The 3 Layers of Every Story We Tell

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. And this is why sometimes others see you better than you can see yourself.

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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, casting for the role.

This version can be true, of course, 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. At the very least you condense the story because not everyone is interested in every detail. But what you omit and what you choose to tell already amount to editing.

Sometimes you forget to mention details that would make the audience (mistakenly) take the other side. Or you try to make the guilt go away. 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. There are a million ways.

The reasons you tell the official story can be multiple.

  1. You may tell the official version because you genuinely believe it.
  2. Or you tell it to manipulate others.
  3. Or – and this is the most likely – you are trying to achieve both. You are trying to convince yourself by convincing others.

Often, the official story is really just a tool to achieve denial. And denial makes you vulnerable to what you are trying to deny. This is why I sometimes don’t like to listen to these “official” stories. Sometimes, I just don’t want to contribute to people’s denial by appearing to believe them, even by just staying silent.

What you don’t tell the world

The second layer is, of course, what 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 necessarily tell this story to ourselves either. 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 that way – and slowly forget the actual, not-so-pleasant truth.  A well-crafted official story has the added benefit that it becomes part of your image, the part of your identity that resides in other people’s opinion, and who knows, maybe if everyone only knows the official story, it might become actually true. A lie can have consequences, just like the truth does. Very real consequences.

What you don’t tell the world will be forgotten with time. Even by you. But it still happened. And it can also have very real consequences.

And one day you get surprised when it comes back to you. That body you buried, that lie you built your relationship on – you worked hard to forget them. And when when you get arrested, or when the relationship breaks down for exactly the reason you tried to deny existing, you will be genuinely shocked. I can’t begin to tell you about all the relationships that turned out exactly what the first impression was. They even tell you after the first date. But then they decide to be together anyway, and start telling you another story. Of Insta-perfect happiness and #RelationshipGoals. All that constant, tacky proving that #WeAreSoBlessed are just symptoms of couples! desperate attempts to rewrite reality by rewriting your opinion of it.

And of they do it long enough, they eventually forget it – and roughly seven years later they break up for exactly the reason they laid out after the first date. Their first doubt they mentioned. The betrayal they buried. The mild aggression or “craziness” they sensed in the other – but went back to them when they had no one better.

This is why people get so angry when you interrupt their image-making. They want to replace reality with that image.

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.

This is what you deny. (Sorry for the obvious.)

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. Of course you don’t just do everything to finally earn your father’s approval. Of course you aren’t in this relationship just because you wanted to satisfy your long-dead grandparents who now reside in your head.

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 an insultingly 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. To someone who happens to be rich – but that’s totally different. True, you would never had married someone less wealthy than yourself – but it has very rational reasons, A, B, and C. And you can quote reasons A, B, and C even when you wake from deep sleep. Even when nobody asked.

Your conscious mind may even abhor marriage, but you felt compelled – so you rationalized. Your compliant 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. All that babble about your own plans and identity crumbled under the pressure of resisting the childhood hypnotic suggestion every single day of your life. The counter-force was too big and you genuinely find relief not going against it any longer. So there was relief, and relief feels like pleasure, and there was gratitude for the relief, and gratitude is always mistaken with love, and it also helps to accept the inevitable.  You were literally scared of what would happen if you didn’t get married. Even your anxieties had anxieties. And you have no rational explanation for them.

It’s like wondering around for 50 years, chasing all those very concrete and rational goals you set yourself- only to realize that your path spelled out your mother’s words on GPS: “Marry rich!” or “You are unlovable” or “You are not enough.” 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. Someone made you feel unlovable – you spent your life proving her wrong. Even if she wasn’t looking. Even if you forgot her. Even if she died since then.

The underlying narrative of your life is acted out to the letter – exactly because you refused to admit it 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 once in a while. We may just miss crucial details, we may not have enough information to get it right, but if we do, we connect those dots in the lives of others faster than we ever could in our own.

Dare to be honest

Integrity means honesty – and not just to others. That may be the easy part.

The really difficult part of integrity is being honest with yourself. Granted, you will get cut out from friends’ perfect lives if you mention the elephant in the room. And that isolation may be too much of a price to pay for being honest with them and tell them what you see. After all, if you could convince yourself that your own life is perfect – and make it happen – why couldn’t you do the same about your friends’ lives? Maybe that’s the polite thing to do.

But with yourself you have no reason not to be honest. You are making yourself vulnerable to your own lies, you are making a fool of yourself – how do you justify that? How do you justify never looking into your own motivation in your whole, long life? How can you afford to not do that?

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 at heart. Quite the contrary. In fact, this program is not written at all, it just wrote itself in a little boy’s/girl’s head and those stories are unchecked and 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 – let alone the if. 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. The way you made decisions didn’t prepare you for making your own when the tracks of your prescribed path ran out. You keep trying to follow, but there’s nothing there. The world just wanted to walk into it, maybe to hurt you, maybe to use you – it never wanted you to think. So it didn’t teach you.

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 and children. So you have to do it again. Not the career, but the rich husband. And you get wet again the moment you see a next potential husband, your libido returns, you get hungry again. That’s the only thing you know howto want. Want to get – not to have. Your life will be full of fake meaning again as you pursue your second spouse, because getting marriage was the only goal you ever got ready-made, tattooed on the inside of your skull. And if one rich marriage makes you a good girl, two makes you even better.

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