We humans are amazing storytellers, so much so that it's actually what sets us apart from other species. We tell stories around the campfire, stories that form entire religions, stories about society and its cultural mores and expectations, stories that create entire worlds that line up in endless rows of books in a library–and especially, we tell stories to ourselves about who we are, who other people are, and why things happen the way they do. Without stories, life as a human would be significantly stripped of its significance.
Growing up, my dad often told my brother and I make-believe stories that my young, imaginative mind absorbed as truth. He once told us about an old woman who had previously lived in a house that we'd recently moved into. One night, while folding her son's underwear, she died unexpectedly in the laundry room, a creepy room located in the basement against a crawlspace that gave us the heebie-jeebies. He later reassured us that the story wasn’t true, and we’d joke about it as a family when I’d dart to the laundry room to grab my clothes and laugh that it still made me feel afraid. But it was true: the story had an affect on me. Though I knew it wasn’t real, it still influenced my perception of our laundry room and the way I felt emotionally when near it.
On another day around the same age and in the same house, I lost a front tooth and eagerly looked under my pillow the next morning to discover that rather than leaving behind a couple crumpled dollar bills, the tooth fairy replaced the tooth under my pillow with a bag of powder and a note. The bag, explained the note, was some sort of magical substance that would keep me safe. “Sprinkle this on your bed” it said. “It’ll keep you safe whenever you’re afraid.” I believed that a fairy existed somewhere who was looking out for me and had given me something to protect me. I covered my bed with the powder and from that day on I was convinced of my safety within the vicinity of my bed, even years after I discovered the tooth fairy wasn’t real and that the note was in fact written by my dad.
To some extent, these type of stories shaped my perception and impacted how I experienced my environment as a young girl, even after learning they weren't true. It my initial belief in it as truth that gave it its power. For a long time after I realized the tooth fairy didn't actually exist, I still found comfort in my bed when I felt afraid because I continued to tell myself the story of the magic powder. It was a story that made me feel good and safe.
We gather stories from parents and teachers, societal messaging, and personal experience. Though many stories are harmless and fun, others come with great power and get lodged into our subconscious minds. Overtime, stories become wired into us and form the programming from which we act out our lives, impacting things like day-to-day decisions, career choice, how we portray ourselves, how we act out in romantic relationships, and how we behave in various situations.
It doesn’t matter so much whether the stories we tell are make-believe or laced with threads of truth, what matters is whether we believe in them as truth. Simply having faith in an idea gives it the power to shape perception, and perception creates the lens through which we understand everything. Stories are the bones that form the skeletons of our lives. Everything–especially the way we feel and behave–is influenced by the narrative that’s running in the background. Stories guide our choices, and our choices shape our reality moment-by-moment. We are consistently creating our lives by materializing the fictitious scripts that play out in our minds.
There’s an activity I was once taught that demonstrates the power of the mind. First you tie a string around a lifesaver (or a ring, a washer, or a paperclip) and hold the string between two fingers while dangling the lifesaver in front of your eyes. While keeping your hand still, you simply imagine the lifesaver moving sideways, forwards, backwards, and stopping. If the exercise works on you like it did with me and many others, the lifesaver will follow the direction of your thoughts in small but noticeable movements even though you aren't consciously moving your fingers.
How could that be possible? Although you aren't aware of the imperceptible movements in your fingertips, the repetitive thoughts in your brain send signals to your nerves which then move the lifesaver.
Actions follow the guidance of the mind.
It’s not magic. It’s not an indescribable force acting on you externally. It’s simple, really: everything in life contains energy, and that energy acts upon everything around it. Energy can’t be created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred from one form to another. Our thoughts aren’t excluded from this law. They, too, impact our environment although it’s not a single, isolated thought that holds the power. Rather, thoughts often follow the same patterns, which build on each other like droplets of water and overtime generate a powerful energy that influences how we live out our lives.
Interestingly enough, our ability to tell stories is actually a defining characteristic of our species. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari argues that the reason humans “rule the world” is because we can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers, and that this cooperation is made possible because of our unique language and ability to use it to create myths.
In other words, one of our greatest sources of power is our ability to imagine and tell stories. Myth-making and cooperation at a large scale helps us build institutions like religions, governments, and schools.
Powerful outcomes are produced when a group of people come together around a shared story, and the same is true in our personal lives. Our perception of ourselves and the world we navigate is altered by the stories we tell ourselves. We’re constantly in our own process of telling ourselves certain narratives that impact our emotions, perceptions, and actions. For the most part, life’s situations come to us in black and white outlines like the pages of a coloring book, and we use our thoughts to color them in.
Here’s where it gets tricky, though, and where thought formation becomes a long-term practice and not an overnight shift. The most powerful beliefs that shape our lives typically exist in the subconscious part of the brain where they aren’t so obvious nor easy to rewire. They’re engrained deep down in the trenches of our psyche.
Decades of research behind fields like cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative psychology are built on this premise as well. These forms of therapy believe that an individual's perception of a situation is more closely connected to their reaction than the situation itself. These approaches provide tools to help people identity thought and behavioral patterns that might be causing problematic reactions. The ability to overcome some of our greatest challenges often comes down to rewriting the stories we have about particular experiences and circumstances.
Shining a light of awareness onto the stories that guide your life is a choice that leads to freedom. It gives you, the storyteller, greater control over the stories you choose to write. The process of rewiring neural pathways in your brain isn’t so different from forming a new path in the woods, which develops after it has been walked over and over again. Overtime, as the result of deliberate effort, what was once covered with grass and twigs becomes a clear, unobstructed path that is easy to travel.
Coincidentally, I started experiencing the power of this lesson right around the time I started writing this essay. I began its unfinished rough draft nearly five months ago and then took a break from writing for most of the summer. Around the same time, I had plans to invest more of my energy into writing and sharing mindfulness practices with others.
But in the last several months I’ve caught myself moving through deep trenches of thought patterns that make me question myself and my ability to follow through with projects. I struggle with feelings of self-doubt (some days more than others) to the point that it’s a major roadblock for me at this point in my life.
Self-reflection and conversations in therapy have shown me that it all comes down to the story, mostly subconscious, that I’m telling myself and have told myself for years. I’m not necessarily consciously aware of the story, but I know it’s playing in the background because of my tendency to self-sabotage, procrastinate, and abandon the things that mean the most to me.
Even as I write this, I’m in the midst of actively deconstructing my own limiting beliefs and rewriting new stories so that I can experience a different reality for myself. It’s an on-going practice, but it’s teaching me in real-time about the tremendous amount of control we each have over our lives by becoming aware of our patterns.
How do you want to feel? What kind of life can you imagine for yourself? How do you want to perceive the world around you? Your answers to these questions aren’t dependent on the hand that life deals you but rather the stories you're telling yourself, which is precisely where your power lies. You must intentionally choose, over and over again, what stories you wish to give power to; which paths you hope to form in your mind’s forest to lead you to a different destination.