The Bad Stories We Tell Ourselves
Bad stories are the false narratives we tell ourselves, about ourselves, that undermine our happiness. Similar to the lies of identity, they are typically rooted in a small seed of truth that has spiralled out of control. They’re the reasoning that pops into your mind when something doesn’t go to plan, the place you go to when you suffer a loss, the thought that governs your decisions when you’re fearful. Vast in variety – that you will always be second best, that you won’t ever achieve much, that you aren’t smart, attractive, unique enough – the list goes on.
To normalise - and limit - them, we asked eight people to share with us the bad stories they tell themselves, and see whether they can pinpoint their origins.
Growing up with a mother with extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, I inadvertently picked up some unusual practices and beliefs. One of them has reared its head in my life many times, to my utter detriment. This being the belief that one small decision will have huge catastrophic ramifications. For my mum, this meant buying the wrong colour tea-towel. She broke down thinking it would throw her whole rhythm, and cause her to lose control over her carefully manicured environment. She'd take it back to maintain inner-peace. When some choices have faced me, I've jumped to the 'catastrophic' scenario, and in some cases, taken the proverbial tea-towel back. For example, I've up given up paid-for trips overseas (regrettably) because, for whatever reason, they threw me into a spin.
The bad story I’ve told myself for years is that my natural-self is not likable. I’ve felt for a long time that I need to conceal my true identity, because if I was to show people what I’m really like, they’d reject me. That idea stems from another stage of my life in which I felt I needed to embody a set of traits different from my own - ones that better reflected a particular role I was appointed to. I felt I needed to be more organised, less loose with my words, a natural socialite, and a moral role model. Even though I did have a set of skills I was proud of, I ended up feeling as though I was inadequate because I never felt capable of living up to what I expected of myself, and what I thought others expected of me. Even when I left that particular role, which I found hugely oppressive, those feelings stayed with me - my sense of inadequacy was by then ingrained in me. It’s been a years-long process of shaking myself out of that pattern of thought, but I have experienced some success by simply lowering my expectations - allowing myself to fail, recognising I don’t have to be good at everything and being gracious to myself while I’m still learning new things.
I’ve spent a large part of my life believing that something was deeply, inherently wrong with me, and that those who got close enough could sense the inadequacy. This was further ingrained by an unfortunate experience in a relationship where I near-emptied myself, to be met with a list of shortcomings at the end of it - confirming all of my worst fears about myself. This became especially destructive when partnered with the ‘story’ that it was up to me to look after everyone or things will fall apart - deepened again when, through a laughably dire series of circumstances, some of the people closest to me really were relying on me to keep things together. And there began the cycle of pouring myself into (and onto!) people, but believing it will never be enough, so doing more - and on it goes. I would love to say it’s been completely dealt with, but I am still learning to hold and trust both myself, and other people (although sometimes I worry the pendulum has swung too far and I’ve lost the capacity to care at all haha). But friendship has been one of the most healing things for me. I realised there are so many people in my life who I have actually let close, who don’t sense a darkness or an abstract ‘not-good-enough’ vibe - but who fully see me, love me and have the capacity, and desire, to look after me too. And that has been so wonderfully healing.
My bad story is that what I do will always be satisfactory but never impressive. Every time somebody tells me I've done well, or gives me genuine encouragement in my work or what I do, I politely listen but rarely receive it because my brain tells me they’re being kind but not honest. I'm not totally sure where this comes from. Perhaps I've felt surrounded by "impressive" people a lot of my life, and felt as if I don't match up. Perhaps it comes from the patronising comments I receive when people see a short, pretty, blonde girl and don't expect big things. Perhaps I let their small expectations limit what I strive for. But sometimes, I'm brave, and even though I'm small I feel big inside, and my heart and fiery stomach take over, and I do big things like speak about social issues in front of crowds or confront the ‘big’ people on things I don't think are okay, or throw myself into my work without fear of screwing up. But the truth is, almost every time after I do this, I feel tinier than ever and want to run and hide in a hole and never see anyone again, regretting that I thought I was bigger than I am – the positive feedback is all lies to me. And I stay in that whakamā state for a while it seems. Until something or someone taps on my big heart or fiery stomach and I let her, the true me, with all of her passion and potential and fearlessness free again.
I think many people assume that I’m a naturally confident, outgoing person - particularly being someone who works in the media. However, I lack a tremendous amount of self esteem, and so regularly feel that I’m simply not good enough. I listen far too carefully to my critics, and dismiss praise way too easily. Everything I’ve achieved career-wise I put down to pure luck - nothing to do with talent or hard work. I still believe that quite honestly. It’s led me to have an ‘imposter’ type view of myself - I look around and think, “what am I doing here? I don’t belong here, I don’t deserve to be here”. I’m always so fearful of being ‘exposed’ as this unintelligent, ignorant imposter. I think it all just comes back to a basic inability to believe in myself.
Growing up I had a lot of role models who all seemed like pretty stellar individuals, until they didn’t. I remember in middle school when I actively made the decision that I was not going to be like them. I told myself that ‘I would become the role model that I never had’. I set the morals by which I intended to live, became a leader, and I was good at it. As time went on however, the pressure started to build - all of the “hey, I just wanted to say thanks, my son really looks up to you’s” started to get to me. The vulnerability that I had earned my respect with started to disappear as I developed a chronic fear of letting anyone down. I knew what it was like to have role models fail you, so the smallest stuff up would make me feel like a fraud. I just constantly felt that I wasn’t as good as everyone thought I was. This all came to a head last year when I graduated, started an ‘aspirational’ job and realised I spent the last 10 years of my life trying to prove to people that you could get to this point without blundering, but hadn’t ever really given myself room to consider what I actually wanted for myself. So ironically, I’m realising now that I actually need to give myself permission to stuff up. I still struggle with taking big steps, fearing that I’m going to let people down, but I need to fail more, forgive myself for doing so, and move on. It’s a process, and I’m a long way from being comfortable with it, but I’m learning to be more aware of it.
I made some bad choices when it came to love and that’s where my worst lie was born. I think it was when I was pulling his freshly washed and folded laundry out of my boot as he was breaking up with me that it started. I couldn’t earn his approval, regardless of the things I was or the things I did, there was just something deeply and inherently wrong with me and there was nothing I could do. And that was the reason I missed out on opportunities and couldn’t get the next guy to stay. I felt stuck. So I did a lot of therapy. I hit the gym and cut my hair and spent time with people who celebrated me, and those things helped. But what really changed things was opening myself up to being loved and loving someone good. Allowing myself to be seen by someone who could actually see me, as bruised but also very beautiful, as someone right, someone loveable. That changed and continues to change everything for me
I suffer from the same insecurities as a lot of people - that I’m not attractive, that I’m annoying, that I’m not fun or easy to talk to - they crop up now and then. I’ve been thinking about where these feelings of inadequacy/inferiority stem from, and I think there’s a good chance that it’s from the lie that people are judging me. That they’re acting one way when they’re with me, and then passing judgment about me behind my back. I’m such a people-pleaser, and love having lots of friends and being well-liked, so the idea of anyone not liking me is the worst. If I’m having a particularly pimply period, I can just imagine people commenting on how bad my skin looks. Or when meeting a group of people, I can imagine them writing me off afterwards as boring. What’s ridiculous is that I’m inventing opinions, essentially putting my value in the hands of the worst critics - who live in my own head. In an amazing book I read recently, Dolly Alderton revisits a conversation she had with her therapist about fears that publishers were ripping her manuscript to shreds behind her back. The therapist responds “Dolly, NO ONE is thinking about you”. This is a harsh but reassuring truth, echoed by a woman I really look up who shared this great metaphor - life is like a Zumba class, you’re embarrassed but everyone else is too worried about what they’re doing to give you more than a passing thought! One tactic for dealing with lingering worries that I tried a while ago is to declare the things that you believe to be true about yourself - “I am kind, I am quick to laugh, I am generous”. These things are life-giving, and the more I repeat them about myself, the more I’m able to believe them and that others think those things about me too.