The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I had a very interesting conversation this week with a friend. He said there’s a difference between feeling an emotion and attaching a story for it. For instance, I may be sad about losing a relationship, which is a natural emotion, but what makes it worse is the story I tell myself on top of it such as, “I’ll be alone for the rest of my life, no one will ever love me the same way,” etc. What can compound an emotional state is the added storyline we give it.


I like storytelling, but not when I use it to manufacture misery.

I bring this up because I have trouble letting emotions go through me. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life doing what I could to not feel, to avoid feeling my feelings at all costs, to keep them at bay because I was afraid of feeling the feeling. In my mind, it was better to not feel angry, sad, lonely, etc. in the first place. So now that I’m sober (i.e. actually feeling my feelings and not trying to numb out), I still have a hard time letting my emotions pass through me, precisely because I can drag them out by adding a story to them. The emotion turns into a big dramatic thing, I make it so much worse on myself by piling on untruths such as, “I’ll feel this way forever,” or “Things will never change.” There’s a lot of “always” and “never” in my stories. And a whole lot of catastrophizing where I jump from, “My neighbor is playing loud music,” to, “Oh my God, I need to move somewhere else!”

I’ll admit much of this has to do with the fact I’m an anxious and melodramatic person. For those of you who aren’t, you probably can’t relate to much of what I’m writing about. However, for those of you who can, I want to point out how these stories and the catastrophizing makes the emotion so much worse than it has to be. If I allowed myself to feel my moments of grief, or sadness, or loneliness, they wouldn’t last NEARLY as long if I didn’t throw extra fuel onto the fire.

I’m not sure what to do about all this other than to make myself aware of it. My dear friend who’s a therapist tells me often awareness by itself can make a huge difference. Maybe by understanding I tell myself a lot of false “truths” I can catch myself in the act and remind myself they’re not the case. Just because I’m scared about not receiving my passport on time to leave for Europe, doesn’t automatically mean my boss will get pissed and fire me and never send me to Europe again. Instead, it’s better for me to stay present with what is and acknowledge, yes, I’m anxious about my passport arriving in the mail, but that’s all I get to be anxious about, because nothing else has happened.

A lot of what I’m talking about – stories, emotions – has to do with being present, with paying attention to what’s in front of me and not future tripping or spinning out to what could be. There are a million things that “could be,” and when I start attaching emotion to all those possibilities, that’s when I really get into trouble.

I dream of a world where we feel, process, and let go of what’s before us. A world where we stick with whatever emotion we’re feeling and not compound it by telling ourselves falsehoods. A world where we act like straws, allowing emotions to come in and emotions to go out, understanding the process to be fast or slow depending on how much extra stuff we throw in. A world where we cut down on the stories we tell ourselves.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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