We are all storytellers


Last updated 5/4/2023 at 12:29pm

We may not think of ourselves as storytellers, but each of us has crafted a unique story that reminds us of who we are, our place in the world, and what we can expect from others.

To be human is to be both playwright, director, and lead actor in our own story. We perform a play of our own making, which gives shape to our life and colors our perceptions. But those stories that are constraining can, with a good rewrite, become liberating.

We use the structure of our stories to give meaning to the actions and words of others. When we retell our story, we can seize the opportunity to release people from the roles we’ve assigned to them, moving us closer to authenticity in our relationships.

First stories

According to the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the origin of our fear is the helplessness we experienced as an infant and as a child when we recognized how ill-equipped we were to survive alone in the world — that we needed our caregivers to keep us safe, meet our basic needs, soothe our distress, and ensure that we felt loved and admired for who we were.

When caregivers did their job well, the stories of our childhood reflected growing independence, a sense of mastery, an ability to soothe our own distress, confidence in our relationship skills, and healthy self-esteem.

When our caregivers failed at some of these tasks, or were inconsistent in their performance, our stories may have echoed the belief that we were unable to take care of ourselves, but at the same time, we could not always depend upon others.

One story based upon inadequate or inconsistent caregiving might be, “I cannot say how I really feel because I may drive away the people I need to protect me and keep me safe.”

Another story might proclaim, “I should avoid getting close to others because everyone I depend upon will eventually let me down.”

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that, to transform our childhood fears, we must hold an inner dialogue, giving our adult self an opportunity to reassure our younger self that it has acquired the necessary skills to take care of us. This conversation may facilitate a new story that conveys a belief in one’s autonomy and opens the door to relationships based upon interdependence rather than clinging or avoidance.

Group membership is important to children and teens, as it enables them to live part of their lives outside of their caregivers’ orbit, increasing their independence and preparing them for life away from their family. Children whose peers excluded or bullied them may craft stories that continue to reverberate into their adult lives, making it difficult for them to interact comfortably within groups.

When we were children we may have misunderstood some of our experiences, drawing false and often negative conclusions. Since the stories we tell ourselves as adults are often iterations of our childhood stories, “faulty” life lessons present an impediment to living our best life.

Now we have a chance to revisit our stories, asking ourselves,

• Are our stories helpful?

• Do our stories contribute to our happiness and joy or add to our suffering?

• Do our stories unleash our potential by maximizing our strengths?

• Do our stories provide us with the confidence to take risks, continue to grow as a person, and to handle setbacks and failure?

• Do our stories foster positive expectations of relationships?

Are our stories confining or liberating?

To tell new stories we must be willing to sacrifice our old stories. But since our stories are aligned with our ego-identity, even contemplating a rewrite of our personal account may evoke anxiety.

Altering our story may feel as though we are taking a leap into the unknown, leaving behind everything that grounds us, everything familiar. Who will we be in this new version of ourselves? What can we expect from others? Where will we fit into our world?

The only way to find out is to take the leap.

How to recognize your stories

You are listening for the color commentary your mind provides in response to different situations. Write your color commentary down, identifying the context when each thought occurs. You will begin to see how your stories shape your perceptions of and reactions to events. Now ask yourself, which stories enable you to live your best life and which stories hold you back?

It’s time to begin writing the story you want to live!


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