Once upon a time… in your mind

The only thing we know for sure about the stories we tell is that they’re not true. Not completely, anyway. Our make-believe can range from getting the details surrounding an emotional event wrong to being unshakably sure of the stories we tell about ourselves that often turn out to be mind-made.

Maria Konnikova’s piece in the New Yorker, You Have No Idea What Happened opens with research Emory University psychology professor Ulric Neisser conducted after the 1986 Challenger explosion. He asked students the day after the disaster to write down where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing when they learned of the tragedy. Two and a half years later, he asked them again and found that the students’ recollections were only a little over 40% accurate overall, with a quarter of them scoring zero. Their confidence in their recollections was a whopping 4.17 on a scale of 5. “Their memories were clear, vivid, and wrong.” Building on this research, Harvard professor Elizabeth Phelps, a lead collaborator in a study of memories from 9/11 has found for memories of emotional events, “When it comes to the details of the central event, like that the Challenger exploded, they are clearer and more accurate. But when it comes to the peripheral details, they are worse, and our confidence in them, while almost always strong, is often misplaced.”

Moving from large emotional events to the stories that form our core identity — narratives that were shaped from what our parents and teachers told us about ourselves, and from our own self-invented versions of the truth — they are oft repeated, mostly unquestioned, and heavily defended. No matter the origin, they simply ain’t so. At least not completely.

Whether it’s the dysfunctional beliefs that are in our way from Designing Your Life or the constant work of reframing our stories in coaching or therapy, what’s known is “The stories we tell ourselves, particularly the ones we’re not aware of can profoundly shape who we are, and the decisions we make,” says Psychologist B Grace Bullock in How to Stop Your Stories from Running Your Life. And confirmation bias — our compulsion to selectively seek evidence from our experiences to confirm our beliefs, (see, I told you it was true!) further cements our not-so-true stories.

Bullock tells her own tale of branding herself “bad at math” in her childhood. Her brother was anointed the “family math genius,” which “by default, made [her] the non-genius.” Her story stuck and kept her from believing she could succeed in a science career. A great math teacher and her own passion to study psychology revealed she was actually pretty good at math. She created a new version of her story, yet she’s found that stress and fear can bring the folktale back. “It can almost feel as though they’re etched in stone.” Ah, but she says, “you are not your stories.”

Fractured Fairy Tales

So how do we bust up the fairy tales that get in the way for us? Bullock offers a simple exercise my clients have found super useful:

She suggests you take pen to paper (or fingertips to the keyboard) and tell your “personal identity story.” Write down your “I ams” — I’m responsible. I’m creative. I’m a good listener. I get sh*t done. I fail at public speaking. I’m not a good cook. I can’t draw. I suck at writing. Describe experiences, family “truths,” or other influencers that paint your personal portrait. They might be attitudes about money, beliefs about work, marriage, success, or a whole bunch of “supposed tos.” After writing them down, reflect on them: Was this story or belief shaped by you, or did it come from someone else? Is it true? Is it helping or in the way? Are you gonna stick with this story, or is it time for an update — a new 10th or 25th anniversary edition?

“Research shows that we not only have the capacity to pay attention to and stop the chatter of our stories, but we can also reduce our stress, rewire our brains and reinvent our relationships by responding to them differently.”

Go re-write your happily ever after.


If you got the reference to Fractured Fairy Tales and you were born after the early 1960s, I’m impressed. Rocky, Bulwinkle, and friends were part of my steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons. A real snapshot of the times, if you care to take in a few on YouTube.

Sunday Morning Reflection

Get that pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and write out your stories. Reflect. Revise. What’s not true? What’s holding you back?
Write your new story.

Sunday Morning: 120