At the time, I was in 10th grade. My mother dropped me off one block away from the cinema. After getting out of the car, I straightened up, took in a deep breathe, and walked slowly towards my group of friends that evening.
I wasn’t a popular girl growing up. My teenage years were filled with awkward teenagers like me. I spent most of my time trying to hide from embarrassment and was often gangly. As most teenagers, however, I desired to be surrounded by friends and have a yearbook filled with fun memories. I was eager to go out with the team captain and be a part of their football team. I wanted to be included. This particular evening, I felt that connection waiting for me at the end of a row filled with uncomfortable seats and new experiences.
We were all seated in the middle, with ten people. The boy that I loved was also sat next to me. His height and beauty made me weak at the knees. My “supercrush” and I were having a conversation about our most recent English class assignment when another person from our group boldly interrupted, looking straight at me and saying: “You know what? You have the gummiest smile I’ve ever seen.” And right there, under the darkness of the dimming theater lights, I changed.
Everyone laughed, and I tried to make it funny. But that night, something inside me was broken. Over the following two decades I would become extremely aware of my smile.
At that moment, a piece of someone else’s story about me became my story. And this is something that happens to all of us to some degree — we’re all impacted by the narrative that others create about us. Maybe it’s something seemingly more subtle, like a comment someone makes in passing about your accent, your body, or your skills. It could also be something much more serious, such as a disrespectful parent, bullying children, or an unrequited love. Every cross-over between us and others leaves an impression.
For most of us, this starts as far back as we can remember — during our youngest days and our most impressionable years. This is even more important because it begins before we can write our own stories. We navigate the world through what other people tell us and how we experience the world. Their identities are created together.
“We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves.” – Tony Robbins
The Stories we Tell ourselves: Reframe the Story
Some of us were raised in environments that emphasized a supportive narrative: “You’re capable, you’re strong, you’re lovable.” But others grew up in more critical ecosystems built around entirely different stories: “You’re a burden, you’re a failure, you’re not good enough.”
Many of us leave childhood with chapters in our lives written. But the problem is that we often leave our formative years with chapters of our lives already written. We often follow this path well into adulthood and allow external influences to mold our life. This is all carried out without us ever questioning if that’s who we really are or want to be.
In our defense, that’s not entirely our fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s simply how we’re wired as human beings — to take in and process feedback from other people. If we’re not careful, though, it’s easy to forget that we’re actually the main character of our story, a story that is entirely in our hands. So how do we find a way out of the shackles of others’ narratives about us? These are some tips to get you started:
1. Determine what’s true.
The most important thing you can do when it comes to the narratives others might have about you is to question them. Push back on the narrative and ask yourself: “Is this true?” There’s a significant difference between What we do Who are we?. Sure, we might be late for meetings every now and then, but that doesn’t mean we are unreliable. Question the story you’re telling yourself — or that someone else is telling you — and be intentional about finding evidence supporting the contrary.
2. Find out more about storytelling.
It is a great way to see your life from a new perspective. Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” outlines the fundamental structure that occurs within all great stories — and more importantly, how it relates to all great heroes. And it’s not just for stories such as “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” It’s a structure that can be applied to all human experiences, including yours and mine. This means that we can all discover and accept the heroic nature in our stories.
3. The story should be reframed.
Every coin has two sides. Every experience has a blessing and a curse. Maybe being bullied at school made us more distrustful of others and led us to experience a lot of loneliness as children. This experience can have a devastating effect on our self-esteem and hearts. However, the hidden benefit of this experience is the desire and ability to include as many people as possible. My friends who were bullied at school have all developed an acute sense of empathy for those feeling left out. They’re gifted at bringing people together and go out of their way to ensure everyone feels a strong sense of safety and belonging.
The power of stories can become human’s connective tissue. They weave themselves into us, as we are woven into their stories. Stories are our birthright. We breathe life into them, giving it new life. But it’s never too late for any of us to pick up the pen and write the story that we want to hear most. Although it’s true that we might not get to control all of the “what” within the stories of our life, we do get to control the “who.”
So let’s write the story of a person who chased their dreams or the story of a person who never gave up. Let’s write the story of a person who gained superpowers from their trials and a deeper sense of humanity from their challenges. Let’s write the story of a person who lived their life and chose to be a hero. One of my greatest superpowers, I love to show people how bright their smiles make a room.