The Power of the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Today I wanted to share a story about stories – how powerful they can be and how we can use them to our benefit. 

When I was in middle school one night, I wanted a snack and went to the fridge. I ate some potato salad that my parents had bought from a local grocery store. 

About two hours later, I had a nearly incapacitating stomach ache. About a day later, it turns out my appendix burst and I was in the hospital for that surgery. 

Now I healed up just fine in about a week, but for about three years after that I couldn’t eat potato salad…

Because I associated the pain I had gone through with the potato salad instead of the burst appendix.

Now this seems kind of like a pointless story but…

We do this with our work and our lives all the time. 

 We look at a situation and we attach the pain we felt with a very specific part of that story. 

And we turn it into a pattern in our heads. 

Creating Stories from Experience

For many years I worked 70-80 hour weeks regularly and I was always stressed and burnt out.

When I finally got myself to a place where my commitments allowed me to work and stress less, I thought to myself, “I will never feel that way ever again.” And so I went the opposite direction. I made sure my calendar was very, very empty and that there was absolutely no risk for any stress.

I thought that feeling any ounce of stress again – even just a little bit of fatigue – would mean that I was going to immediately slip back into my old stressed out overworked self.  In truth, that was so far from possible, it was almost comical.

We can tell ourselves so many things

Common stories we tell ourselves include: 

  • This is hard or this will be hard
  • This will be stressful
  • I’m bad at time management
  • That person will never appreciate my work

Maybe all these are true. 

But stating them as though they are definitely and permanently true locks the story into place and repeats the pattern that’s been playing out.

As a result, we don’t really open ourselves up to the opportunity for other, more productive patterns. 

Get curious about the stories that you’re telling yourself

I encourage you to start exploring the stories that have formed in your head about what is true and what is not. 

Hint: Companies and organizations can also have strong stories that form that influence their patterns of doing business. 

For example, a very common story that is widely accepted across the music industry is that the week before an audition IS stressful.

And if you’re looking for proof to back up that story, there is a ton of it. It is not uncommon to see musicians stressing out, worried about travel logistics and practicing furiously the week before their audition.

However, this isn’t necessarily true. I know many musicians who have incredibly relaxing calm weeks the week before an audition.

The point is not that it is wrong to be stressed out before an audition. Rather, if you are telling yourself a story that states an absolute truth, perhaps it’s time to recognize that there are other options available.

I invite you to look at your patterns. Are you ready to change a pattern that’s been holding you hostage for months, or maybe years?

What’s that pattern? And more importantly, what’s the story that you have in your head? 

And if you could rewrite that story to be anything you wanted it to be, what would you replace it with instead? 

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