A Story About Stories

Stories are powerful. At their most basic, stories are simply ideas or collections of ideas, and they can be as big as an epic novel or as small as a single thought, like “life is hard” or “I am fat.” There are stories we take in through books, movies, TV, advertising, other people, and our own experiences. There are also stories we tell ourselves in the form of self-talk, beliefs, values, assumptions, biases, superstitions, fears, and expectations. Finally, there are stories we tell others through our own words and actions.

All three types of stories are important, because they shape the very world we live in. The stories we take in and tell ourselves shape how we see ourselves, other people, life, relationships, and the world around us (i.e. our perceptions). Meanwhile, the stories we tell others can have a profound effect on their perceptions. If we accept the idea that perceptions shape reality (see Believing is Seeing), then there is a lot of power in the stories that we encounter, and we would be wise to take them seriously by choosing our stories carefully and taking responsibility for their effects.

It is rare that a single story has the power to radically reshape our perceptions, especially once we reach adulthood. We are exposed to thousands of stories every day, and most of them have only slight impacts on us. It stands to reason that a lifetime of experiences don’t go out the window just because of one little story. However, with repetition and/or intensity, stories really do start to have an effect. [Other relevant factors include the age and receptivity of the audience; as well as the relevance of the story.]

For example, a single deodorant commercial may seem insignificant, but if you see enough commercials over a long enough time, you may actually start to worry that you smell bad. Advertising really works, and it works because of the power of stories and repetition.

Intensity can also increase the power of a story, even with only a single exposure. If you see enough news stories about car accidents, the repetition may eventually lead you to see cars as dangerous, but if you are actually involved in a bad car accident, that one exposure might be enough to dramatically change your perceptions.

Of course, stories have varying degrees of intensity. Watching a single scary movie can keep you up at night, even if you are never in real danger, and watching a lot of scary movies (or reading a lot of scary books) can trigger fears that last a lifetime. Eventually, whether through repetition or intensity or a combination of the two, stories can get under our skin and take root in our psyches, where we repeat them to ourselves over and over.

Now, let’s not forget the positive side of all this. Having the power to shape the world through stories is an amazing gift. If you like the way a story makes you think and feel, you can make those ideas more real for you by exposing yourself to other stories with the same ideas. You can also repeat those stories to yourself, as well as share them with others. We are all doing this all the time anyway, so we might as well learn to be more intentional about it. Being intentional also allows us to be more responsible for the effects our stories have on others.

Most of us are unaware of the true power that stories hold. We let them flow over us and through us, shaping our perceptions and defining our reality. Ideally, perhaps this would be fine, but with so many stories coming from questionable or manipulative sources (corporations, consumer culture, etc.), it seems dangerous to not have any filters in place, like antivirus software on a computer. If we aren’t careful in such an environment, we may inadvertently promote suffering by allowing harmful stories to become part of our internal dialogue and by sharing harmful stories with others.

Personally, I believe that we each have a responsibility, both to ourselves and others, to be aware of (1) the power of stories and (2) our own power to choose those stories, both the ones we let in and the ones we put out. This awareness allows us to harness the power of stories and create better lives for ourselves and a better world for all of us (see Stepping Through Illusions).

I don’t always remember, but I try to ask myself, “What am I really seeing and hearing? What is the story here? How are my internal stories affecting my perceptions? And what stories am I telling others through my words and actions?” This story about stories is one of my stories. I repeat it to myself often, and I share it with clients and friends, in the hope that it will reduce suffering.