The Stories We Tell Ourselves

the stories we tell ourselves

At work, as part of our professional development, I (along with several colleagues) have been reading and talking about Make It Stick, a book written by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, on the psychology of learning.

The other day, I was given the task of leading the discussion on chapter four, intriguingly titled “Avoid Illusions of Knowing.”  That reading, and the accompanying conversation, inspired me to write this blog.

Early in the chapter, the authors argue that all humans have a “hunger for narrative” and that this arises “out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events.”  In other words, because life often seems so random and incomprehensible, we create stories that help us make sense of what seemingly appears to be nonsensical.  For example, if we fail at some important task and find this failure surprising and upsetting, we tell ourselves that someone or something else was the cause of our poor performance.  This story serves an important psychological function:  It helps shift the blame to something external to us—something beyond our control—and therefore acts as a kind of psychological salve.

The authors go on to say that we also create stories that help us construct an identity and worldview.  In my case, when I think of who I am, I have a story I tell myself that goes something like this.  I come from a working-class background.  My early life was chaotic because I grew up in an unstable family.  As a result, I was often alone and lonely.  This caused me to become an introvert, thoughtful, and creative.  I also didn’t have brothers and sisters during my earliest formative years so I had to learn to entertain myself and become self-sufficient.  Today, because of the way I grew up, I am tough and attracted to solitary, creative pursuits.  In politics, I also champion the underprivileged because I empathize with this class of people.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel explain that we create such narratives because they help us “fit the events of our lives into a cohesive story that accounts for our circumstances, the things that befall us, and the choices we make.”  In other words, we construct an identity through the telling and retelling of what amounts to personalized myths of who we are and how we came to be.

Here’s the problem.  These stories become self-fulfilling prophecies.  In my case, because I have always seen myself as a creative loner, I have come to act like a creative loner.  Though the identities we’ve constructed for ourselves provide us with a stable sense of self, they can also limit us.  In my case, when I’m being entirely honest with myself, I have to say that though there is some truth to this “self” I have constructed, it ignores other aspects of my personality and personal history.  I had, for instance, a large extended family, including lots of cousins that I loved spending time with.  I am also happily married and generally enjoy myself when I’m among a large group of like-minded individuals.  In other words, I have a history of being with others and acting quite sociable.

Here’s my point, we all have this idea in our heads about who we are, but we need to remember that the self we’ve constructed is, indeed, just a story we’ve created.  This story, though it certainly does contain some important truths about how we see ourselves, it is also likely an exaggeration or an oversimplification.

What do you think about this idea of the “constructed self?”  How accurately does the self you think you are match the self you think others see when they look at you?  Have you created a self that limits you in some important way?

All very important considerations and questions.

6 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell Ourselves

    1. Thank you for the insightful comment. I occasionally like to imagine how my life would have been different had the story I told myself (about myself and my dreams and capabilities and my interests and so on) been a different one. Would I have turned out differently? What sort of work would I have been doing now? Would I be “richer” than I am now? “Poorer”? Very fascinating questions.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. There was a case several years ago now–I can’t remember all the particulars but I do have the general gist very clearly in mind–about the writer of a popular memoir who was being chastised by some of his/her readers because there were one or two facts that were a bit off and so the author was being charged with dishonestly. Don’t people realize that all of us have our “facts” wrong? We suppress or delete so much because of its painfulness and we exaggerate aspects of our lives because they make us feel better about ourselves or they reinforce some notion we have about who we are. We have this idea that remembering something personal is an act of factual retrieval when, in fact, it is more an act of creative reconstruction.

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  1. Great post!😀
    I firmly subscribe to the idea that each of us creates our own reality, by the thoughts we think.
    I say ‘literally’ because we actually produce manifestations which we don’t realise are actually our own creations! I’ve discovered for myself that thoughts are far more important than we realise.
    Speaking from personal experience, I manifested illness because of lurking feelings of unworthiness I never realised were affecting me and which I therefore did nothing about.
    But thanks to that same illness, I was fortunate to stumble upon the teachings of Abraham and the understanding of how Law of Attraction works.
    In my current understanding, I find I have far more creative control of my life as I’ve now figured out that experiences are created around our beliefs and expectations.
    Yes… we certainly do have to be mindful of the stories we tell ourselves!

    Like

    1. I’m totally with you on everything you’ve said. You’re actually talking about a form of what we all call the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” In the case I wrote about in my blog, I’m sort of feeling like I want to take action that will “show” the person who hurt me how powerful I am. But, then again, that may mean that I’m playing into this person’s hands. I’m the sort who usually gets very determined once I feel as if I’ve been slighted. And, mostly, this approach works. I guess it’s the fighter in me. Knock me down and I’m certain to get up. It may take a bit of time, but I’ll get to my feet again. Yes, I’ve also made myself sick because of how I was thinking about myself, others, and the way I was moving through time and space. I absolutely believe that many physical ailments are at least partly caused by mental processes we set into motion. I truly enjoyed reading about your experience and you’re obviously a very wise person. Thank you.

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