The Stories We Tell Ourselves
This essay first appeared in my newsletter, The Weekly Pep Talk. If you’d like to subscribe for a big old dose of positivity in your inbox every Sunday, you can sign up here.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the same event as a lot of my old high school teachers. It was a very surreal experience - I hadn’t seen them since the day I collected my GCSE results, aged 16, but circumstances meant that here we all were, in the same place at the same time again, 13 years later.
It made me realise that so many of my memories from school had been suppressed, buried under the anecdotes and experiences and milestones that have filled my life in the time since. I can’t remember the last time I’d thought about those 5 challenging years, but suddenly memories started to reappear again, anecdotes and flashbacks swimming to the surface of my brain as I tried to remember which teacher had taught which subject, where I sat in their classroom, the conversations we might have had.
It’s funny how when you leave school, the people who have taught you seem to stay frozen in time, isn’t it? In your memory, they remain those same scary, influential figures of authority that you looked up to when you were 15. They remain fixed as the people who helped you finally crack algebra, or the people who told you that you weren’t very good at science, or the people who caught you bunking off history and threatened to send a letter home to your parents.
You never really think of your teachers as real people, or at least I didn’t anyway. But seeing them again all these years later gave me a fresh new perspective. I realised that so many of those teachers who seemed so grown up and together would have been younger than I am now when I was their student. I realised that so many of them would have been only a handful of years older than the confused and anxiety riddled teenagers they were teaching.
And recognising that was a bit of an “aha!” moment for me. Because I always saw those teachers as fountains of wisdom, as grown up adults who had all of the answers. And that meant that whatever those teachers told me, I accepted as fact. When they told me I wasn’t very good at science, I believed them. When they told me that an English degree would never land me a good job, I believed them. When they told me I was crap at PE, I believed them. When they told me that I talked too much, I believed them.
I swallowed their opinions down as truth, never stopping to question whether they were right. I built their words into stories that I told myself repeatedly, I let their thoughts shape my future decisions. In my mind, their opinions became solid gold facts, facts that I have been holding on to all of my life. Facts that reality has never been able to diminish. I still tell everybody that I could never be sporty or athletic, even though I’ve ran two marathons. I still refuse to read anything too scientific because I’m convinced I won’t be able to understand it. In meetings I still limit the amount of talking I do as I worry people will think I’m an attention seeker.
But seeing those teachers again, I realised that they were only human. They weren’t the perfect, infallible, beacons of truth that I believed them to be when I was a teenager. They were just humans, trying to get through their working day and help a classroom full of hormonal kids pass some exams. They weren’t oracles of knowledge - they were just people, like you or me or our friends. People who make flippant comments and judgements. People who probably didn’t realise the impact they could have. They didn’t mean to shape the stories I would tell myself.
And that made me think about all of the other stories I tell myself. Like the fact that I’m not very good with money, or that I’m not as brave or as bold as other people I know. Stories like “people like me don’t get to do things like that”, or “that career will never be available to me because I don’t have that degree”. I thought about how often I have relied on those stories when I am making big, bold, important decisions. I thought about how often I have kept myself small, how often I have taken the safer route, because these stories have taught me to do exactly that.
And I realised that none of those stories are true. All of those stories started with somebody else’s opinion or idea, whether it was a teacher or a friend or a colleague or a parent. But I have taken those opinions and I have internalised them, embellished them, made them as convincing as humanly possible. I have replayed them over and over in my mind until I believed them to be fact. I have sought out evidence to prove their legitimacy, I have stacked up experiences that make those stories seem more valid.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they were only ever stories. They were only ever flippant comments made by infallible humans. Infallible humans who don’t know me as well as I do. Infallible humans who weren’t trying to change the shape of my future, but who were simply trying to get through the day.
And so, from now on, I’ll be writing my own stories. I’m working on a new narrative, and I won’t quit until it’s as believable as those ones I’ve been clinging onto since school. I get to decide what I’m good at. I get to decide what I’m interested in. I get to decide what decisions will be best for the life that I want to lead. Not for a second longer will I let other people be the authors of the stories I tell myself. And neither should you.
Because those stories? They’re important. They shape our whole damn lives. Nobody is ever going to write them as well as we can.