The Stories We Tell Ourselves

For years, I assumed I was a bit crazy. I thought I was the only one who had constant, on-going discussions with myself. I did my best to suppress it, to ignore the voice inside my head.

Imagine my surprise when I became aware that we all have this “inner voice.” Some refer to it as “inner chatter.” I like calling it “the stories we tell ourselves.”

As it turns out, the stories we tell ourselves are important, extremely important.

In one of his Daily Stoic emails (from Sept. 8, 2021), Ryan Holiday emphasized just how important these stories are. They determine what we’re capable of being and who we are. These stories craft and create our character, our outlook on life. They determine if we are content or unhappy. They determine if we are persistent and successful or if we are lazy and a failure. They are powerful enough to change ourselves and, in some cases, to change the world.

Sure, there are things that happen which our outside our control. There are events we can’t change. There are injustices in the world. But the stories we tell ourselves determine how we perceive these circumstances. We can choose whether we want to be the hammer or the nail, a player or a victim. And just because we don’t agree with or like what is or has happened, doesn’t mean we have to accept it.

One of my favorite writers, Seth Godin, said it eloquently in his post “Blaming the Weather Is a Trap.

When we focus on external forces and tie them directly to our state of mind, we’re giving up agency. The hard-won privilege of being in control of our own status and peace of mind…. we don’t have to link these external forces to the way we choose to talk to ourselves. We can decide to claim possibility and take action instead.

I like an example he cited from Roz Zander. Zander says we should avoid telling ourselves things like, “I’m on vacation but it’s raining,” and instead say, “I’m on vacation and it’s raining… what should I do with this moment?” A small shift in our perception can change our outlook in a powerful and meaningful way. The new thought is more useful, encouraging us to take action as a player rather than accept the situation as a victim.

The stories we tell ourselves determine how we see the world. They determine who we are, and who we can be. If you want to change, if you want to be different, then start telling yourself that story. Instead of ignoring your inner voice, or letting it control you, take ownership of it. Talk to yourself as you would a close friend who is looking for guidance and advice. Don’t wait to be chosen, don’t wait for someone to pick you, don’t wait for someone to craft your narrative. Pick yourself and build your own story.

In doing so, remember these two thoughts. The first from the Seth Godin post above:

The story we tell ourselves belongs to us and only us. It’s entirely possible that someone selfishly or thoughtlessly put a story there. It’s possible that there isn’t enough empathy or fairness or opportunity. But once we see that we’re able to own our story, we gain a huge amount of power. And we retain that power for as long as we refuse to hand it over to someone else.

The second thought is from Michael Lewis, best-selling author of books such as Flash Boys and The Big Short:

As I’ve gotten older—I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s—I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves…. and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.

The stories we tell ourselves. Powerful things. What stories are you telling your self?

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