The Stories We Tell Ourselves

by J.D. Roth

As Kim and I slowly make our way across the United States, we’re learning a lot, both about ourselves (individually and as a couple) and about others. We’re spending extended time with family and friends, and we’re meeting strangers in the places we stay. Through this constant exposure to a diverse population of people, we’ve come to realize how each of us tends to live out the stories we tell ourselves.

Many people we’ve met, for instance, are living a story in which taking a year off to travel is impossible. It’s not that taking a year off to travel is actually impossible for them, but that these folks believe it’s impossible, and that’s the story they live.

At the same time, there’s a small handful of people who decide to live a different story. We met a man near Sedona, Arizona who had been living the “I can’t travel” story but decided to re-write the ending. He quit his corporate job on the east coast and moved to Arizona with only the vague outline of a plan. He’s now giving donation-based tours of the Sedona area while maintaining a modest lifestyle. He decided to live a different story, one that (so far) has a happier ending.

We don’t just tell ourselves about travel. We tell ourselves stories about every aspect of our lives — and most of these stories can be changed, if we have the guts and gumption to change them.

Generally speaking, no one story is more true than any other. Each tale is simply a different way of viewing our life. If one story makes us unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s possible to tell ourselves a different version of the story, one that creates a more positive experience. (It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant.)

My mom’s story that her mother treated her poorly didn’t have to dominate her life for fifty-plus years. At any time, she could have chosen to live a different story. But she didn’t. Now it’s probably too late.

Similarly, I know folks who’ve struggled with family members or former friends. They’ve fought over something and the relationships have suffered as a result. These folks tend to tell themselves stories in which they cannot repair the relationships because the other party has made it impossible to do so. But again, that’s just a story. In almost every case, it’s possible to write a different ending, one in which the person repairs his relationships by choosing to tell himself a different ending.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Tyler Tervooren. He and I were both going through a lot of life changes, and we were each trying to re-write parts of the stories we’d been telling ourselves. Tyler shared a technique he was using to change his belief systems.

“I have a list of qualities I want in myself,” he told me. “I’ve written them on index cards in a specific format and I read these to myself every day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “one card might say, ‘I am the sort of man who always keeps his promises.’ Another might say, ‘I am the type of man who makes exercise a priority.’ I have about twenty of these cards, and I review them every day. This is a way for me to stay focused on what’s important to me, and to remind myself of my values.”

What a great idea!

The bottom line is this: If you don’t like the story you’re living, only you can change it. You are the author of your own life. You didn’t write the beginning of the story, but you have the power to choose the ending. In so many ways, life is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Choose an adventure you love instead of one that makes you unhappy.

I know, I know. All of this is easier said than done. Once you’re thirty or forty or fifty years old, you’ve had decades to tell yourself certain parts of your story. You may have written yourself into a corner. Changing plotlines can be difficult. Still, it is possible — and nobody else is going to change the storylines for you. It’s up to you to live the story you want.

Updated: 02 June 2015

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
Copyright © 1994 - 2022 by J.D. Roth