What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

When I was a little kid, one of the funnest games to play was “let’s pretend”: “Let’s pretend the living room is the ocean, and the furniture is islands, so you have to swim to get to them!”… “Let’s pretend everything is opposite, like we can only move backwards!”…  “Let’s pretend I’m a really rich person and you’re my butler!”

(O.k., so you usually can’t get your younger siblings to go along with that one, but it’s worth a try.)

The awesome thing about the “let’s pretend” game was that it made the boring everyday things around you seem suddenly new and exciting. In the blink of an eye, you weren’t stuck inside with nothing to do on a rainy day; you were on a cool adventure, and everything you saw was part of that adventure.

Banisters were trees. Trees were giants. The world transformed around you, just because you said so. (It’s a handy trick to use if you’re babysitting, too. You’d be amazed how excited a kid can get about brushing his teeth or helping clear dishes if you make it into a race or a secret ninja test.)


The Power of Frames

The way we frame things matters. When we get older, we may stop intentionally imagining the world around us into something different. But while we’re no longer saying “let’s pretend,” we’re still telling ourselves stories that change the way we view things — and not always for the better.

It’s way too easy to cast yourself into a role. You’re the overworked, under-appreciated martyr. You’re the only nice person left in a world of jerks. You’re no good. You’re too good. Everyone else is no good. You’re hopeless. And, like magic, everything around you seems to fall into place to support that role.

Self-stories have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If you look at the world through whatever-color glasses, guess what? Everything will look whatever-colored. (Tweet, tweet!)

But that doesn’t mean that it is. (Or that it has to be.)


Red Flags

I’ve begun to realize there’s one surefire to tell when I’m operating based on faulty self-stories. Any time I find myself thinking in terms of things that “usually,” “always” or “typically” happen, I should learn to stop myself right there, because I’m probably telling myself a story that won’t lead to anything good.

For instance:

  • This guy’s gonna cut me off. SUVs usually cut me off…
  • Of course she dumped that project on me. People always dump their projects on me. I’m the only one who ever does any work around here…
  • One more load of dishes to do. Typical. The chores never end…

Can you tell which sad, sorry stories I’m telling myself about my life in these examples? Here are the underlying (/unattractive) assumptions:

  • Everyone else drives like an idiot. Everyone is only out for themselves. SUV drivers are obnoxious. Woe is me. [Cordelia note: I personally do believe that the ratio of obnoxious SUV drivers to obnoxious small car drivers is considerably high, but an assumption is still an assumption, so I’m trying to be more charitable. Apologies if you’re one of the nice ones!]
  • Everyone wants to take advantage of me. No one appreciates how hard I work. Everyone else is just goofing off playing online poker or updating their Facebook status. Woe is me.
  • My life is ruled by chores and errands and I’m helpless to do anything about it. I’ll never have any time for myself. It’s all on me. [My husband is actually perfectly willing to help out if I ask him, but I rarely ask anyone for help because I’m too busy doing everything myself and then stewing over it.] Woe is me.

In summation: Not good, folks. Just plain Not Good.


Bad Story. Bad!

(In Which Cordelia Confesses She’s Not Always That Great)

In case you couldn’t tell, way too often I tell myself the “woe is me” story. I cast myself as the harried Girl Friday who does everything for everyone and never gets a break.

And what happens as a result? I’m stressed. I resent things. I dwell on petty inconveniences. I’m inundated with stress because I’m approaching the world stressfully. I’m easily irritated because I’m focusing on all the things that irritate me.

It’s not pretty, and I don’t like it. Actually, I feel pretty awful admitting to it. It’s a horrible way to approach a life. I’m not sure how I acquired it, but it’s time for a redo, stat.


Self-Story 2.0

(New & Improved!)

I’m deliberately trying to teach myself a different story now. For all my Cordelian ideals, I still find myself defaulting to the old story when things get hectic or I’m not feeling particularly strong. But I’m learning to catch myself when the bad self-casting kicks in and to start the new story playing instead.

The new story is infinitely better:

I’m taking control. I’m on my way to something better. I’m Cordelia, and I’m calling it quits, because there are better things to do with a life.

Are the same stresses and petty inconveniences still there? Yep. Of course. But I don’t mind them as much. The world seems a little rosier in my new role, which means I’m reacting to it better, which in turns makes better things happen.The story perpetuates itself.

Is this sort of self-narrative a little too golly-gee-whiz perky? Damn straight it is.

Sort of a silly “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” affirmation? Might be. What of it?

I’ve takenthe opposite approach, and personally, I think it’s crap. If I’ve got a choice between stories to believe in, you bet your sweet tail I’m going for the happier one.

I’m done bemoaning the world I think I’m stuck in. I’m ready to start creating the world I want to live in.

So, what kind of story are YOU telling yourself?

Image: Flickr

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  • Clare

    Negative, self-centered stories I tell myself:

    “I work more hours than any of my friends, and harder. No one appreciates how much I work.”

    “This school loan will never be paid off. I’m terrible at paying things down.”

    “I’ll never be good at yoga.”


    Caitlin just wrote a similar post over at Healthy Tipping Point:

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Oh, wow. It’s totally a parallel post! Jinx!

  • 2blu2btru

    The story I was/am telling myself that I’m unmarriageable, and that I have no idea how to handle my own finances. I’ve been telling myself I don’t have time to write and don’t have the ability necessary to be published. I’ve been telling myself that I’m overworked and underpaid because I’ve made some really bad choices–in schooling, in location, and in staying with jobs too long.

    Those are a lot of bad stories and a hard habit to break. But your post just may inspire me to begin the habit of telling myself some more positive things about my life. Great post! 😀

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      You can do it! I’ll be trying right along with you.

      It’s definitely a hard habit to break. Half the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Even though I’m trying hard to tell myself a different story, I can’t tell you the number of times I keep catching myself in the middle of telling the old one. It’s gonna take some work, but just realizing you’re doing it is a step in the right direction. Good luck! 🙂

  • Great observations! We really are in charge of our own lives. It’s weird that framing ourselves as victims is so appealing, but it really is–that’s exactly what we’re doing with those woe-is-me stories. I’m working on this same thing. Thanks for the reminder!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      It’s interesting that you used the word “appealing.” My first reaction to that was to say it’s hardly appealing at all–that’s why I’m trying to hard to reprogram my thoughts. But you know what? On some subconscious level, something about it *must* be appealing, or else why would I keep resorting to that kind of thinking?

      Maybe it’s not appealing so much as comforting on some level–it lets me feel like I’m not to blame; things are just happening to me. It also gives me a sense of superiority to cast myself as the martyr of horrible, mean old circumstances.

      Excellent word choice–that really got me thinking! 🙂

  • I think “woe is me” easily becomes the default. The story of the perfect drive to work in which you make every light, get cut off by nobody, ease into the perfect parking space and have the elevator held by a kind person as it starts to close has become boring. Perhaps we can make it less boring. My last two blog posts did focus a bit on the negative (though I do not think think this is an ongoing pattern, why risk it?) I will be aware of relating the “good things” even if they may seem mundane in contrast. I can’t change everything around me, but I can certainly be aware of how I relate the story. Thanks for making me think.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being frustrated when things go wrong or mad when someone acts inappropriately. It’s only natural–and really, the way the world is, if you’re *not* pissed off at things sometimes, you’re not paying attention. 😀

      But that doesn’t mean we can’t also appreciate the good things and try to see our lives in as positive a light as possible. Are there a lot of jerks and inconveniences out there? Unfortunately, yeah. But I’m not gonna let them ruin my day!

  • I love your post. Things are always the worst when you’re telling yourself they’re the worst.

    Responsibilities, to-do lists, annoying people… none of these things go away! But when you have a positive attitude – you don’t even notice!

    I really like the idea of living in the world you want to live in.

    In that case: I’m a stay at home mom with no kids in Sydney, Australia. That whole work thing I do every day? It’s volunteer work because I like kids.

    Sigh – I’m already feeling better.

    Bridget and the Girls with Prius Envy

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I like it! In that case, I’m a writer and aspiring revolutionary, who just so happens to spend some hours each day filing and typing things. It’s only temporary, and only because the world needs me to stay in the 9-5 system a little while longer to shake things up a bit. 😀

  • Great post. Really smart and thought-provoking.

    One of my therapists called them “old tapes” and your point that we revert to them when we’re tired and stressed is so true; they’re known and familiar even if they are lousy and unhelpful.

    My hardest task has always been to ask others for help, even for small stuff — and the underlying assumption is they won’t. Some will, some won’t. But it means taking the risk of rejection for the chance someone will and you are often surprised by who it is. So my new mode is to ask for help and see what happens. I don’t wait passively and helplessly in the meantime and I ask a bunch of people knowing many won’t, but now trusting (ah, trust) that some will.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Precisely! “Old tapes” is a great way to think about them. They just keep playing on a loop until you make a point of pressing stop.

      I’m the exact same way about asking others for help. I just assume I’m going to wind up having to do it myself, which of course means that I do wind up doing it myself. If you never ask for help, you’re never going to get it. You still might not get it even if you ask, but it’s worth a try, right? I think part of what I need to learn is to let people surprise me rather than automatically assuming the worst. It’s nice when they do. 🙂

  • Roberta Gould

    I totally agree! There are people in our lives that say or think negative thoughts about us. We need to be our best friend and encourage ourselves..

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Exactly! It’s weird how we can sometimes try to be so supportive of other people, but not think about how important it is to be supportive our ourselves, too. I try to exercise empathy and patience with people I encounter–I need to learn how to exercise the same with myself. 🙂

  • cordeliacallsitquits

    Thanks, Joel! And your recent post about living boldly and *then* writing about it has me inspired. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about living intentionally, but it’s time to amp it up and develop some solid, long-term plans. Much will be in the works the next few weeks… 😀

  • allison

    I love this post – this describes exactly the way I’ve been trying to reframe by life, but I haven’t been able to put it in words. Its true 90% of what happens to us is determined by how we view it. I’ll be reminding myself to shift my thinking in order to achieve the happiness I’m searching for.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Me too. I know we both can do it!

  • The concept of story and constantly writing yours is an awesome concept that’s driven a lot of what I’ve done in the last few months. Good stuff Cordelia 🙂

  • Wise words my friend. You are very smart to notice your patterns, that’s the best place to start. You can start to question things, and you start to see how some things just aren’t the way we believe them to be. Well anyways. You are on the right track!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Thanks, Ollin! I’m so glad you’re reading!

  • I love this paragraph: “Is this sort of self-narrative a little too golly-gee-whiz perky? Damn straight it is. Sort of a silly “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” affirmation? Might be. What of it? I’ve done the opposite approach, and personally, I think it’s crap. If I’ve got a choice between stories to believe in, you bet your tail I’m going for the happier one.”

    Right on! I used to feel this way in doing affirmations, but then I was thinking, What the hell else better idea does anyone have who would berate me for this? They changed my worldview and changed my life, to tell you the truth. So I’m with you! Thank you for this post!

    • Cordelia

      I”m so glad you’ve come to that realization! It definitely is a life changer.

      The plain fact is, we’re all telling ourselves one story or another–and those stories completely transform the way we experience our lives. So why *wouldn’t* you tell yourself the best possible story that you could? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Great post! I have found great power in changing my perspective and the story I tell myself and others. I will believe what I tell myself, and if I tell myself everything sucks, then from my perspective everything does suck because that’s how I choose to see it.

    On my way to work last week there was a lot of traffic (well, a lot of traffic for Fort Collins, Colorado), and I started to get a little huffy about it. Then I realized what I was doing, literally smiled and realized that the traffic had not significantly affected my life or my day. Yes, there was traffic! And I still have my home, my job, my health, and my gratitude. The only thing that could interrupt my day was my attitude. The traffic itself was neither good or bad, just traffic.

    • Exactly! I’m so glad you’re learning the importance of perspective. It’s still something I have to remember to work on every day, but it really does make such a difference. We can’t change our circumstances sometimes, but the way we choose to view them has an incredible impact on how we *experience* those circumstances. Good for you!

  • I just want to say that this is a brilliant post!! I am constantly appalled at how many people have such negative attitudes about life. There’s just no point, is there?!? It’s one of my pet peeves, and I definitely have an ex (or two) who should read this. The other side of the coin that really gets me is how many people project their negative attitudes onto the people they interact with, and can’t even comprehend how your perception of  someone isn’t always completely in line with reality.  *sigh*