“I’m not telling you a story,” Claire said, “it’s the truth.”

I often hear this from clients when I point out that they’re telling a story. Some are confused, and some are irritated.

And some, like Claire, are disbelieving.

Until they see that everything is a story.

“I don’t tell stories,” you might say. And it’s true that you probably don’t tell the kind that begins with Once Upon Time, but everything you say is a story.

The stories that you tell to make sense of the world. The stories about who you are and what you believe. The stories about how good or how hard your life is. The stories about how lucky you are or not.

But who’s writing the story of who you are?

Your Story About the Past
Years ago, I studied NLP, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and the thing that drew me towards this training was when I heard Richard Bandler, Co-Developer, say that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

I know that some people have difficult or traumatic childhoods, and I’m sorry if this is you, but you don’t have to cling to the story of your past or allow this story to define you.

And however real your memories of the past appear, they aren’t true, it’s a story influenced by your present.

In his book Time and Psychological Explanation, author Brent D Slife says

“We reinterpret or reconstruct our memory in light of what our mental set is in the present. In this sense, it is more accurate to say the present causes the meaning of the past, than it is to say that the past causes the meaning of the present. . . . Our memories are not “stored” and “objective” entities but living parts of ourselves in the present. This is the reason our present moods and future goals so affect our memories.”

Clients tell me how their weight issues or anxiety are down to the way a parent treated them or the things a teacher told them. Even ten, twenty or more years ago. Innocently, they’re holding on to a story someone else has written about them.

You can only ever feel thought in the moment. You’re experiencing the thought you’re having in this second; you’re experiencing a thought about the past and not experiencing the past.

And you are allowed to write a different story of the past.

Your Story About the Future
Everyone creates a story about the future without recognising that it has to be a story because the future is unknown.

And it’s often a scary story.

But is your story happening right now? If you’re freaking out that you can’t pay your bills, what is happening this second? Nothing. Except for the story you’re telling yourself inside your head about how you’ll be homeless and live under a bridge.

You imagine dire consequences and then feel the panic accompanying the thoughts and images in your head.
Can you see this is a story? And is it a story you’re writing, or are you reading about other people who have hit rock bottom and made their story your own?

One way to spot that you’re telling yourself a story about your doomed future is, when the scared feeling comes up, stop, look around and remind yourself of what is happening in front of you.

And if you’re writing a story about your future, make your story the best one you can.

Why Do You Make Up Stories?
Human beings like patterns.

The brain detects patterns in all sorts of nature, so you see a duck-looking cloud, a face in a tree trunk or Jesus on your toast. The brain also detects patterns in information, and you create stories to make sense of the patterns you find in information.
In a 1944 study, 34 college students were shown a short film and asked what was happening. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a screen. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.
Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about.

Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger bullying triangle. Instead of

registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives.

The circle was “worried.” The circle and the little triangle were “innocent young things.” The big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.”

33 Students made up a story to explain the randomness of the shapes moving across the screen.

And you do this with everything; you construct a story to make sense of what you see, whether this is the way someone acts in the street or your partner’s behaviour.

And the story you tell might change depending on who you’re talking to and what you think you remember.
Police know that witness statements of an event will vary and also change as they tell their story of what happened to family and friends, which is why a 2021 ruling says,

“Recent psychological research studies have thrown the benefit of witness testimony into doubt by revealing that memory is in fact fluid, and can be reshaped over time when new evidence is presented. As Mr Justice Legatt noted in the case of Gestmin -v- Credit Suisse [2013] EWHC 3560, memory is fallible, fluid, malleable and constantly rewritten over time.”

Final Thoughts
Remember that you are not your story.

You can change the story of you from moment to moment. You might believe you’re a permanent and unchanging creature, but deep down, you know that can’t be true.

Think of something you used to eat when you were a child that you wouldn’t want to eat now. Or maybe you don’t eat a particular food group even though it was a staple years ago. There will be many, many examples of how you’ve changed. Hair colour? Clothes sense?

Telling yourself a story that you still have the same personality you had, even last week, is just a story.
Maybe it’s time to write your story in your own words.

Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.
Octavia E. Butler