self deception


There's a tendency I notice in some of those partial to personal development. A habit, when someone says something sad, angry, or that the listener otherwise doesn't approve of, to dismiss such expression as being 'just the story you tell yourself'.

The implication here is that the story shared is a fiction. Not any old fiction, which personal development types love if Paulo Coelho's book sales are anything to go by. A fiction is fine, at least when it is an allegorical expression of a spiritual quest.

When the accusation is made that someone is telling their story, what's implied is that the tale should be edited, preferably deleted. Essentially, it's a way of requesting that someone shut up, so that their bleating about unhappiness or injustice not be heard by those whose ears are tuned into higher frequencies.

You can, if you wish, go on a weekend workshop and be told in front of the assembled attendees that your story is a lie, a convenient and self-serving fabrication. And you will be encouraged after seeing through your delusion to be naked in the expression of your will, all the better to get ahead in the world.

My experience is that people who buy into this aversion to stories can be a pretty cold bunch. And I think I understand why...

Stories are complex. They are rich and contradictory. They are how we explain ourselves to the world, and the world to ourselves. And yes, they are partial and inaccurate and everything else that goes with all that. You know what? That's alright.

We are storytelling creatures. Above anything else, that's what defines us.  And to wade in and tell someone their story is invalid because it doesn't fit our preferred way of perceiving the world is ugly. It's a symptom of a quick-fix approach, which is characteristic of much cod psychology. Buff yourself up, don't hang round with the smelly people. Gotta broadcast that you're a winner 24/7, and that means not paying attention to those who don't do the same.

This fixation with being perpetually on-message is tiresome. Never mind that some of the happiest and most successful people I've met, or heard talk, don't play the game. The notably high-functioning billionaire visionary Elon Musk credits his success to his assumption that he's going to fail - and does everything he can to avoid it. That's working pretty well for him.

Stories change. And so they should. They change as we develop. The light of experience is faster than the sound of our internal voices. Sometimes I realise that the story I'm telling about a particular facet of my experience no longer applies. Sometimes, I find that the story itself changes as I reach for it in conversation with someone new.

I trust the wisdom of that process of self-editing and rewriting more than I do the hectoring concern of those so anxious about the fragility of their own tales that they can't bear to be exposed to those presenting an alternate understanding. Get down to it, and none of the stories we tell are true. That's not the same as saying they're arbitrary.

Stories connect us, a skein that we are all woven into. The cold aloof note that some strike by hacking away at stories they are uncomfortable about makes sense because in judging what others say, you're judging the teller too. Disney's versions of fairy stories omit much of the darkness and complexity at their heart, and the result is two-dimensional characters with no depth and a fixation on a happy ending. I'm inclined to suggest that the same applies to some of those who've signed up for internment in the New Age as their ears are assaulted by tales from the wider population.