The Stories That Keep You Safe (And Also Hold You Back)

March 4, 2021
Reading time: 6 minutes
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Human beings are, by nature, storytellers. Stories are also one of the best ways we learn. Consider this story:

Once upon a time, a little girl named Alison awoke in the middle of the night. Her room was filled with bright moonlight, but Alison couldn’t see the moon. She put on her slippers, opened the front door of her house, and stood in her front yard peering up at the sky. But she still couldn’t see the moon! Alison wondered if maybe the moon was playing a game of hide and seek! So Alison decided to look for the moon across the street. She looked both ways, but when she was across, still there was no moon! Alison kept searching and searching for the moon, and before she knew it, she was hopelessly lost. Nothing around her looked familiar. Where was the big oak tree she could see from her window? Where were the blue shutters on Mrs. Peterson’s house? Alison became very afraid.

It’s easy to see how much more effective that story is than just telling a child, “you must never go outside alone at night.”

Just as stories are a powerful technique for teaching, the stories we tell ourselves are supremely powerful. My self-narrative is that I’m capable and a hard worker. Other people I know don’t have such a positive self-narrative. Imagine if you approached the same situation but with different stories. The outcome is likely to be widely variable depending upon what you believe about your abilities. If, for instance, you believe you will fail, then that will likely be the outcome. 

Events that we have experienced are the origin of all our stories. Beware though: just because you cut your knee on a reef snorkeling one time does not mean it will happen every time. Too often, we filter out everything but the one negative thing that occurred and thereby lose out on countless opportunities.

We also have a tendency to write stories that misattribute positive experiences to the wrong thing. Troy believes that he only has fun at parties when he drinks. He thinks that if he doesn’t drink, people will be bored by him. Instead of believing that he is inherently charming and good company, Troy gives all the credit to alcohol. He falsely believes that he is not interesting. If he isn’t interesting, then it follows that people will not want to talk to him or be his friend. If that happens, he can’t be disappointed, because he isn’t an interesting person.  

It’s a vicious cycle.

Like the story about the little girl who became lost looking for the moon, the stories we tell ourselves have the same goal: to keep us safe. Safety isn’t going to make you happy. Safety doesn’t get you closer to fulfilling your potential.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t learn from our past missteps. Let’s talk about regret (likely we all have more than a few of those). Regrets are actually not a waste of time. They’re worth considering. 

It reminds me of the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In short, a couple has a painful and unhappy breakup. They both opt for memory deletion, which is widely available in their alternate reality. Both choose to erase all the memories they have from the relationship, good and bad. At the very end of the movie, they find their way back to each other, unburdened by any of their past actions or feelings. While some may see this as a happy ending about a fresh start, I’m not so sure ignorance is bliss. I lean toward imagining that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

People often go through life wishing they could erase the most painful, hardest, difficult times in their lives. Those are the moments we grow and learn from the most. But if we’re going to do that—to learn from our errors and past—we can’t dodge the inevitably painful memories.

Looked at with curiosity and an open heart, seeing where we went awry and how we can do it differently next time is an opportunity to refine and redefine how we see ourselves and which stories are serving us and which are not.

We are who we are this very moment because of previous experience. Through that lens, our mistakes aren’t bad; they’re merely part of our journey. We can waste so much of our life regretting the past (a scary and sobering thought) that we don’t enjoy the present. And unless you grab hold of the self-defeating tale we tell ourselves, who’s to say we won’t be living out those same stories ten years from now? 

“Hello darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again” —Sound of Silence

So when it comes to reframing the stories in our minds, where can we start?

First, negative thoughts and stories are absolutely normal. We are wired for a negativity bias, and this goes back to safety. Imagine 10,000 years ago a hunter-gatherer who is recounting his day to his fellows. He visited ten caves that day, looking for nests with eggs. In all but one cave, he found eggs. But in one cave, he found a bear. It’s not hard to see why a negativity bias was a positive evolutionary trait! After all, a positivity bias would have likely meant forgetting about the part with the bear entirely. Not safe.

So it’s perfectly normal for a negative thought to surface when you are faced with a challenge. Also known as cognitive distortions, they pop up in times of stress and reinforce self-defeating beliefs. Job interviews are anxiety-inducing for a lot of people.  Rather than preparing to discuss all your excellent skills and qualities, your thoughts may wander into unhelpful territory. “What if they don’t like me? What if I can’t find the right words and sound stupid? What if they ask me something I don’t know?”

You can’t know all the questions that will be asked, but you can prepare by rehearsing what you know. You can also consider areas where you may not have experience. Everyone has them. If asked, be honest. Nobody is good at everything. 

A great tool for combatting your negative thought patterns is to say and believe their opposite. 

One simple mantra for a job interview: 

I interview incredibly well. This is my opportunity to interview this company to decide if I want to work there. I trust that I will end up where I’m meant to.

Thinking about it that way can be so freeing. Now you aren’t on the spot, being mercilessly grilled by strangers. Instead, this is a conversation among equals, with both parties garnering the information they need to make the best decision.

Ban Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance, as defined by Merriam Webster, is the psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.

Imagine Andrew, who believes he is unlovable. Andrew meets Kelly, and they really hit it off. Kelly behaves in a loving way towards Andrew, which causes Andrew to experience discomfort and confusion. Andrew then tries to explain away Kelly’s loving actions so that he doesn’t have to accept evidence that he is, in fact, worthy of being loved. 

I’ve seen so many Andrews and Kellys over the years. The way that most people confront their cognitive dissonance around their false belief that they are unworthy of love is to determine that the person who loves them is actually deeply flawed and shouldn’t be in their life at all. Thus, Andrew tells Kelly they just aren’t a good fit and breaks it off. Problem solved! Get rid of the deeply flawed person who purports that they love you, and then you’ve successfully rid yourself of any evidence that endangers your false core belief. 

It would be wonderful if Andrew could objectively see that Kelly loves him and use that as evidence to challenge his underlying belief. It’s just that simple. Change that underlying false belief. 

So why is it so difficult for Andrew and so many others to change a false belief? In most cases, those false beliefs keep us safe. Andrew is not going to be heartbroken or rejected if he maintains the belief that he isn’t worthy of love, nor will he be able to accept love and thus will struggle to have a fulfilling relationship with anyone. 

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

You owe it to yourself to rewrite your false narratives. Your brain’s priority is not your happiness. It’s your survival. But you absolutely have the ability to choose how you respond to the world and what stories you believe. Once you discard your false beliefs, you may be a little less safe, but the payoffs are immense.

 

Rethink Moment: Consider a painful time from your past. Did you go through a difficult divorce? A sad end of a long-time friendship? Did you make a mistake that landed you in legal trouble? Did those situations create false beliefs that you still have today? What may you believe that keeps you safe but doesn’t help you grow?

 


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