Every day when we think about the past, the present or the future, we are creating stories. Researchers are discovering that we all remember experiences through the perspective of our own set of filters. These filters include our past experiences, attitudes and beliefs, values, hopes and dreams, and especially our fears.
These filters affect how we interpret or experience life, as well as the stories that we tell ourselves about what the experience means to us. Stories are the way we connect with other people. Our stories resonate with some people and draw them to us. This is how people who are passionate about a topic end up with a circle of friends who think or feel very much as they do. The stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, what is important, and what we are capable of doing lead to the life we create for ourselves. This means that the stories we focus on and build upon are epically important to how we view our lives.
My mother and I were recently having a conversation about our personal historical stories. When my mom was growing up, her parents, who immigrated to America between the two World Wars, later worked for thirty plus years for the Ambassador to Norway, at his estate in Palm Beach, Florida. They were servants in his household. My mom grew up with two stories: one that she “was just the ‘servant’s child’” and she lived this story out with a belief that maybe she wasn’t good enough. She told herself a complex story that she was in some way less than, less important, even disposable. The other story that she told herself, was that she was ‘just as good’ as any of the amazing people she was meeting, just as clever, smart, and capable. Her sense, as she looks back on her life today is that, depending on which story she tells herself, it impacts how she has feels about her self-worth.
My perspective on my mom’s life is from a more powerful perspective. My grandparents had gone from small war ravaged towns in Europe and found a way to give their child a much bigger future. I saw my mom as having a pretty magical experience. She lived with her parents on a beautiful Palm Beach estate, where she met the Kennedys, a Four Star General, ambassadors and royalty, as well as stars from the theatre community. She babysat Caroline and John-John, under the watchful eyes of Secret Service Agents, and she even went dancing with one of those agents. She had great times with her friends on that estate with the ocean at her back door. While her parents may have thought of themselves as simply servants, my mom really had an extraordinary childhood, in which she was able to study the behavior of remarkable people up close.
When I asked her which way of thinking about her past led to better outcomes in her present life, her response was that when she was making choices from the position of being worthy, she chose options that led to situations where she felt successful and was seen as successful. A view of the past from a place of “what did I learn?” being ‘just as good as’ has empowered her present life. The same is true for each of us.
How we tell ourselves our story, absolutely affects how we view our life and the choices we make. We are, in this moment, the sum total of all of our conscious and unconscious choices. The more aware we are of the story we are telling ourselves, the more conscious our choices will be. Our perception of our story impacts the conscious and unconscious motivators that propel us.
I too have had to evaluate my own story. My parents divorced when I was 9, and I was fairly ripped out of my comfortable life. When I was 11, I was dragged to San Francisco and was required to bus myself across the city to an inner city middle school where I was one of twelve white kids in a sea of diverse cultures. I am a redhead and so stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. It was a hard transition for me; I went from the relative safety of a small town to a very big city. I moved from a school where I had known everyone since 1st grade, to an inner-city school where I was very clearly different. I experienced bullying, and I was scared; I had stomachaches all the time, sore throats, and basically was stressed out. But, there were also kids who took me under their wings. The story that I was telling myself at the time sounded like, “I’m gonna die,” and all my reactions and responses funneled through my fear.
But, I didn’t die, and I started to breathe, I began to look around me and shifted the story. As I got my sea legs, my story began to shift. I started to make friends; I discovered things I liked to do: I joined the band, I volunteered at the aquarium in Golden Gate Park, and I hung out at the horse stables in the park also. I was lucky to have some resilience, and I began changing the way I looked at my situation. In hindsight, when I think back to that time, while I can remember the fear, I also remember becoming more independent, learning to trust myself, learning to make friends in new situations. I started to embrace diversity and to like differences in people. I was learning how to move through fear. The shift from being a scared kid to feeling empowered didn’t happen overnight. It took years. The more I focused on seeing the empowering elements in my story, the more empowered I felt as a person.
How I viewed my experience created a circular feedback loop. The more I pushed through the fear, the more empowered I felt. The more empowered I felt, the more I knew I could do anything I really tried to do. The more I did, the more fun I was having, the less fear I felt, and the more empowered I felt. In a nutshell, this is how it works for anyone. Each time we meet our fear, it’s an opportunity to push through it. I am not saying that you shouldn’t listen to your fear, notice it, acknowledge it, and decide if it is a dangerous or life threatening situation. But, if it is just a negative inner story, or negative self-talk about not being capable or good enough, then push yourself to challenge it. This is not about making up a super happy story that doesn’t resonate (my life was perfect, only perfect things ever happened to me, and only perfect things will ever happen to me) – but real stories. It is not just noticing the negative, but looking for the balance, the places where we grew and developed in powerful ways.
In every situation, we are making choices in our lives. When we participate in our lives from an empowered story, then it helps us to make choices that may lead to more empowered outcomes. When see ourselves as worthy, we make choices from that perspective. When we change our stories, we allow for different possibilities. This happens on the macro level – how we respond to the world and how the world responds back to us. It also happens in on the micro level – how we feel about ourselves in the world. If I say to myself, “I’m not a writer” then I generate a block to being able to write. If I say, “I’m not good at relationships” I may find myself throwing up resistance to relationships. These are powerful stories. Saying instead, “I am a writer” doesn’t make me a brilliant writer. That takes practice, practice, practice, but it does open me up to writing and developing myself as a writer. The same is true for anything you want to do or be in the world.
The stories that we tell ourselves are important….choose wisely.