5 Toxic stories we tell ourselves

In this episode

I’ve talked about stories many times before – and have included links to other relevant podcasts at the end of this post – but this time, I wanted to talk about 5 specific stories well tell ourselves and why they have such potential to cause more harm than good.

Imagine you’re walking through a swampy, marshy field in the middle of the night. It’s pitch dark and you’re navigating across the field with only the torch from your mobile phone. All you can see is what’s in the small circle of light directly in front of you.

Our stories are much like that torch light. They determine where we place our attention, what we see and where we step next.

Yet, there’s one key difference between our stories and the torch light. We are far more likely to move the torch around and see where else we could step. Our stories don’t move as easily. It’s a bit like holding the torch in one direction and walking, come what may. 

We don’t always realise we have a choice as to whether to believe our stories and act on them or whether to see them as simply stories and move in another direction.

When we fail to understand the power of our stories, we’re at their mercy and that can lead us away from the things we want in life.

1. I'll be happy when...

On the face of it, this looks like an aspirational story. It points towards our goals and that can’t be bad, can it?

Sadly, it can. This story is far more troublesome than most of us realise. Here’s why:

  1. It assumes things will work out a particular way and that we’ll feel a particular way. This rarely turns out to be true, particularly where happiness is concerned.
  2. It highlights our current dissatisfaction with some aspect of our lives without really drawing our attention to dealing with it. Instead we throw it into some utopian future where the problem is solved.
  3. It pushes our attention into the future – a place where we have no power to create change.
Making better use of the story

Ask: “What is it about this thing that will make me happy?” / “Why will this make me happy?”

When you have the answer, ask: “What would it take for me to experience that now?”

For example, if “I’ll be happy when I’m thin” is the story, what does “thin” give me?

It gives me confidence.

What would it take for me to experience confidence now, regardless of my weight? 

Then losing weight can become a goal but confidence can be experienced much sooner – and is far more likely to stick because it isn’t conditional.

I am not enough...

This story is so common it has spawned a multi-billion pound industry of coaches, self-help gurus and therapists whose work involves helping people break free from its clutches. 

The simple truth about the ‘I am not enough’ story is this:

If you’re telling yourself this story, you are looking at yourself through the eyes of someone else.

At first, this may not seem true but keep looking. You’ll find that somewhere, perhaps very early on in life, you saw, heard or experienced something that led you to see yourself differently. 

That story put you outside yourself, judging from another perspective – a learned perspective. 

The story can become internalised so deeply that it feels like it’s your own but it cannot arise on its own from within the person who carries it. It has to come from some learned perspective. 

Once that becomes clear, the choice about whether to keep or ditch it becomes a lot easier to make.

I have no choice / There is nothing I can do

I have combined these stories because they have similar hallmarks.

Both of them over-simplify the world around you and, in doing so, make some of your choices invisible.

For example, a client I worked with felt she had to stay in a job she hated because she couldn’t afford to quit.

When we started delving into the things she valued, things that were truly important to her, none of them bore strong links to her finances. She established that she could live a life she loved without necessarily maintaining the high salary. Her reasons for staying locked into the dilemma had more to do with how she thought her mother would see her choice (an I am not enough story) and that selling the house would be messy because she and her husband were divorced.

In these situations, it’s not always about whether you choose to stay in the job – or relationship or whatever it is for you – it’s about recognising that the story isn’t true. There are choices, but to find them, you must question your beliefs, assumptions and values. Once those choices become apparent, it’s up to you which way you go – but it is a choice. 

The other person sucks!

Your boss, your partner, your neighbour, the guy who cuts in front of you in traffic… This story is everywhere and it’s hardly ever productive. 

This storyline is another example of oversimplifying complex human behaviour rather than getting curious about what’s going on and what to do about it.

This story can be particularly toxic because its main purpose is to assign blame and this causes you to do two things:

  1. Place the focus on someone other than yourself – a place where you hold no power.
  2. Find evidence to support your viewpoint – causing you to judge the other person rather than becoming curious about what they’re experiencing or how they’re making sense of the world.


This storyline reduces you both to caricatures of yourselves and makes it far more difficult to build connection, understand each other and figure out a way to move forward towards a healthy, connected future. 


Changing the story

These stories all have something in common. In many ways, they make life easier. They allow us to turn away from situations that require us to approach with patience, curiosity and empathy. It is often a lot easier to approach with judgement or over-simplifications. I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my own life. When I left a job because “my boss is an a-hole”, I didn’t stop to think about his situation. I judged him as a bad manager and walked away. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered he was under mountains of pressure and he was really battling. At no point did I think about him as a person. I thought about him only as the obstacle between me and my next career step.

That was a great learning opportunity for me and is one of the reasons I do the work I do.

Our stories change our lives. Be sure yours will change yours for the better.

Related Podcast Episodes

My daughter lied...

My Daughter lied and I’m making it worse. In this episode, I talk about a story I was telling myself about my relationship with my daughter. 

Shortly after recording this episode, I sought the help of a family therapist because I had such trouble being able to connect with her after this event – largely because I was running 3 of the toxic stories simultaneously – I am not enough, the other person sucks and there’s nothing I can do.

Turn down the shark music

This episode formed part of the 5-Day Happiness Challenge Series.

It’s all about the stories we tell ourselves about the future and how we expect things to play out.

The ability to turn down the shark music and return to the present moment is one of the most valuable skills to learn in your pursuit of mental wellness and enjoyment of life.

What's under the water?

In this episode, I talk about the motivation behind our goals.

This motivation often comes from stories we’re telling ourselves but are those stories healthy or toxic?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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