On the stories we create about ourselves

As we live life, we subconsciously construct a fairy tale about who we are. We take a few of the things we tell ourselves, a whole lot of things others tell us, and craft an incompetent portrayal  of ourselves. This then becomes an instruction manual for our future behaviour. It can affect almost every decision we make, from what flavour of Tim Tams we buy, to whether we have an affair with the butcher. We will seek out people who reinforce that belief, and most likely will be distrustful of those whose opinions don’t mirror our self assessment. These templates can be set at a young age, and may last, unaltered, until we are drooling down our flannelette nightshirts, propped against a radiator in a hospital corridor.

Ok, let’s personalise this. From a young age, maybe seven or eight, my story began to incorporate something like “Regan was born to be an artist…” Positive responses to my early drawings, enrolment in a specialist art course, and winning that skateboarding book, all contributed to my internal fable. This might seem innocuous, or even useful. But as I presumed this artistic competence was a natural ability, I didn’t push myself to extend my skills. Worse, I also began to excuse a range of my less positive behaviours, I just presumed they were part of my “artistic temperament”. My story shifted to something like “Regan is a great artist, a born talent, so he’s expected to rage against the slightest criticism, be spiteful of any form of conformity, and party today, for his great talent will no doubt be recognised tomorrow.” I’m awfully pleased I escaped my story with neither an addiction to opiates, nor a missing ear.

So how did I escape the bounds of my ridiculous tale? I believe it was the psychological equivalent of a solid hit to the head. Three years ago I was turned down for a position as a concept artist in the UK. My rejection note explained that they didn’t find my sketching advanced enough. Cue: huge sledgehammer hitting forehead. At first I argued with myself that they didn’t understand my style, that I hadn’t had enough time, that they hadn’t fully explained the brief. Cold hard facts were studiously ignored. How dare “they” confront me with something that conflicted with my self belief? But I was jarred, and forced to examine contradictory and heart breaking evidence. And in the end the only thing positive I could find in the broken fragments of my career as a painter, was an opportunity to edit my story. Haha, and somewhat ironically, that’s when I decided it was time to try and make a living through writing.

What would they know...
What would they know…

Some stories though, are much more harmful, and difficult to transcend, than mine. We can end up supporting a story of ourselves as worthless, or incapable of love, or undeserving of positive relationships. Abused women and children can convince themselves that they somehow deserve punishment, and long after they escape one brand of torment, they find themselves gravitating towards further victimisation. It’s those of us that end up trapped in stories like these, that need to understand what drives them to sabotage their choices. Recognition of our stories is the first step towards being able to affect them. And if we recognise this in others, we owe them assistance.

It’s not all gloom with a side-salad of doom though. Some of us are capable of subconsciously manipulating and changing our stories in order to improve our lives. A very good friend of mine had an extremely difficult time getting through her first degree. She attended lectures and tutorials, she studied, she understood what she was taught, but somehow when she wrote essays and dissertations, they didn’t reveal her depth of understanding. On preparing to face another bout of academia several years later, she was tested for learning disorders, and told that she was dyslexic. Now many people might see this as a grim setback, but such was her force of will, she managed to do the opposite. She researched the range of conditions clustered under this title, and determined that some of the greatest thinkers of the last couple of centuries had been posthumously diagnosed identically. And then she turned it into a super power. Rather than mask or hide her “difference”, she boasted of it. She told me she felt sorry for those mere mortals who functioned normally. This was astounding to watch happen. It took a few weeks to solidify, but once it did, none of my arguments (her statement that I was intellectually disadvantaged didn’t match my story, so argue I did…) affected her newly formed tale.

Not all of us are this resilient, but I think that if we can find ways to understand our stories, and how they affect our choices and behaviours, then we can gain power over them.

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2 thoughts on “On the stories we create about ourselves”

  1. So you were knocked back once as an artist, and decided you were not on the right path? I thought all artists were destined to experience rejections, and that the ones who really make it, get through with an unwavering self belief??

    Also, how can we judge whether a person is on the right path or not in order to “help” them? Ok, so if I see someone about to walk in front of a bus, I will stop them. On matters other than life an death, I seem to have developed the belief over time, that people need to be allowed to make their own choices, and in turn accept the consequences of those choices. Is this not how we learn? As we get older we get better and better at recognizing feedback, which hopefully helps us to improve at making good decisions for ourselves.

    How do you assist someone who you perceive to be on the wrong path based on their own fairytale?

    1. Hey Em.

      I’m still an artist, I’ve just realised I paint clearer pictures with words than hand ground pigments. Self belief is important, but as I tried to explain, self deception is unproductive. I didn’t want to get paid for my work because I believed in myself, but rather because I could change someones ideas about the world. I can do that with my writing.

      And I disagree entirely on the idea that we aren’t capable of helping people recognise where they’re unaware that they can make new choices. This sort of thinking undermines the work of all those undervalued people I know who work so hard in social and criminal rehabilitation. From Children in Crossfire’s work in Northern Ireland, to assistance with drug abuse, a society built of true community’s doesn’t leave struggling individuals, in the hope that the feedback from their peers will allow them to “auto-correct”.

      When a gang member is released from prison, and his only perceived option is rejoining his old life, where is the feedback going to come from, that will help him realise he has more than one option?

      As to how you help others recognise their stories are harmful, I can’t help much. But I do know it’s important to reflect on your own issues, prejudices and agendas, before you look to trying to understand those of others.

      – Regan

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