Several years ago, I was telling a mentor about a conversation with a friend. In the conversation, my friend talked about how he was a sickly child. Only by the sheer grace of God did he become healthy enough to reach adulthood. I forget the details of the turning point in this friend's health situation, only that it required believing in a bit of magic.

My mentor turned to me and said, "That's the story he tells himself."

I've never forgotten that. At first, I was stunned that someone could be so skeptical, when the story was told with such authenticity. What I realize now is that this mentor had a keen sense of human behavior and our ability to dupe ourselves. As Seth Godin says:

Telling stories2"People don't believe what you tell them.
They rarely believe what you show them.
They often believe what their friends tell them.
They always believe what they tell themselves."

In working with clients, sometimes the truth gets obscured by the stories we tell ourselves. The stories are meant to keep us comfortable in a changing world, to keep us sheltered from a grim reality, to allow us to continue on without working too hard. Up until my last layoff in 2002, I told myself that I wasn't ready to go off on my own, that I could be happy working in my current job for another year. It was a way of keeping myself comfortable, even as I was getting more and more uncomfortable.

Stories serve an important purpose in that they help us to survive. We get by, not with a little help from our friends, but from our stories. If you are lucky, you outgrow the stories you tell yourself. If you are really lucky, someone will challenge your stories.

What's the story you tell yourself?

Photo by ifindkarma

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  1. Joanna on January 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    I guess I also see a positive side to stories we tell ourselves. For instance, in the case of your friend, perhaps believing that he could heal really did help him heal. The flip side can be true as well, if you tell yourself you are always unlucky, you are more apt to be blind to opportunities. But if you tell yourself the story that you are lucky, you may just find yourself being more aware of opportunities that present themselves to you. In either case, there is an “objective reality,” but the way we frame that reality can impact it and our behavior. So I think there’s also a possible upside to the stories we tell ourselves.

  2. Carol Ross on January 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks, Joanna, for that other perspective. In the coaching business, I see more clients who have stories that are limiting, rather than stories that create possibilities. In fact, there’s a well-known coach whose website is, which can be interpreted as both good and bad.

    I do like the idea of stories that open up possibilities. You are reminding me to try out more of those stories, for myself and for my clients.

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