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Telling stories is what makes us human. As Isak Dinesen wrote, “To be a person is to have a story to tell”. (Interestingly, Isak Dinesen is the pen name of Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke; you can see why she used a pen name.)

And the stories we tell shape our world. They have the ability to educate, motivate and inspire us. It’s our way of making sense of the world.

We tell stories about ourselves too. Whether we consciously realise we’re doing it or not. Perhaps the stories we tell ourselves are we’re good at sports or get along with others easily. Maybe we tell ourselves we’re a messy person or that we’re night owls. 

Whatever it is, we’ve all got a story we’re telling about ourselves, to ourselves and to others, everyday. 

We’ve all got a story we’re telling about ourselves, to ourselves and to others, everyday. 

Labelling theory

The thing with these labels or stories that we tell ourselves (and allow others to tell about us) is that they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that can be either a good or a bad thing depending on what we are saying.

At university I remember studying Labelling theory, which had its origins in Suicide, a classic text by Emile Durkheim, the well-known French sociologist.  In a nutshell, the theory goes that although we have a subjective view of ourselves, we also build up a picture of ourselves through our interactions with others in society and that may cause us to reevaluate what we think of ourselves. 

Frank Tannenbaum developed this further and introduced the idea of “tagging”. He found that a negative tag or label would cause the individual to adopt that label as part of their identity. He went on to argue that the more attention is placed on this label, the more likely the person is to identify themselves as that label. 

Although labelling theory concerns itself predominantly with deviant roles in society (eg criminals), it has relevance to us all. It is this key idea that the labels we give ourselves – and the labels others give us – can become part of who we are.

the stories we tell

The stories we tell ourselves matter

Of course this would be a good thing if we were all walking around complimenting each other and thinking wonderful things about ourselves. But the reality is that we don’t do that. We can be quite judgemental of others and negative towards ourselves. 

The point is, the stories we tell ourselves matter. And the stories we allow others to tell us about ourselves matter as well.

All too often, we totally miss this. We adopt these stories as the truth. Or, we get so used to the same stories over and over again, we forget that we can write new ones.

There are many labels or stories we tell ourselves, some common ones include:

  • I’m a messy person
  • I’ll always be overweight, it’s the way I’m built
  • I can’t stop smoking, I’ve tried
  • I’m a bad sleeper, I always have been
  • I’m not smart/clever/funny, I’m not wired that way
  • I’m unloveable
  • I’m not good in social situations, it’s just not my thing
  • I’ve always been unstable, my whole family is the same

I have a friend who describes herself as emotional. She has BIG feelings. When she’s sad or angry, you know about it and when she’s happy, she lights up the entire room. She’s always been like that, even as a child and teenager, her temper was legendary in her family. They would even call her “the volcano”. In her 20s and 30s she had countless relationships fail because of her mood swings.

Anyway, long story short but she’s not like that any more. She decided one day that she didn’t want to be that person anymore and she made some changes. She asked her family to stop calling her “the volcano”. She started meditating and counting to 20 before reacting. Over time, she has become far more even tempered and that is now who she is.

In this and the other examples above, it’s not you that can’t achieve the change, it’s the label or story that you’ve given yourself (or allowed others to give to you) that is keeping you from achieving that goal.

And you can change that story or label any time you want.

These old stories don’t have to define you.

It’s not you that can’t achieve the change, it’s the label or story that you’ve given yourself (or allowed others to give to you) that is keeping you from achieving that goal.

So how do we write a new chapter of the story?

First of all, by becoming aware of your stories or labels. What have you told yourself? What change would you like to see?

Recognise when you are slipping into that role and notice the thoughts going through your mind. Replace them with positive ones, or the change you want to accomplish.

Most importantly, you have to change what you are actually doing.

Remember my friend with the temper? She knew that positive thinking wasn’t enough to calm her temper. She implemented some techniques to help her from erupting with emotion; she started a daily meditation practice and forced herself to count to 20 before reacting.

It doesn’t happen overnight of course. Writing a new story for yourself takes time and patience. There will undoubtably be setbacks, as there always is in anything worth pursuing. The key is not to give up but to get back into it again when you are able to.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. What story will you tell yourself?

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