The Terrible Stories We Tell Ourselves

Many of us  have a story we tell ourselves and it’s usually not a good one. From what I can tell, the first sign that we’re telling ourselves a terrible story is that it includes words like “never” or “always.” The second sign is that it always ends up making us feel bad. And yet most of us seem to have no idea we’re even telling ourselves stories; we just consider them our thoughts and buy into the fact that we’re unlovable or never going to find a partner  or always going to be broke or whatever our version of the terrible story  is. I don’t know when I first became aware of the fact that I couldn’t trust my own thoughts about myself but I do remember when I decided the noise had gotten too loud for me to take: I was about 10 years sober and living in New York. At the moment, I  was in my not-that-great apartment thinking  about my at the time not-that-great life when I realized that  I was always telling  myself that everyone else was  going to get what they wanted in life but I was not. I have no idea where the story originated—whether it had been passed down to me generationally or was a result of some childhood experience—but it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is that’s a pretty comprehensive terrible story because it can encapsulate many  fears in one fell swoop  (abandonment, being unlovable, being alone—all the biggies). And so I decided to write down every time I had a thought that reinforced that story so that I could separate myself from these nasty, self-defeating thoughts. I wrote a bunch down. Then I went to Staples and bought printer ink. I’m not sure how I remember the Staples-printer ink part but I do and I did. While walking, I had a few more of those thoughts and so I wrote those down in the notebook I keep in my purse (not to sound 106 years old but I am never going to transition to “writing” everything down in the Notes app on my phone). I remember walking home and feeling pretty good and not because, like some other days, I knew I was stopping at 16 Handles for some way-too-good-to-be-healthy frozen yogurt. I felt lighter. And for a while afterwards, I kept writing down those thoughts/stories.

Alas, I didn’t have the experience that some of our self-help leaders either have or say they have—that is, I didn’t have the epiphany and then never again have to struggle with the same thing again. Oh, no. It pops up—sometimes for days at a time, while sometimes it doesn’t surface for years—but it’s a story  I’ve told it a long time and I tell it well  and so just becoming aware of the fact that I’m doing it doesn’t always  stop me. The groove is well-worn in my brain. But I’m changing it—slowly. I believe in neural pathways changing, not only because smart people say they do but also because I’ve experienced it myself.

So what’s the story you tell yourself? You don’t have to tell me (though you can). I say figure it out and then start writing down the moments you’re telling it until you have those lies on paper (or fine, in your NOTES app in your phone) and can see them for what you are. You’ve made it very far in life and let me assure you that you aren’t unlovable, destined to be alone forever or always going to be broke. Unless you continue to believe you are. I heard someone say in a meeting this week that he learned, after years of misery,  to make  “Everything is going to work out far better than I even expected” his mantra.  When he started doing that, he said, it became true. Not overnight. Not always. Nothing is. But more than before he did. So why not try that too and see what happens?

(The photo btw is from a photo shoot I did for a magazine that went under before my issue came out. There was a producer on the shoot and I’d never heard of a producer for a photo shoot so I semi felt like she was just a random woman who’d wandered in to bark weird things at me.  She kept saying things like, “Show me Anna at 8 years old, thinking about her birthday”—as in super  crazy things to be thinking about when you’re posing in lingerie in a bathtub. I thought she was insane. And they were my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. I don’t know what the moral of that story  is.)

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