What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

As my mentor used to say to me when I would give voice to my negative thinking: Russell, if you're going to indulge in a fantasy, why would you choose to lose in it? After all, it's your fantasy!
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Last week, we continued the exploration of your own role in your own happiness, or lack thereof, with an article asking, Are You Making Your Life More Difficult Than Necessary.

As is now commonplace, some wrote adding to the conversation with their examples of how these ideas have worked for them, some wrote to say that the article helped them with a particular issue that was present at the time, and some wrote to complain either that the ideas are old or just plain psychobabble BS.

The wonderful thing about this work is that each writer and each comment is completely accurate. As Shakespeare reminds us, "There is no such thing as right or wrong but thinking makes it so."

Indeed, as I have noted in the past, these ideas are much older than any of us, have been around since forever, and have been presented in a variety of spiritual teachings ranging from mystical Judaism, to Buddhism, to Christianity. Psychologists have added their points of view, and others have written about simply using the power of the mind and thought to create a better life.

It's fine with me whichever perspective you find useful, as well as whichever elements you might choose to reject.

As I was reading the email messages sent to me, one stood out and reminded me of an important aspect to how we live our lives, one that I have so integrated into my daily practice that I seem to have forgotten that the notion is not all that common. The perspective has to do with stories we tell ourselves and how we live our lives in such a way as to make those stories seem true.

Here's what Carolyn had to say:

Dear Mr. Bishop,

Everything you are saying has been addressed very simply in teachings by such folks as Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. In fact, the quote for February in the Eckhart Tolle 2010 calendar is: The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.

That's pretty much it in a nutshell, eh?

The teachings go into more depth about how it is the stories we create in our heads about everything that happens around us that cause the true "unhappiness." The question to always ask when we come up with a story about something is: is it TRUE?

For example, a spouse consistently forgets to put the toilet seat down or fill up the gas tank or (fill in the blank). An automatic story may be: s/he doesn't love me/is inconsiderate/is mean/wants to hurt me, etc. etc. etc. The question is: are those stories TRUE? Or are they made up in one's mind in reaction to something that is wholly owned by the story teller? The fun thing about the exercise is nothing the mind makes up as a story is ever TRUE; it's always a story. Meaning that even if the person IS out to get you, etc., they can only succeed if the story you make up about their behavior causes you to feel bad/sad/mad, etc. Nobody can MAKE you feel those things. Saying that it's the fault of the other person is essentially being powerless.

Yes - it's more pleasant to be around considerate, polite people who remember to put the toilet seat down, don't cut you off in traffic, don't rob you, etc. There are things that we can choose - which people we invite into our lives and with whom we interact - and there are things we can't necessarily choose, but we can always choose to believe our own reactions and stories.

Also - of course we are paired with people and situations that mirror behavior/reactions/etc. in us that we could stand to examine and change. That is how "the universe" (or God or Truth or the part in us that seeks true awakening) gives us the gift of seeing the things we could change in ourselves. If one truly wants to be awake (or enlightened or even just less burdened), then "the universe" will oblige you with lots of opportunities to see what needs to be shed and lost. Painful? Potentially. But only until one chooses for it not to be.


Have you ever been upset with someone and told them off - in your mind? You know the drill - you imagine talking to the person, perhaps rehearsing what you might say were you to actually talk to them, and you wind up filling in the blanks for what they might say as well. That, in turn, leads to how you would respond to what you just made up for them to say. And on it goes.

If this sounds familiar, then you have some notion of the idea Carolyn writes about in her message to me. How often do we start with something that has some basis in fact, and then add elements to the story that we just make up?

If you rehearse the scene enough, it will begin to take on its own element of truth. If you tell the story with enough conviction, you can wind up with very real feelings, both emotionally based and even physically based. You can scare yourself by what you tell yourself, and you can become angry by what you tell yourself.

What makes this practice so difficult is that by the time you have added emotional and physical feelings to the story, they actually begin to take on an element of reality - after all, you are feeling these feelings, aren't you. For some, the presence of the feelings suffices for proof that the situation and their response is, in fact real. The Truth, as it were.

If you look back to last September, when we started a series on the differences between positive thinking, positive focus, and positive action, we suggested that a positive focus (not wishful thinking, but focus on a realistic, positive outcome) can help you discover choices you can make that can help lead you forward. That's a form of telling yourself a story, albeit a story that might prove useful in terms of encouraging you to move forward.

Many of us know the opposite version of this kind of storytelling. Have you ever imagined yourself about to embark on a new experience and started to tell yourself all the things that might go wrong? That could be anywhere from the time you were on a high diving platform and scared yourself thinking about all the things that could go wrong, over to imagining a conversation with your boss and imagining how badly that might go. Instead of a raise, they might fire you.

If you're like most people, you have engaged in this kind of negative storytelling, either about someone else, or about your own self. The latter is the most interesting. As my mentor used to say to me when I would give voice to my negative thinking: Russell, if you're going to indulge in a fantasy, why would you choose to lose in it? After all, it's your fantasy!

So, why not take some time this week and simply notice the stories you tell yourself, be they stories about yourself, stories about your family or friends, stories about your job or co-workers, or stories about life in general. What's the difference between the stories you tell yourself and the reality you experience?

If you must tell yourself stories about yourself, someone else, or life in general consider this: are they useful stories? Do they help you move forward? If not, you might consider leaving those stories behind and move into something more uplifting and useful.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.

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