There are three layers to every story you tell: 1) the one you tell the world, 2) the one you don’t tell the world, and 3) the one you don’t even tell yourself.
The version you tell the world
On the surface, there is the official story. The one you tell at parties, when people inevitably ask about the usual things. Or when you’re on a date.
It can be true, but there is no storytelling without framing and narrative. Naturally, you manipulate and edit this story to fit your needs and purposes. You can manipulate it knowingly or subconsciously. You pick what’s most important, omit other things, forget to mention details that would make the audience (mistakenly) take the other side. You may try to make the guilt go away by bringing everyone on your side. You may bash yourself to make them say you’re wrong. You may simply leave things out because the audience is not worthy to get into the details.
The reasons you tell the official story can be multiple – but overlapping.
- You may tell the official version because you genuinely believe it.
- Or you tell it to convince others.
- Or – and this is the most likely – you are trying achieve both. You are trying to convince yourself by convincing others.
Often, the official story is really just a tool of denial. And denial makes you vulnerable to what you are trying to deny.
This is why I don’t like listening these stories. I don’t want to contribute to their denial by appearing to believe them. But by letting people tell their lies I unwittingly contribute to helping them convince themselves.
What you don’t tell the world
Of course, every story has a layer that we don’t like to share. Something we would rather keep to ourselves. I almost named it “what we tell ourselves“, but that wouldn’t be true. We don’t tell this story to ourselves.
In fact, we may be putting so much effort into telling the world the official story only to make this one go away.
After all, memory can be overwritten. If we repeat a lie, we will come to remember it – and forget the actual, not-so-pleasant truth. And who knows, maybe if everyone only knows the official story, it might become more true than this one. A lie can have consequences, just like a truth. Very real consequences.
What you don’t tell the world will be forgotten with time. But it still happened. And it can also have very real consequences.
And then you get surprised when it comes back to you. That body you buried, that lie you built your relationship on – you already forgot them. And when when you get arrested, or the relationship breaks down for exactly that reason that was coded in it from the beginning, you are genuinely shocked. You told the official story so often, you came to believe it. And it didn’t mention that body, or that huge betrayal.
What you don’t tell yourself
It is funny how these layers are defined not by whom you tell them – but whom you keep them from. And this last level is what you keep from yourself.
It may be obvious to anyone, but it is something you deny.
Under the chatter of everyday justifications, narratives and excuses lies the underlying narrative of your life. Something so simple and straightforward you would deny it on the basis that it is insultingly primitive. You are so bogged down in your excuses and telling the official story you can’t even believe that the arc of your actions over a lifetime draws a very simple story.
Like your mother always told you that you have to marry a rich guy – and you did. On the conscious level, according to the official story, your head was full of career, your profession, the latest findings of science, the cupcakes, the movies you like, the art you want to create, a plan for a startup – but one day you found yourself putting it all aside “temporarily” to get married.
Your conscious mind may even abhor marriage, but you felt compelled – so you rationalized. Your pretty mind came up with nuanced and noble justifications as to why – and you would spill your drink in my face if I told you that you simply acted on the childhood programming (often unspoken) of a mother. All that babble about your own plans and identity crumbled under the pressure of carrying out the childhood hypnotic suggestion. You were literally scared of what would happen if you didn’t get married. (And you have no rational explanation for that.)
It’s like wondering around for 50 years, chasing all those very concrete and rational goals – only to realize that your path spelled out your mother’s words on GPS: “Marry rich!” Embarrassing, outrageous – and yet obvious for anyone who took a cursory glance (and not more) on your life.
You went to study (because independent), you got your PhD (because smart, not just pretty), you overachieved, even in sport (because yes, pretty but for yourself, not for men), you made money and spent it on expensive habits that lead you to – you guessed, a rich boyfriend.
It’s an Occam’s razor thing. There are a few hard facts, and if we link them, there is a very simple explanation. Millions of words and the official story cannot overwrite the fact: Your dad told you you’re a failure – you ended up sabotaging your own life. Your mom programmed you to marry a rich guy – you did.
The underlying narrative of your life is acted out to the letter – exactly because you refused to admit to yourself. Let alone telling anyone. Your denial made you vulnerable to it.
This is why I hate listening to the official story. And this is why it is impolite to link those few, hard facts in someone’s life – even though we all do it while we listen to the everyone-blameless version of their lives.
Dare to be honest
With yourself and with others. Granted, you will get cut out from friends’ perfect lives if you mention the elephant in the room – and then they divorce. And that isolation my be too much of a price to pay for being honest. After all, if you could convince yourself that your own life is perfect – why can’t you do the same about your friends’ lives? See?
But we would all benefit if we started discussing each other’s underlying narratives because for now, it is on our blind spots. We can only see each other’s. We are running a program we did not write – and which is not written with our interest in mind. In fact, it is not written at all, it just wrote itself in a little boy’s/girl’s head and those stories are usually very poorly plotted. And it never ceases to do damage.
Because your mother never told you what’s next after you executed your programming to marry. So you were going into it unthinkingly, with your head full of chatter about the how, and never the why. But now that you did it, you became restless. Your love and libido evaporated – or never existed in the first place, because you wanted marriage, and not him. And your mom never told you what to want after the marriage. You can overcompensate by throwing yourself at and overachieving through the children.
If you keep denying, you will make things worse. Say, you lose the sense of achievement, because marriage was the only thing a good girl is judged by – but you have decades of life ahead of you and you still want to achieve. And deep down, only an “I do” will count as achievement – no matter what you say out loud about the importance of your career. So you have to do it again. Not the career, but the rich husband. And you get wet again, your libido returns the moment you see a next potential husband. Your life will be full of meaning again, because that was the only goal you ever got from your mother. And if one rich marriage makes you a good girl, two makes you even better.
We all have our very simple, very obvious, yet completely suppressed stories. Parts of it we can see – but we deny. Other parts are completely hidden from us – but not from our friends.