Mastering the Stories We Tell Ourselves


Welcome to my seventh quarterly newsletter.

In this newsletter, I want to take on the subject of “Mastering the Stories We Tell Ourselves,” one of the most important of the 13 skills that lead to a flourishing life. I will make future letters shorter!

Most of us think the world works like this. There is an event, that event makes us feel a particular way and then we act upon this feeling.

What actually happens is that between the event and how we feel something occurs … and that is that we tell a story. Importantly, it is the story, rather than the event, that we act upon.

Change the stories and we change our lives.

Let me illustrate with a simple story. My wife is driving and I am riding in the front seat. We are in a long line to get off the freeway and someone pulls around all of us and cuts in at the front of the line. To which I respond, “What a jerk.” The event doesn’t even seem to register with my wife. So I say: “Doesn’t that make you mad.” She asks: “What do you mean?” I respond: “Well, look at the jerk. He cuts in front of everyone. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him. He doesn’t give a damn about anyone!” She said: “Well, how do you know that?” “Well look at him, he’s just a jerk.” To which my wife astutely says: “You don’t know that. Maybe he is late for a plane. Maybe his son just broke his arm and he is rushing to the hospital or his wife is about to deliver a baby. How do you know why he did that?”

Case in point, our reactions are not determined by the event, but by the stories we tell ourselves. Now we tell ourselves a thousand stories a day. And some stories, like this story, we tell once and are of little consequence to our lives. Some stories we tell over and over for a lifetime and shape the very character of our lives. We tell stories about work, family, relatives, friends, health, happiness, money, what we can do, what we can’t do, about our boss, about our coworkers … you got the idea, we tell stories about everything and everyone. Some of little consequence. Some are incredibly debilitating.

Let me provide some examples of stories you just might be telling yourselves. I will start with some that are relatively harmless. “I am not good with names.” I would bet there are a lot of you who tell yourself this story. Now this story is not particularly damning, but guess what … tell yourself this story and you will never be good with names.

Often, we tell stories, like this one, that are simply an excuse for not changing what we know needs to change. Here is another story I used to tell myself: “I have a bad temper because my dad had a bad temper.” Translation: “It is my dad’s fault, there is nothing I can do about it.” Now this story has a little greater consequence to it.

Stories that don’t work happen to all of us. But dysfunctional stories lead to dysfunctional lives. Here are several stories that don’t work, ranging from those with little consequence to those with life shaping consequence.

  • I don’t have patience.
  • I will be happy when I get promoted.
  • I don’t have time to eat well … to exercise.
  • I will never forgive my mother/father … wife/husband … son/daughter … my friend.
  • Everyone has credit card debt or I can’t save money at my salary.
  • Fear of failure makes me successful. Insecurity is the price I pay for security.
  • I will be happy when the kids leave home … and then … I will be happy when the kids come home.

And here are two stories that lead to totally different lives:

  • Both my parents were alcoholics. Of course, I have a problem with alcohol. What do you expect?
  • Both my parents were alcoholics. Of course, I don’t drink. What do you expect?

There is a pretty easy way to tell if the stories you are telling yourself work or don’t work. Stories that work have two common characteristics about them. They reflect an “internal locus of control” and they are “redemptive stories.” An internal locus of control means that you believe what happens to you in life is generally a result of your actions. That you have control over your destiny. Likewise, a redemptive story is one where the things that happen to you in life lead you to a better place. Here is an example of a redemptive story: “My boss fired me, but you know it led me to consider what it was I really wanted to do and it led me to a far better job.” Redemptive stories reflect someone who refuses to be a victim and chooses to problem solve and or make the bad situation better.

Stories that don’t work, also have two common characteristics: they are based on an “external locus of control” and are what psychologists call “contaminant stories.” An external locus of control means that we think our destiny, is outside us and we have little control over it. My bad temper story is a perfect example of someone with an external locus of control. And contaminant stories are ones that have no redemptive quality. What has happened is terrible and out of it came nothing positive. “My boss fired me and it has ruined my whole career.”

So how do we tell ourselves these stories? Most of us have a little voice inside our head that is talking to us from the moment we wake up until long after we have wanted to go to sleep. If right now you are saying to yourself: “I am not crazy, I don’t have a voice inside my head.” That is the voice that I am talking about.

Some folks, a few … a very few … have a voice that is positive encouraging them on and saying nice things about themselves and others. Most of us, have a voice more like mine. A little jerk inside my head saying things about me that I would never let someone else say and saying things about others I would never say out loud.

Now we can choose to either master the negative voice or we can choose to be a slave to it. When we become a slave to it, we are putting our life into the hands of a spoiled petulant child. So how do we master this voice?

Here is what I suggest you do if you have a negative voice as a roommate inside your head:

  1. First, just listen to the voice for 48 hours. Is it helpful? Will it get me where I want to go? Is it loving or demeaning? And the most important question: Is it telling the truth?

If it is not telling the truth and you don’t like what it is saying, take the following steps.

  1. Give it a name. I call mine “Rex” because I know it is a voice of fear and comes from the most primitive parts of my brain where fear resides. It is usually encouraging me to fight or take flight from the situations I find myself in.
  2. Then decide you are not going to listen to the voice. Identify it and say to yourself: “That is Rex (or whatever name you have given it) and I don’t have to listen to it. I can tell myself a better story. One that leads to success, one that leads to flourishing.

I have found Rex never goes away. But Rex used to scream at me. Now he barely whispers. I am learning to be a master of Rex.

Humans are storytellers. You are a storyteller. Tell stories of kindness, positive stories, stories based on love, not fear, tell redemptive stories, stories that reflect an internal locus of control, and you will flourish.

Thanks for reading. Be well … in fact, flourish!

–Douglas. A. Smith


“Sometimes the most important conversations we have are the ones we have with ourselves.”

–Jim Loehr


From the bookshelf!

Books I am reading and highly recommend.