These are uncertain times. While I’m not a fatalist, I do believe that as humans we have the ability to make our own reality. This reality comes in the form of stories that we tell ourselves. We are social creatures and our stories are the basis of our personal reality and the fabric of our culture.
I think it is interesting to consider how storytelling influences our ability to make our own reality, or perhaps more accurately, create the life we want for ourselves. When we tell ourselves stories that veer too far from our current reality we experience a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. This dissonance expresses itself differently in every individual, but common reactions include discomfort and anger, which are really just proxies for fear.
To create the life that we desire, it helps to imagine ourselves surrounded by the circumstances that enable those experiences. Many people have heard of The Power of Positive Thinking, and it’s true – we become what we think. Or at minimum, we greatly increase the chances of that becoming, for good and bad. However it’s not just thinking. It’s imagining. Our imagination tells stories of who we are and how we will get to where we want to be. Stories are a guidebook to achieve our dreams.
Stories are a guidebook to achieve our dreams.
Science fiction is littered with examples of this. Star Trek, the seminal mid-60’s TV show created by the visionary Gene Rodenberry, imagined cell phones (the flip communicator), 3D printers (replicators), and computer-voice interfaces among many other creations. The past futurist vision becomes the present. Our stories are the framework of our future reality.
When we tell a story to ourselves, we reinforce patterns of behavior in our brain. We literally build neural pathways with our thoughts. Since most people have a generally fixed view of the world, it becomes difficult to change our behavior. But it turns out that our brains have a high degree of plasticity and we can create new neural pathways with our thoughts. With our stories. We simply need to change the narrative. Practice the new story. Repeat the new story. In doing so we retrain our minds to see the world in a different way – in a way that more closely mirrors how things really are. This is highly beneficial as it allows us to reduce the cognitive dissonance and neurotic consequences that come from this dissonance.
Yet it takes courage to change our stories. We have to face our own sense of identity loss and acknowledge where our behaviors are inconsistent with our ideals. We have to recognize where the stories we tell ourselves about other people cause pain and frustration in interpersonal relationships. We should identify internal stories that interfere with our ability to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. We must, to some degree, see the world for what it is and adjust our stories to fit reality.
Stories form the basis of our self-identity and when that identity is challenged, it leaves us feeling unmoored.
In my experience, this is the key to happiness. Changing the story. This doesn’t mean compromising your values or impairing your ambition. It means recognizing the elements of reality that are incompatible with the story you tell yourself and adjusting the story to reduce the dissonance. While conceptually simple, it can be very difficult to actually achieve. We are deeply invested in our stories of the world, those around us, and ourselves. Those stories form the basis of our self-identity and when that identity is challenged, it leaves us feeling unmoored. Who am I if the story I have told myself, perhaps for my entire life, turns out to be full of inaccuracies?
It turns out the human mind, while fragile, is also incredibly resilient. We don’t actually risk identity collapse by modifying stories of ourselves. We are adaptable, and if the story is more aligned to reality or to a positive future vision, we easily adjust. It just takes courage, self-reflection, and commitment. Meditation or quiet contemplation can be helpful in identifying core truths. Writing is also an excellent approach to clarify perspective and distill essential thought.
So in this period of adjustment and uncertainty, take a few moments to identify where you are and where you would like to be. Think carefully about the stories you tell about yourself and those around you. Take an honest inventory of how those stories reflect reality, or not. Consider new narratives that bring you closer to reality and reduce cognitive dissonance. Think empathetically about how others see you, not the stories you tell yourself about their behavior.
Stories connect us, but they also constrain us. Yet stories can be the antidote to our unhappiness and pain.
Stories connect us, but they also constrain us. Yet stories can be the antidote to our unhappiness and pain. It’s not easy, but it is simple. Make it a practice to really see your story and determine how it can be adjusted to create a new, more fulfilled life and future. I’ve made a commitment to do this for myself, and I look forward to sharing those stories with you.