3 Types of Stories We Tell Ourselves That Keep Us Stuck

April 7, 2017

A good friend of mine made a very interesting post a couple of days ago. He brought up the conversation of “fate”. He asked us to complete the sentence “I am fated to ______________ (Fill in the blank with common complaint)”

That thought-provoking post triggered me to think of the stories I have been telling myself, and the stories I’ve heard from people. We live our life as one big story, and just like all stories, there are several subplots in it. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories, stories about money, wealth, health, people, relationships, our capabilities, just to name a few. In this article, I’ll like to offer the three most common stories that we tell ourselves and how they’re blocking us from progressing.

1) Stories about WHO we are:

In my line of work, I have met and worked with many people who hold very strong ideas of who they are. The identities they hold of themselves are so strong that they reject suggestions that do not fit that identity, even if it will move them forward.

It usually sounds like this, “I am not the type of person who ______________ (Fill in the blank with whatever skill/achievement you wished you had but perhaps not willing to pay the price for)”

Some of the most common examples are:

  • “I am not the type of person who can sell.”
  • “I am not the type of person who likes public speaking.”
  • “I am not the kind of person who speaks good English.”
  • “I am not someone who will be rich.”
  • “I am an introvert, so I am not the type of people who can network.”

When you tell stories like this, you’re essentially cutting yourself off from a better possible future. You’re saying “This is me… This is who I am… I cannot change, and I don’t want to…” You’ll subconsciously attract and pay attention to clues that fits such stories. You will not take action to even try.

For many years, I’ve been telling myself that I am not the type of person who love going to parties. I dislike small talk, and I just don’t see myself as cool, sociable and popular. I shun events like this, while secretly feeling envious of the people around me who always seems to live such a rich social life. I’ve long held the view that there’s something really wrong about me not being sociable.

That all changed when I joined the Toastmasters, where I built the confidence to open and express myself. It made me realize that what I have to say matters, and that I can share my ideas in an interesting manner to impact others. There, I’ve also met like-minded people, people who are interested in reading, sharing and growing. For the first time, I enjoy networking, meeting like-minded people. I’ve found my tribe.

The most profound realization is that there’s nothing wrong with me, and that I don’t have to try too hard to fit in with people that may not share my interests. I’ve since been to many parties, such as wine and cheese parties, entrepreneurs’ get together, cross-cultural gatherings, where I enjoy the conversations and learning more about cultures, businesses and wonderful things that people do.

2) Stories about People

We all tell stories about people, generally, and about specific individuals. When we meet a stranger, we usually form our first impressions based on a “database” of stories you’ve collected based on previous encounters with people. What type of people do you most love being friends with? What type of people trigger you? Gossips, tabloids, confession sites, reality shows. These are all various forms of stories – whether true or not – that we can become so addicted to.

The stories we tell ourselves about people limit and color our relationships. Here are some questions to trigger your awareness:

  • Do you believe that people are inherently good or evil?
  • Do you believe that all good men are taken?
  • Do you think all beautiful women are not capable (unfortunately, I hear this quite often at the organizations I work with still!)
  • Do you believe that mother-in-law’s spell trouble?
  • Do you believe that people are always out to take advantage of you?

These stories can block us from forging meaningful relationships, experience intimacy and lead others effectively. I have seen bosses who micromanage and cannot delegate suffer burn-out. I have seen countless eligible singles who claim that they’re looking for Mr/Mrs Right, but they believe that people cannot be trusted.

In the early part of my entrepreneurship career, I have held the belief that I cannot trust people to do the job as well as I expect. It would take a lot for me to let go of control, even when I delegated work, I wanted it to be done exactly according to the specifications. After a few tries, I will end up doing the work myself, and feel disappointed in people.

It took me several disappointments and frustrations to realize that it was actually all about the way I view people. When I was young, my parents had very high expectations of me. Whether it’s my performances at school or in my personal pursuits, whether it’s my ability to be independent or my character development, they always pointed out where I fell short instead of encouraging me for the things I’ve done well. It was something that I’ve subconsciously carried with me, and projected into my working and personal relationships.

Now, I make a special effort to “catch people doing right” and acknowledge and appreciate their efforts instead of focusing on what they’re not doing right. I am more willing to trust others and not want to control everything.

3) Stories about a Fantasized Future

Many people believe in the “positive thinking”. Unfortunately, they’ve taken it out of context, and never more so than when they create stories of how “one day everything will be fine!” This is also called a schizoid fantasy, which is a story that follows this format “One day when I ______________ (Fill in the blank with desired condition), I can finally ______________ (Fill in the blank with thing you want).”

Some examples are:

  • “One day when I finally find the right man / woman, I will finally be happy”
  • “One day when I become a millionaire, I will be able to enjoy my life”
  • “One day when I become mega-successful, I will be able to feel good about myself, proving all those who doubted me wrong!”

The problem with schizoid fantasies is that they keep us from living in the present moment, from enjoying what we have, and keep us imprisoned into a thought pattern that our happiness is conditional upon the fulfillment of a condition. People who live in their schizoid fantasies don’t take action today that will lead to their success in the future.

We Can Craft a Different Ending for Ourselves

We are telling ourselves stories all the time, most of the time unconsciously. These stories may or may not be true, but if we’ve told ourselves enough times, they become our reality. Yet, we compound the problems when we distract ourselves by listening to and watching other people’s stories. That’s why we love movies and Korean soap dramas, we live our fantasy vicariously through other stories. That’s why people like to gossip (which are elaborate stories) about others. That’s why some people “follow” celebrities or great speakers because it’s almost like we project our unfulfilled inner stories and live the stories through them.

If we want to take charge of our lives, and to craft a better ending to our personal stories, we have to follow three steps, I call them the 3A’s:

  1. Awareness of our own stories – the first step is to be aware of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. Ask yourself, are they necessary true? What are some assumptions you’ve been making that aren’t necessarily true?
  2. Acknowledge our feelings – The reason why stories are so sticky is because there are emotions tied to the stories. We have all felt disappointment, sadness, anger, injustice, regret, guilt and more emotions at times in our lives. Whether we know it or not, remember or not, there’s always a story captured in our memories tied to those feelings.
  3. Accountable for our responses. We are the director of our stories. You may be blaming other people for the things they do to you. However, you are the one who controls your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. How you respond creates the continuation of the story.

Going back to the question I mentioned in the opening paragraph, “I am fated to ______________.” I believe that such statements lead to an air of resignation. Instead, I’d rather embrace the idea that if our lives are stories, then we are the authors of the chapters. We can script it according to how we think, feel and respond to all situations.

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