Are the stories you tell about your life self-sabotaging or self-supporting? It’s an important question to consider, and one we often don’t pay enough attention to. We’ve all got versions of our life story that, when we retell them in our minds or to others, do more harm than good. I’m not talking about the self-deprecating tales that help us loosen-up by making us laugh at ourselves. Or the ones that open us up to others with a little vulnerability.
I’m talking about the versions of our life story that leave us feeling powerless, unworthy, or damaged. The ones that produce shame, keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns, or otherwise limit our true potential. If we’re telling these sorts of stories about ourselves a lot of the time, it’s a sign we’re in trouble. It’s time to start editing our own stories, so they work for us, not against us. That’s what this article is all about.
Fundamentals of Self Sabotage & Storytelling
To start with, I want to emphasize this is not an article about positive thinking. Though it encourages a more positive outlook, the intention is not to distort reality, to transform what’s obviously negative into something positive, magically or by virtue of denial. Denial and/or stuffing of real emotions is neither healthy nor sustainable. The goal here is not to rewrite our history, but instead, to edit the way we tell it.
It’s important to note as well that the terms storyteller and story are not being used metaphorically here. They’re quite literal. Our minds naturally function as storytellers. They craft stories as they place events from our life into chronological structures that:
- Delineate cause & effect,
- Derive meaning from context, and
- Follow narrative arcs.
We are the Narrators of Our Own Lives
Without the storytelling mind, our lives would be experienced as simply a series of events unrelated to each other in any meaningful way. Not only would that be boring, but we’d never learn anything from the past to apply to our present or future.
If you’re not yet acquainted with your inner storyteller, it’s the part of you that provides the running monologue about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in your life. Sit for a few moments in silence, and you’ll undoubtedly hear its voice.
Our minds are constantly trying to figure out the best way to categorize and correlate our experiences, so we can better make sense of them and use what we learn from them. This activity leads to a cohesive story about our lives. A long one, like a novel filled with many chapters.
Seems simple and logical, right? Well, here’s where it gets tricky. Just like any good piece of fiction has a distinctive voice, which includes a particular slant or lens through which the story is told, so does our inner storyteller. And this slant can make all the difference in the world for how the stories we tell about ourselves affect us.
Do they lift us up or tear us down? Do they paint us as a powerless victim or a resilient survivor? Are we the hero or the villain? The loser or the winner? Every story can be told from a variety of perspectives. Including, unfortunately, ones that self-sabotage us.
When Our Stories Self Sabotage
As I mentioned before, this article is not about rewriting history. We can’t change what’s already happened. We can’t erase it from our memories, either. Attempts to rid ourselves of memories usually end up stifling our growth. It can become another form of self sabotage, as we leave unprocessed emotional junk in our body-mind-spirit system. Eventually, it comes out, and in ways we wish it hadn’t.
What we can do is change the way we relate to what’s happened. We can change the way we tell the story, to ourselves and others. And we can choose to start crafting stories about events that happen today, tomorrow, and every day after in a way that best supports our well-being.
My Own Self Sabotaging Story
Take for example a story from my life. When I was twenty-one, my older sister committed suicide. It was an incredibly traumatic event for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps one of the most damaging lenses through which I recorded this story was the one that said, if my older sister couldn’t make it in this world, how can I?
I’d looked up to her my whole life. When she took off for California with big dreams for her life, I believed wholeheartedly she would accomplish them. It never occurred to me she might fall. When she did, it knocked my legs out from under me.
I questioned my own mind, my own ability to survive, wondering if I too would eventually fall the way she had. I let this story of doubt about my own mental health sabotage me for years before I chose to revise it. But when I did change it, my whole sense of self transformed with it.
The new version of my story became this: My family’s mental health history has made me stronger. It’s led me to seek out practices like yoga and mindfulness, and I’m happier and healthier because of it. It was this pressure, applied to my coal, that revealed my inner diamond.
It’s the same event, but the story is told with a different voice. The old voice made me feel weak and unsure of myself. The new one honored my strength and resilience, my ability to learn and grow from a painful experience. And the more I told the new version, the stronger and more confident I became.
How We Tell Our Stories Matters
It matters how we formulate the stories that make up our lives, especially the ones that cause us pain. How we choose to internalize an event in the story-form greatly impacts how much and how long we suffer from it.
Of course, we’re not always consciously aware at the time we adopt versions of our life story. Some of us have stories we wrote years ago, when we were too young to process things in a healthy way. Sadly, we’re still repeating them. Some of us have stories we crafted in the height of emotion, when we couldn’t stop to think about the best way to frame it. And because it was such an emotional experience, the story stuck.
But it doesn’t matter. At any time we can choose to edit a self sabotaging story and start telling it in a self supporting way.
How to Edit Old, Self Sabotaging Stories
An old story carries a lot of weight. The power of repetition, habit, and the deep rootedness of time can make it difficult to shake old versions of our life story. We get comfortable with – maybe even hooked on – the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for years. They become a part of our identity. They might even become so much a part of who we think we are, we don’t even notice them anymore. The mechanism of self sabotage is functioning beneath our radar, impacting what we do, say, think, and believe.
Which Stories Are Holding You Back?
The first step to editing old, self sabotaging stories is to identify them. Start listening to your inner monologue. Pay special attention when you’re feeling low, discouraged, anxious, or afraid. Explore a little bit. Maybe even journal about it.
What’s at the root of it? Is there a particular event, or series of events, from your past influencing how you’re feeling now? What is it exactly that you’re feeling? When have you felt like this before? Consider how frequently you may have felt this way in the past. What’s the story your mind is telling you about all of this?
You may identify the story right away, especially if it’s one you’ve heard loudly and often. But it might also take some time over a period of days, maybe even weeks. Just keep noticing what comes up. Eventually, you’ll recognize it.
Give Your Story a Headline
Once you’ve identified your troubling story, condense it to a few sentences. What is the headline for this story? What is its theme (the main point it’s communicating)?
For example, if the story tells of the time you tried to start a business and failed at it, the headline might be: I thought I could make something happen for myself and foolishly lost all my savings. I’ll never make that mistake again. The implied theme here is your foolishness for believing in yourself. It’s got a decidedly disempowering slant to it.
Dig Deep to Find Your Story’s Hidden Gem
Now, here’s where the passing of time actually works in your favor. You get to look back on all that’s transpired since this incident. All that you’ve learned, how you’ve grown and changed because of it. And what new doors might have opened in the aftermath of it.
Maybe you met someone new. Maybe you discovered a new hobby that makes your life more enjoyable. Perhaps you realized there was another direction you wanted to take. Or, maybe you can see now how you were spared far greater suffering down the road if things had not gone exactly as they did. You’ve got greater perspective.
Revise Your Story to Self Empower Rather Than Self Sabotage
Consider how you can revise the story so that it serves your health, happiness, and empowerment today. Again, you’re not denying the suffering or negative consequences that may have occurred. You’re just including the positive and choosing to highlight it.
For the new-business example given above, a new version of the story might go something like this: I took a risk on myself and learned a lot from it. If I hadn’t taken that chance, I never would have known how resilient and resourceful I am.
Spend time contemplating this new version. Go back to it repeatedly, fleshing it out with more detail and insight. To really seal it in, write about it in a journal. Tell the new version of your story from beginning to end, from this perspective. (This is what narrative therapy is all about.) When the old, self sabotaging version resurfaces, make the conscious effort to reframe it. Eventually, the new will replace the old.
How to Harness the Power of Your Inner Storyteller Now
Now that you recognize the power of your inner voice, start paying attention to the stories you’re creating for your life in the present moment. Every time we experience something, we get to choose how we record it in our minds. Start exerting that power of choice in a way that supports and empowers you, and you’ll find your entire life perspective can shift quickly.
Start with the little things. For example, if someone cuts you off on the road or refuses to let you into their lane, you can put that in your story-file titled People are jerks. Or, you can tell yourself wow, they must be having a bad day.
The two versions carry a very different tone. The first one will leave you feeling less inclined toward interacting with people, a subtle self sabotage. The second one helps you open up and generate compassion for people. Which one feels better to you?
When the bigger things happen, take time before settling on your storyline. Bigger things suggest more complex things, which means your first instincts and understandings about the situation will not be complete. You can set it aside, maybe in a file titled I’m not sure what to think about that yet.
Come back to it later, once you’ve reflected or gained more information. Then, make sure that however you write the story, it’s not going to sabotage you. Frame it in a way that supports your long-term growth and your sense of personal strength and resilience.
Another huge turning point for my inner storyteller came when I really accepted the fact that ninety percent of what other people do and say has more to do with what’s happening for them than how they feel about me. We humans are emotional, moody creatures. And when we’re in a bad mood, or we’re hurting in some way, we tend to take it out on the people around us.
Try taking a pause before interpreting someone else’s words and/or actions as a slight against you. Leave space for an alternative cause. What’s going on in their life that might be causing them stress, grief, hurt, or impatience? Is what they’re saying or doing more a reflection of them or you? Not only can this change your reaction with them in the moment, it can help you frame the story of the interaction in a more accurate and complete context.
When we overreact, misinterpret interactions, or shut down in relationships we care about, this can also be a form of self sabotage. Holding space for the imperfections of the people we care about can foster deeper, more supportive relationships that help sustain us.
The beautiful thing about our inner storyteller is that we get to choose, if we want to, how the story’s told. When we start paying attention to how we internalize events, and start actively choosing how we tell our stories, we step into our power over our own lives. We become the hero or the heroine of our own life stories.
May your story be a masterful work of art!
For more inspiration on how to take an active role in choosing your well-being, check out my article on 4 Simple Ways to Get More Intentional About Your Wellness.
Let me know what you think in the comments section below. How does your inner storyteller support or sabotage you?