Is The Story You Tell Yourself Holding You Back?

the story you tell yourself
Photo by Namphuong Van

Starting from a young age, author Kim Werker had a story that she told herself, about herself. It all started with a cardboard robot she was making in elementary school that, as she explained in her Creative Mornings Vancouver talk, just wasn’t looking the way she wanted it to look. And no matter what she did, she couldn’t get it right.

At the age of seven, she told herself “I am a girl who cannot make what I see in my mind.”

That mantra stuck with her. And for years, it kept her from making things, for fear that they would not be as she saw them in her mind. This was the story she told herself, and it wasn’t until, years later, she set out to specifically make something ugly, that she was able to fully break through that blockage.

Everyone has a story about themselves. We require them. Psychologically, it’s very difficult to proceed through the world without a kind of narrative about who we are, how we got there, and what’s going to happen next. We are a composite of everything we’ve seen and done and been.

In his TED Talk, Hollywood/Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur explained this a little more.

“In this universe, and this existence, where we live with this duality of whether we exist or not and who are we, the stories we tell ourselves are the stories that define the potentialities of our existence,” he explained. “We are the stories we tell ourselves…A story is the relationship that you develop between who you are, or who you potentially are, and the infinite world, and that’s our mythology.”

The stories we tell ourselves can be empowering; multiple studies have found that coaching children, especially those who are considered “at-risk” to feel positive and own a story of resilience meet challenges with better problem-solving skills and tend to fare better overall. People who have success built in to their story , but also frame their failures as steps toward that success, tend to achieve more highly.

But the thing about the stories that we tell ourselves is that often, we haven’t even examined them. We become intimated familiar with our inner critic — the voice that tells us what we can’t do — and can even become skilled at shutting it out. But what about the story that doesn’t come from what Kim calls “the ugly voice,” but rather, the story that comes seemingly from nowhere? The story that just is?

So the first step, then, is asking yourself: What is the story that you tell yourself?

“In what stories are you the protagonist? And how can you save that protagonist from the story?” she asks.

Once you’ve established what the story is, it’s much easier to figure out how to frame it.

Sometimes, it takes attacking that story ruthlessly to overcome it. For Kim, it took actively making things — whether they came out “right” or not — to realize how much she’d be limiting herself.

“I realized I had never let myself just play. The girl who can’t make the things that she sees in her mind doesn’t make stuff. Why would she?” she asked. “And I suddenly realized that I had become the girl who used to be the not be able to make what I see in my mind.”

The stories we tell ourselves can be great motivators — but if they’re written by our inner critics, long long ago, it can be difficult to achieve what we want. What story do you tell yourself — and how can you save yourself from it?

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.