The Stories We Tell Ourselves
"Of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren't?"
"My dear Doctor, they're all true."
"Even the lies?"
"Especially the lies."
~ Bashir and Garak, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
We are all storytellers.
We begin writing stories the moment we become self-aware. When we realize that we are distinct entities; that we're an I and not just a part of the greater We. Our inner narrator is born, commentating and explaining, describing and debating our experiences.
And we are unreliable narrators.
We lie to ourselves, and to others and the world about ourselves, all the time. Which isn't to say that we are always trying to deliberately misrepresent ourselves. Often, we lie simply because we don't know we're lying. We believe what we're saying, believe that we're being truthful. We lie to avoid hurting someone else's feelings. We lie to minimize how much someone else has hurt our feelings. Sometimes we tell a version of the truth, but leave a little something out because the whole truth could be damaging, or worse, *gasp* embarrassing. Sometimes we lie just to be a dick.
It may seem contradictory, but many of those lies help to make up our personal truth. A truth we are constantly tailoring to fit the image we have of ourselves.
But our self-view is limited, and we don't always acknowledge or understand the extent of this. It is limited by what we choose to think about and what we choose not to think about. It is bound by our biases and baggage.
Many of the stories we come to tell about ourselves are based on what we want to be true, or have repeatedly been told was true, rather than actual truth. They are also based on our memories, and on the memories of others about us—neither of which are entirely accurate.
We have a tendency to think of memory like a box of old photographs; we just reach into our mind and pull out a static image of the moment we're trying to recall. Or to think of our brain like computers, able to accurately retrieve information precisely as it was input. But studies have shown that memory is actually dynamic. Every time we retrieve a memory, we're changing it.
When we are remembering something that happened, we're piecing together bits of stored sensory information. What the setting was like. The sounds or noises we heard in the background and foreground. The smells that hung or wafted in the air, or were conspicuously absent. What we said. What someone else said. What we thought was said that was maybe never really said at all. And, perhaps most importantly, how we felt in each agonizing, or joyous, or terrifying, or beautiful, instant. Moments in our lives have personal significance to us. That intimate perspective is emphasized in our memories.
So rather than recalling a moment, we are actually reconstructing it. And of course, some bits get left out. We also filter the collected bits through the lens of our current experience. Why we are trying to remember something can affect what we recall and how we interpret it. Afterwards, when we put that memory back in storage, it's a revised version we're filing away. We are in essence creating new memories of old memories. We are actively rewriting the stories we tell about ourselves and we're not even conscious of it.
The first stories we tell about ourselves aren't even our own. They're given to us by the people who raise us. I can tell you stories from my childhood about moments I don't actually remember. They're stories my mother told me. But I can't decipher anymore which stories I tell because I remember those moments and which stories I tell because I was told about them so often. Both are equally as real in my mind. After all, just because something isn't true doesn't mean it isn't real.
So much of what shapes us is influenced by the people who raised us, by their stories. Their individual goals, dreams, and expectations, their frustrations and fears, are all a part of us. Their personal values, sense of humor, outlook on life, relationship to the world and others in it, all inform our own take on these things. When we're young we absorb others' ideas and beliefs—authority figures, our community, our peers—and we regurgitate them like they were our own.
Starting out we are, for better, worse, and all the complexities in between, the product of our upbringing. The stories told to us, about us, and around us form the basis of our own stories. Over time we begin to edit and delete parts of those stories based on our own developing point of view.
Growing up I fought hard against behaviors and habits I saw in my family that I didn't want to emulate. Turns out that shit is insidious. I was raging against the obvious behaviors, ignorant of their deep and tangled roots thick in me. It was shocking the day I realized that I was, in many ways, my parents. Because of course I was.
I had absorbed their stories about who I was and who I was going to be. What's more I believed them. Their expectations of me had become shared expectations. After all, I wanted those things, too. Didn't I? And if I didn't, so what. It's what you do. Like many of you I'm sure, this acquiescence was less about filial piety and more about not wanting to be the dreaded d-word: A disappointment.
Untangling our identities from those of the people who raised us is just a first step in claiming authorship of our own unique personal narrative. This starts to happen once we begin living lives outside of their influence. Not just their dominant (and sometimes dominating) influence on our lives but on the circumstances of our lives. When we start making our own decisions. Start planning out our own futures. Figuring out who we are to ourselves, and who we want to be.
And we all want to be capable, and independent, and confident. Or, at the very least, we want to be seen as being these things. Starting around our mid to late teens we begin intentionally crafting perception; creating a mental image of how we want to be seen and trying (hoping) to get others to imagine us that way too. When we first meet new people we tend to put forth our most idealized self. The wittier, more self-assured us. The us that can converse on any subject "expertly". The us that is also really into that thing you like that I've actually never heard of before. The us that fits in.
We learn to play with narratives; to consciously mold the truth we tell, to one degree or another. We don't do this simply to be deceitful for deceit's sake. We do it because we want to be accepted. Or more accurately put, we do it because we don't want to be rejected.
For instance, at one point when I was a teenager it was considered embarrassingly gauche in my social group not to have had sex by then. Were all my friends...experienced? Supposedly. Was I? Nooo. Not even a little bit. But did I say I was? Yeeeeep. I was like the cheerfully naive Kenneth on 30 Rock: "I'm a real good sex person. I do it all the different ways."
But we didn't just mold truth, we often molded ourselves to fit that truth. After declaring I had some sexual experience, I became desperate to actually get some (pun acknowledged).
There is a pressure to conform in any social set. But, man, didn't it seem more primal, even vital, when we were teens? We tried out new interests, new styles, and new modes of thinking and acting, simply because they were our peers' interests, styles, modes of thinking and acting. It didn't matter if some of those things weren't necessarily us. They weren't necessarily not us either. That's what we were figuring out. And how others responded to us helped shape what we thought of—and still think of—as "us".
We have all found ourselves, at one time or another, in a situation where we are "faking it till we make it". But that implies at some point we will no longer be faking it. Yet sometimes we still feel like we're faking it even after we've "made it". Other times we really are still faking it, hoping desperately no one notices. (Curious how these both feel similar.) Our desire to be accepted—or again, to not be rejected—can compel us to persistently recraft our truths so that we feel less like the fraud we suspect we are.
Yet despite our best efforts, all of us have experienced some form of rejection. Whether that was by a prospective employer, an expectant lover, a companion, a friend, a family member, even a stranger. Someone somewhere has told us we weren't qualified. Or that we weren't who they were looking for. Who they thought we were. That we weren't enough. Are too much. Aren't "right". Aren't "acceptable". They can seem to confirm the worst things we already thought about ourselves.
And we carry this with us, don't we? Even if we know better. Even if some part of us knows: It's not me, it's them. Even if if their reasons aren't truly valid. Some piece of that lingers; a shard embedded in us that heals over but still causes us pain from time to time. These things become part of our stories we tell ourselves, too.
Repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. In psychology this is called the illusory truth effect, which is the tendency to believe false information when we hear it over and over again. Something can have the "illusion of truth" to us simply because it's familiar.
True story. In my mid-twenties there was a period of time that I would frequently call out sick from work due to migraines. Only...I don't get migraines. It just seemed like the perfect excuse. Unlike calling in sick with a cold only to show up to work the next day perfectly fine, one could have a migraine one day and be explicably back to normal the next. (I was probably overthinking the necessity for a "legitimate" excuse, but...there you have it.) Anyway, one day a friend of mine was telling me about a migraine she had recently suffered, and I was like, 'Oh, I get those sometimes too.' But no sooner had I said it than realization hit me and I blurted, 'Oh shit. No I don't.' The lie, for a moment, became real to me.
We do this sort of thing all the time. We come to accept things about ourselves simply because we've said them over and over. Or someone else has said them about us. Even things we may not initially believe about ourselves, we can come to accept because our repeated denials make them seem familiar.
It is well known that repetition improves learning. But it's key to remember that while repetition helps us remember a thing, it doesn't make a thing true. But if we tell ourselves a lie often enough—or are told a lie about us—we're more likely to come to believe it. It doesn't become the truth, but it does become a truth.
Our story is based on our inner belief systems. Our inner belief systems are made manifest by the stories we choose to tell. Put another way, the more we tell these stories the more we believe them. And the more we believe them the more we tell them. The more we want to tell them. These stories—true or not—become our lived reality.
A lived reality based on stories told by unreliable narrators with dodgy influences.
But that unreliability is a gift. It not only means that nothing we think about ourselves is definitive, it also means that nothing about how we think our stories are going to turn out is inevitable. All the moments in our lives that we feel burdened by: those we wish we could forget, or are desperate to hold on to. The moments that we think irrevocably changed us for the best and worst—these are all only one version of the story.
Our memories take the moments of our lives and make something different of them. Who says we can't consciously do the same? Why can't our stories be less a static archival document and more a conversation?
We should periodically interrogate what we know, how we know it, and, most importantly, what's changed. Because time changes our thinking, doesn't it? So why should we have any obligation to continue to think of the moments of our lives in the same ways we always have? By reimagining moments from our past we can re-contextualize them. We can change what we know about them.
We can defy what we think defines us. By doing this we can re-define the truths in our stories. Especially the lies.
Journal Questions to Aid Your Journey
- Is there a story you tell from your life that you're not sure actually happened?
- What is something you claimed to like or to have experience with when you were a teen that you actually didn't? Did you ever end up liking that thing, or having that experience?
- What lie have you knowingly told about yourself that reveals more about you than the truth would?