Don't like the story? Tell yourself a different one

“If the story you’re telling doesn’t serve you, tell a different story.”

I typed that while taking my morning walk and listening to my current favorite podcast, “Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris.”

I wanted to remember the quote to share it with someone, which I did. And I thought I might want to listen to the episode again.

If only I had written down which episode I was listening to at the time! I can never remember where I’ve heard things.

There I go. Telling a story about myself — and one that clearly doesn’t serve me.

I’ve been telling stories like this most of my life, and I know I’m not alone.

The stories start when we’re young.

We believe there’s something wrong with us if we’re not in the popular group at school.

We take a single incident — like not making the team or getting the lead in the school play — and create a narrative that we don’t have any talent.

We look at a report card after a tough semester and decide our chances to get into a good college are doomed.

The stories continue as we get older.

We might portray ourselves as someone who won’t be able to have a successful career or find the right mate with whom to spend our lives. Other narratives might cover our failure to get enough exercise or drink a responsible amount.

Typically these are stories we tell ourselves, but sometimes the narrator is a family member or friend.

My mother told me once that if I didn’t start to like one of the guys I went on a date with, I was going to end up an old maid. I was 22 at the time.

Fortunately, it all worked out. I’ve been married almost 28 years to my college sweetheart. We were taking an “intermission” at the time my mom was panicking about my future as a spinster.

Another favorite is a comment from a former editor who told me I was not good at feature writing. Fortunately, others have disagreed.

Sometimes the stories other people tell us are motivated by good intentions. Perhaps my editor was trying to let me know my strengths were in news writing and encourage me to work harder to excel at feature writing. The change in messaging is subtle but significant.

The good news is we can do that reframing with just about any story we’ve told ourselves or have been told. We can revise it to more accurately reflect reality — and to better serve us.

I can’t help think of the mantra of Stuart Smalley, the Saturday Night Live character created by Al Franken: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” Hilarious, to be sure (especially when he has guest Michael Jordan repeat those words in a 1991 episode). But also rather profound.

The messages we send ourselves to a great degree shape our reality. The tapes we play in our brain each day can either prepare us to face adversity and conquer the world or to surrender at the first sign of difficulty.

Of course it takes effort and practice to change the narratives by which we have defined our lives. First we need to press pause on those stories that are detrimental to us. Then we need to craft new ones that more accurately reflect the truth.

It takes time to make this change. But, boy, is it worth the investment.

Now I’m off to locate that podcast. I’m certainly lucky to have time to listen to so many episodes!

— Pamela Lannom is editor

of The Hinsdalean.

Readers can email her at

[email protected].

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean