we keep coming back to that the two are hard to differentiate. And together with the power of the mind and self-fulfilling prophecies our stories then become true without us ever becoming aware of this devilish mechanism.

    Thanks for a great read,

    Johannes

  16. A thought provoking post, Steve.

    My past life movie is one of learning new things, finding a job doing them, mastering the work, getting bored, and repeating as necessary. This has made me hard to categorize and it’s hard to keep friends because a new job often means a new city.

    The new life movie I envision is one of learning new things, writing about them, writing about what I already know, and continuing to learn and write about new subjects. This should introduce a consistency (writing) that lets me keep the same relationships and location. Thanks for the post.

  17. LOVE Steve. Just doing a confidence interview with him boosted confidence.

    I’m all about the stories, and that’s been my trademark, even in the dedication of my book:

    “We are the heroes of our own stories.” -Anonymous

    and then,

    “Write your stories.” – Mindy Roberts

    I always thought it would have to be Amanda Bynes that played me because she does that great clutzy physical comedy laced with transparency, a go-with-it attitude, and a great htf-did-this-just-happen face. But after seeing “Killers”, Katherine Heigl is growing on me. Shed have to age and lose some perkiness but then it should work. :)

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