This week on the podcast, we’re exploring the power of story. Humans are storytellers. We choose the stories we tell about our lives. In every situation, we can come up with a number of ways to tell the story of it, and they’re all a version of the truth. But we get to choose which version resonates the most with us, which one feels better to us, and then that informs our actions moving forward. Getting curious about the stories we tell can be an amazing form of self-care!
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
- What stories are you holding on to about yourself, your partner, and your family?
- Where are the stories coming from? From your parents during your childhood? The outside voices of society? Somewhere else?
- Do you see the story in your self-talk? How else might you tell that story?
- How does it feel to realize that you get to craft your own stories?
PAM: Hello and welcome to the Living Joyfully Podcast. We are very happy you’re here exploring relationships with us, who we are in them, out of them, and what that means for how we move through the world.
And in today’s episode, we are going to talk about stories, both the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we assign to other people, meaning what we think they’re thinking. And yes, it can get very messy.
Now, this episode is a bit longer than usual, but we think it’s worth it. Stories are intricately woven into our relationships with the people that we love, and that’s because humans are storytelling animals. It’s how we make sense of our world. In the book The Storytelling Animal, How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall, he wrote, “Story is for a human as water is for a fish – all encompassing and not quite palpable.” I love that so much, because story truly is everywhere. And the language we choose makes a profound difference, because the stories we tell ourselves become our self-talk. That is why we want to be intentional about the language that we’re using.
And what’s really fascinating is that for pretty much any situation, we can come up with a number of ways to tell the story of it and they can all make sense and all could truthfully tell the story of that situation. And the thing to realize is, we get to choose which one resonates most and feels better to us, which then informs our actions moving forward, which calls back to our conversation in episode seven about how every moment is a choice. Stories and choice are woven together so well, aren’t they?
ANNA: Oh my gosh. So much. For me, truly understanding the role of story has been so pivotal. That awareness allowed me to step back and observe, so, where’s this story coming from? Does it feel real to me and who I am in this moment? Is it serving me? And if I’ve held onto it for a long time, why? Why have I held onto that story? And who would I be without it? That’s one I love to think about. Who would I be? What would it feel like?
Because there’s an energetic feeling to that. What do I feel without this story that I’m telling about myself or these people in my life? And those questions really can only come about once you take off the veil and realize that everything is a story. Then I get to dive in and have these questions. And through the questioning, I can hone in on what is really working for me.
And then I can start to change my story to be more reflective of me as the person I am now, the person I want to be moving forward. And I could see the role of story more clearly and use it as a tool instead of being held hostage by it, which is kind of how it felt before.
And for me, like you said, language is such a big piece of that. I try to be so intentional about my language that I use, whether I’m defining some kind of big event or a very simple task in front of me, because in that language is choice. I’m developing the story that informs my day and tells others who I am. And so, that piece is so critical to me, just seeing it for what it is. And then, how do I want to create my narrative? What language do I want to use to describe it? I like thinking about it.
PAM: Yeah. And once you see the scope of it, it’s incredible, because it’s not only the stories that we’re telling ourselves, but it’s understanding that the stories we’re telling others about ourselves and about our lives is the picture that they’re going to draw from. That’s where they’re going to meet us.
So, first, let’s look at our self-talk, at our inner voice. Sometimes we don’t think we have control over our self-talk. It just appears in our head, the words over and over and over when we’re spiraling over something, right? But we truly can change that over time as we make intentional changes to the language that we use and the stories we tell ourselves.
It is worth taking the time to listen to our self-talk a bit more objectively, to just ask ourselves, is this a helpful story for me?
ANNA: Right, because we have the self-talk, and we don’t think we can change it. I think that’s something I believed when I was younger. It’s hard to change or we’re given this story that it’s hard, but I think we may assign it more importance than perhaps serves us. So, I love the idea of really diving into that, because self-talk is just an aspect of our story. It’s no different. It’s no more powerful. And it’s not this boogeyman that it’s kind of made out to be.
And sometimes our self-talk is the stories that have been handed to us, perhaps by our parents or past relationships. And what’s so important there is to realize that the stories they told, even if the story is about us, is their story. It’s not ours and we don’t have to take it in and own it. It’s about them, where they were at the time, the stories that perhaps they were handed.
And so, that’s the thing, right? We can just keep continuing to hand down these same stories or we can take control of our own narrative. We can look at who we really are and what’s actually in front of us, and then write a story that lifts us up, because that helps us be the person that we want to be and it will inform our next steps in a given situation. And I think that’s what’s so important about it. That’s how insidious stories are. When we carry these stories from someone else, they change our energy and then they inform our next steps, and it keeps us on this same narrow path.
But at any moment, we can take back the reins. We can examine the stories that we’re clinging to and we can make choices because yes, Pam, it’s always about choices with me. We’re going to keep bringing that up.
PAM: Yes. Definitely. I love the point about realizing that the stories other people are telling about us, especially the stories we grew up with, are just somebody else’s perspective. It’s their story. So, maybe we’ve absorbed the story that we’re too sensitive, or we’re scared to try new things, or we’re very shy. That isn’t our story. It’s their story about us. And we get to choose our own story.
Speaking of, it’s also helpful to realize that goes both ways. So, for example, take a moment to consider the stories we’re telling our partner about our day. Maybe we’re more likely to take it as an opportunity to vent. “I am so tired,” or, “So many things went wrong today.” Is that what I want to convey? What will their view of my day look like from my story? Maybe that I’m so tired because I was busy having fun playing with the kids, or deep in the flow of working on a favorite project or knocking a bunch of those tasks off my to-do list.
Maybe more things unusual went wrong today precisely because I was working a to-do list that was filled with those iffy jobs, and I got them done in the end. But how will they see my day through my venting words? Probably not as the ultimately satisfying day that I saw. So, understanding that the stories I tell, big and small, live on in the world reminds me to be more intentional. Now that doesn’t mean not venting, but maybe prefacing it with a quick qualifier. Like, “My day was great. I just want to vent about a couple of things.”
It means considering who I’m speaking with and choosing my language to better convey the meaning of my story. Is what I’m saying true? Is it how I want to be seen by others? What do I need or want from the conversation? Because stories are the lifeblood of communication.
ANNA: Yes. And I think it’s interesting, too, thinking about that. What do I want to get from this story? Because if we do come at our partner with all the things that have happened in the day and then they come back trying to solve things and really we’re like, “Wait a minute, it’s just a story we’re telling about how we had these tough things,” you know? So, keep all that in mind. It’s the lifeblood of communication. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I think that’s really so true.
And so, keeping in mind that others will see our story through their lens, what they know, and that’s okay. Understanding that helps us put their comments or reactions into perspective as well. Back to everyone is different. We see and experience the world differently.
PAM: Yes. And that is absolutely a wonderful thing. We have control over our stories and what pieces we choose to share and how we choose to share. Understanding that other people come to conversations with their lens, too, so, not expecting them to fully understand what it looks like through our eyes and not even expecting them to even be curious to understand. We can’t control where they are on their journey.
Now, I also want to talk about the stories that we assign to other people, because so often we tend to assume the worst story. For myself and many others that I’ve spoken with, when we’re feeling disconnected from someone or they react negatively to something we’ve said or done, the story we immediately tell ourselves is that we did something wrong, but often that really isn’t true.
It’s so helpful to remember that, when we’re thinking about what someone else is thinking, that is a story that we’re making up. No matter how well we know them, we still don’t know for sure. So don’t assume that the first story that we jump to is the same story that they see.
ANNA: Yes. So often, we find ourselves putting words into people’s heads, and we will actually play out the scenarios till the end without the other person involved at all. “They’re upset with me. I did something wrong. They don’t like what I’m doing,” whatever the words were saying. Even, “They’re trying to hurt me. Their actions are intentional towards me.” So often, we get that very wrong. We really don’t know what’s happening in another person’s head.
I have a friend that will honestly just create entire movies and the challenge with that is, it doesn’t leave room for anything else. Once you’ve created a story for someone, you start acting from that place with that energy. So, if you’ve ever had one of those dreams where it’s so real, your partner has done something terrible and really upset you, and you wake up and you’re still super mad and they’re going like, “What is happening? I just woke up. I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
But it’s the same when we create a story. We can buy into that energy and bring that energy to the person and they have no idea where it’s coming from. But instead, if we can first assume positive intent, second, we can ask questions and leave space and remain open, then the person’s free to share what they’re actually feeling. And so often, it does not come close to the stories that we’re making up.
So, I have a friend and a while back, she shared a story and she didn’t share it as a story. She shared it as a fact. She said that her husband didn’t find her attractive. And she said, “He actively avoids even touching me when we walk each other past each other in the hall.” And I was like, “Oh, wow. Have you talked to him about that?” And she was like, “Well, no.” And then when she did, she found the complete opposite was true. He was trying to be respectful of her space. So, he felt by moving aside in the hall, he was showing respect for her space and honoring her.
And so, then they had this conversation around what would feel good to each other and how they want to move forward. And it’s very different now. But she had been telling that story for years and he had no idea. That’s just how insidious these stories are. And I think it’s just really worth examining the stories that we put on others, even when we feel it’s justified, even if we think we know them so well, even if we’ve held onto these stories for years. Conversations are so important. Being open and curious. Leave space for people to tell us who they are. Pre-writing a detailed story does not.
You can feel that closed energy when you come in with this pre-populated story and it’s so disconnecting. Even some light inquiry can shed light on what’s really going on and give space for each person to share their perspective. And then we can understand where the communication broke down in the first place and why maybe we’re seeing it differently, but that won’t happen if we stay in our head creating stories. That will only happen with that choice of connection and that choice to have some conversations.
PAM: Yeah, sometimes I can get stuck in a really negative story about someone else, and I just don’t feel confident enough to ask about it yet or bring it up. But when that happens, I found it helpful to just remind myself that it’s a story and then start to play with that. How else might this story go? What about this? Does that fit? Maybe this? So, once I think of a few other things, even if they seem outlandish to me right now, I realize that there isn’t just one possible story. It wasn’t just the one thing that I was clinging to and being upset about. That lightens things up for me.
And usually, when I’m feeling lighter, now I can get curious. Which one is it? I want to know now. And then usually I can get to the space, the energy, where it doesn’t feel so heavy and I can actually bring up the conversation with them. I can actually go, “Hey, what about this? What did that feel like to you?”
On the flip side, moving through that process over and over helped me realize that I really don’t know what’s going on in another person’s life that has led them to make whatever choice it is that they made. That’s their story, their truth. That’s been a very helpful discovery on my journey around stories, just that realization that these are stories. My story, their story, it’s their truth in the moment. And that is just enough. I can be curious then. It reminds me that there are multiple ways that things can go.
ANNA: Right. And there are just always more layers, I think, to peel back on our stories, which kind of leads nicely to this last bit we wanted to talk about. We get to choose the stories we tell. And we touched on this back a bit back in the choices episode, but I want to bring it up again. We choose the stories we tell about the big things like our childhood and the little things like the grocery store. And in every situation, there are things that are easier and harder, that work or don’t work. But we can choose to focus on those aspects that make sense and feel better to us.
For any situation, we can come up with a number of ways to tell the story of it, and they all make sense in the context of the activity, the situation, the people involved, and they can all truthfully tell the story. But now, we get to choose which one resonates the most with us, which one feels better to us, which then informs our actions moving forward. That’s the power of story.
PAM: Right. Especially in more challenging situations, it’s so valuable to take a moment to not just jump in with the first story that comes to mind, which is usually fear-based. And it’s usually the worst one, the worst interpretation of things. And if we just stick with that one, we can get tunnel vision and start spiraling downward in our fears. We can get really stuck there if we only see this one worst interpretation of the situation in front.
So, instead, take that moment to come up with a few more stories that align with the situation. If we don’t take the time to consider other stories, we’re not really making a meaningful choice moving forward, are we? You can’t choose between one thing. And choosing more positive stories, ones that feel better to us, isn’t about avoiding the truth, because the different stories all incorporate the facts. But for me, choosing the more positive story is really a form of self-care.
Instead of telling myself over and over the versions that make me feel bad, that weigh me down, that pull me into that tunnel vision, I can tell myself the versions of the story that both make sense and feel better. Because from there, I’m in a more open and curious and receptive mindset, a place where I can now see more opportunities. I can be more creative in choosing my next step and my next moment is truly better. And I find myself then starting to spiral upwards, moving through it, rather than spiraling down and crashing and just feeling crushed.
ANNA: And getting stuck! So, my oldest daughter and I talked about this so many times over the years, because she is a master storyteller. And, I mean, it’s a gift. It is a gift that she has and it is amazing. But sometimes, it gets the better of her, because sometimes she can spin this really intricate story about someone else or about a situation, and it ends up making her feel terrible. But in the end, it’s just a story. We’re making it up in our heads.
And I think once I realized that, I decided, if I’m going to make up a story, I’m going to make up a story that feels good, one that helps me feel connected, that helps me move forward as the person I want to be, which is exactly what you’re talking about.
So, I want to examine if my story spirals me into a place of being stuck, or if my story is lifting me. I may not understand all the pieces, but I can feel okay about the situation if I look at it this way, and that helps me move forward as the person I want to be. And like we’ve talked about before, there are situations sometimes where I can get some clarifying information so that I can get a more accurate picture, because maybe there’s someone else involved and I can stop putting words in their mouth and actually figure it out.
But other times, like you said, it really isn’t even possible. When it’s not possible, I just always want to choose the story that feels better, because it’s just as likely to be true as the one that doesn’t. And so, I’m just wasting the time in this moment feeling bad about something when I really don’t even know the full story. And so, that’s why I love that you tied it into self-care, because that’s exactly what it is. It really is just this intentional choice to look at what’s in front of me and find a story that feels good.
And again, it’s not about pushing the other things aside. It’s not about pretending that things didn’t happen or changing the story. It’s just intentionally using language that makes me feel good about what’s happening around me. So, for me, if it’s a particularly challenging or difficult situation, it’s not about pretending that the difficult situation didn’t happen, but I look for, how have I moved through it? Look at the amazing support I’ve received from the people around me. Look at how loved I am because they’ve helped me through this situation. Look at what I’ve learned about myself from it.
Whatever the situation, I can always find a way to frame it to use what can be a challenging situation to make myself feel better and to move forward from there. And so, that’s also an empowerment piece, knowing that I can turn these situations that can completely derail me into situations that just boost me forward and allow me to be around the people that I love and to connect with the people that lift me up.
PAM: Yes. And another layer that I think would be helpful for people to peel back, and I am still peeling this layer back, but, why is our tendency to take on that weight? Why does it feel like the more positive spin or the silver lining is it cheat? It really is not. And we can do that work to peel back those layers and to realize that these are all stories, they are all versions of the truth. They could absolutely all be true.
ANNA: And I think this part is related to the stories handed to us by society. Things like, life is suffering. Only hard work pays off. Relationships are hard. And so, when you find this cheat, you’re like, “Wait a minute. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard. Maybe I can be enjoying it,” but then you might try to stop yourself. Like, “What? But we’ve been told that forever!”
But no, set that aside, because we don’t have to make situations more difficult. There’s going to be plenty of things in life to work through, but when you can find joy, when you can switch that focus, see the light, find the gifts in the situation, life is just so much more enjoyable. But we do have to shed some of those stories from society, some of those stories from even other people in our lives, in order to create what feels good for us.
PAM: Yeah, I love that. I mean, “Life is hard.” Don’t we hear that all the time? But then, if we tell a different story, the reaction can often be like, “Well, you’re a Pollyanna. You’re not seeing the truth.” Another story. Right? It is just so useful to work through all of that.
Now, you and I have both heard, “You guys are always so positive,” and people think it’s weird at first, which is okay, because it’s part of the process of peeling back those layers and understanding that our stories are ours to tell and there’s more than one way to tell the story. We don’t always have to take the negative, life-is-hard bent on it.
ANNA: Right. And the reason I’m telling the story is for me. It’s not to put on a show or make anything look different for somebody else from the outside. It’s because it helps me be the person I want to be.
It helps me in my relationships. I remember one time somebody said to me, “I get it now. I get that you’re not just a Pollyanna about life. It’s that it helps you have these relationships. It helps you move through these situations.” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s absolutely it.” I’m not thinking about anybody else’s reaction to me choosing joy or finding light in a moment, because that’s my internal work.
Now, I’m understanding that it can come across that way as people are listening to it, but I’m like, “Oh, no, no, no. This is just a tool.” It’s a tool that helps me connect with people. It helps me move through my days in a way that feels better to me. And it’s just a choice. And I think if somebody wants to play around with it, they can see how it feels for them, too.
PAM: Exactly. Exactly. And I find it helps me be more creative. It helps me come up with more possibilities. And that’s the thing. You can try it out for a while and you see how it goes. And I do suspect you’ll start to see things that wouldn’t have happened in the other mindset.
ANNA: Yeah, it’s really true. And I do think it’s so interesting and we definitely get feedback about that.
I mean, I definitely get that. “You’re always looking on the bright side!” And I’m like, I feel all the things, but it’s just, again, those stories we create, it impacts how we move forward. It impacts how we see all the things around us.
So, let’s talk about some questions you might want to ponder for this week as you explore the idea of stories. First, what story are you holding onto about yourself, your partner, and your family? And that’s a lot. So, that one may take a few minutes, because we have stories that have been handed us from childhood and on. So, there’s a lot of stories there.
Where are the stories coming from, from your parents during childhood, from outside voices of society, somewhere else? Identifying where, I think, is so key to realizing and taking your power back there, to realize, I don’t need to own their story. That story’s not about me at all.
And so, do you see the story in your self-talk and how else might you tell that story? Self-talk again, it’s kind of this bugaboo that we’re unsure about. How do we change it? But I think the first step, don’t you think, is just identifying it, just recognizing it as a story.
PAM: Yes. Recognizing it as a story and, like in the previous question, where did that story come from? Is it really my story or is it something that I’ve absorbed over the years? It’s someone else’s view that I’ve adopted because they can really feel like that’s our story, That’s our self-talk, because we should be more productive, we should be efficient. “I should be able to do this quickly,” or, “I shouldn’t be so sensitive.” There are just so many stories that we’ve absorbed over time that are really somebody else’s view. And to check in and start asking ourselves and see, well, does that make sense to me? Do I feel sensitive all the time? What’s wrong with being sensitive? There are just so many questions and layers do with that.
ANNA: And you know I love, who would I be without that story? So, feel that. Who would I be without telling that story about I’m so sensitive or I can’t get anything done whatever the thing is that people have handed to us. So, yeah, so interesting.
And finally, how does it feel to realize that you get to craft your own story? And so, I think it, I think that may take a minute, because it’s just realizing, Okay, do I get to write it? Because I think, again, some people think it’s a cheat. But it’s like, no, you really do. You really get to pick the things that you like and craft that as your own personal story, even when there’s tragedy, even when there are bad things that have happened. There are things to look at that we can just say, yeah, but this is who I want to be and this is how I went through those tough times, and this is what was surrounding me during that. And so, that we can hold onto that part of the story as well.
PAM: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the big things that I want to share with people is that these are true moments. This isn’t stuff that we’re making up. We’re not saying, ignore all this hard stuff that’s going on around you.
It’s, as you said, a tool that can be helpful in moving through those seasons, moving through those emergency moments, all those pieces. For me, it is so incredibly helpful for me to move out of that fight or flight tunnel, which can be super helpful in the moment. But we get stuck there so easily. This is a tool that really helps me move through that. I just find it’s become such a useful tool, because I know I’m more creative on the other side. I move through things with more grace and just more compassion and kindness for other people that are involved when I can help myself with this tool move beyond that tunnel vision and the that whole fight flight emergency response when things go wrong. That’s helped me.
ANNA: It will be fun to see what people bring up about stories. So, thank you so much for listening and we hope to see you next time. So, take care. Bye-bye.
PAM: Bye, everyone.