Fact or Fiction? The Lies We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves shape our lives. Often these stories come in the form of negative questions we ask ourselves—and sometimes they’re downright cruel. “Why does this always happen to me?” “Why can’t I lose weight?” “Why can’t I get along with (fill in the blank)?” These questions keep us stuck in a downward spiral and restrict our ability to move confidently in the world. We accept these limiting beliefs, old patterns, and decisions without examining whether or not they work for us—or are even true.

As a high school freshman, I fell into a bad habit. During second semester, I began skipping math class to make out with a boy I liked behind the bleachers. We would sneak out at the end of the lunch period so the teachers wouldn’t notice. (Note to my son Luke: if you’re reading this, cutting class to kiss is a terrible idea.) The post-lunchtime slot was a free period for “Rob.” For me, the time was supposed to be occupied with algebra and trigonometry. Eventually my math teacher called me into his room after school.

“You missed several classes. Where were you?”

“I was working with the voice teacher for the musical,” I lied.

“Rachel, your grade has slipped from an A to a C,” my teacher informed me.

Mr. Math didn’t want to know what happened. He didn’t ask whether or not I understood the material. He assured me that I would probably be unable to catch up and recapture the grade I had gotten early on. He reasoned that we each possess limited abilities and talents.

“Some people are good at math. Others are good at theater—I guess that’s your forte.”

I wanted to tell him that I was good at both, but this situation with Rob was interfering with the math part. Somehow, during that humiliating conversation and on the subsequent days when I did show up in class, Mr. Math convinced me that I was not destined for a career in numbers.

From then on, I took the story he had told me, and made it my own. I absorbed this narrative and didn’t question it. For the rest of high school, even after Rob and I stopped meeting, I avoided challenging math classes. When it was time to pick colleges, I chose the one that didn’t have a math requirement. After I got married, I shied away from bills and budgeting. For decades, I spent several months of the year panicking at the thought of meeting with the tax accountant.

“I’m Bad at Math” was a piece of fiction that I converted to fact. Like a comfy old pair of jeans, this lie became a familiar part of my identity. I was in my 40s before I realized I was still defining myself by a myth I had adopted when I was 14 years old.

Believing you’re not good at math isn’t the end of the world; there are far worse stories that have been told and believed. But it’s a simple illustration of the power of story—as either poison or medicine—and the ripple effect it can have if left unquestioned.

Sometimes, when you’re following the trail of one story, you uncover another. In years of working my story alchemy, I’ve noticed that often, lurking within specific scenes, are broader underlying themes. As I was reading over the “I’m Bad at Math” tale, the story alchemist in me screamed, “Wait! You’re overlooking something here!” As in many old stories, I noticed the math/make-out fiasco had a plot twist. These twists are deeper stories or patterns that are often so ingrained that we miss them at first glance.

 I gave up math class while Rob missed free period.

The twist? Lurking beneath “I’m Bad at Math” was “To Have a Relationship, I Must Do Everything.”

From years of taking stock of my intimate partnerships, I have seen this crop up time and time again. Even when things start out on even ground, I quickly revert back to what’s comfortable: to be the one who expends or gives up something—be it time, resources, energy, or my own desires. I’ve caught myself repeating this pattern numerous times—usually at the point where the relationship is so far out of balance that I feel like I’m running frantically on a hamster wheel.

We all possess powerful gifts; one of mine is passionate connection. But when our gifts are out of balance, they become detriments. Wanting to give generously and delighting in others’ joy is beautiful; feeling that I have to do everything in order to be liked or loved, and not knowing how to receive, is deadly.

In the past, I would despair when I felt stuck. Now, I celebrate, because I have a practice that supports me and gives me the chance to

  1. see clearly what is fact and what is fiction
  2. decide if I want to continue playing this role
  3. change my victim character
  4. apply loving tools to rewriting myself as the hero of my own story.

“Missing math” has become my euphemism for the times when I’m falling prey to stories that torture my mind, cause me to suffer, and blind me to my purpose and gifts.

In what ways are you “missing math?” Think back on a disappointment, a failure, or a situation that didn’t go the way you’d hoped. Sit quietly and write about it, so you can see it in black and white. As you reflect, you might find several stories you tell yourself that are not only untrue, but also harmful and self-defeating. What are some of the old beliefs you took on as fact? How have these stories played out in your life? Most of our mental stress and inner turmoil is caused by lies we tell ourselves or disempowering questions we ask that play on an endless loop in our heads. Once they’re on paper, it’s easier to gain perspective.

Asking Loving Questions is a practice to help you rewrite your old story into a gold story, by redirecting your focus toward a productive mind set. Change your focus and you’ll change how you feel. Instead of draining your energy through worry, fear, and overwhelm, you’ll harness your mental energy and use it to propel you forward. Some examples of loving questions are

  • What is the best way I can look at this situation?
  • If I wanted to, how could I look at this in a fun and positive way?
  • What can I learn about myself so that I can become stronger and more fulfilled?
  • What am I most grateful for in my life right now?

During a particularly troubling time, you might have to redirect your mental focus repeatedly throughout your day—just as you might have to adjust your posture when you catch yourself slouching. We rewire our brain when we ask it to come up with better, more creative ways of looking at our situation.

Let’s take my old yarn, “I’m Bad at Math.” I love Byron Katie’s suggestion to consider the opposite of a thought that causes suffering. I asked myself, “What if I’m actually good at math?” Just thinking this gave me the chills. Then, armed with my practice of Asking Loving Questions, I reworked the way I look at doing my taxes. I asked myself, “What is the best way I can look at this situation?” I crafted myself as a capable character and took the negative charge out of this task. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually I shifted my mind set and decided to make a game of it—giving myself points for matching receipts to payments, and playing upbeat music to shift my state of fear and overwhelm to pleasure and reward.

As for the deeper story, “To Have a Relationship, I Must Do Everything,” I’m still working on alchemizing this one, but I’ve made progress. I’ve changed the protagonist of my story from a victim acting from fear to a woman who examines the ways she has abandoned herself and now chooses to act from love. Writing my new story of balanced connections helps me create healthy boundaries, invest only in friendships that are mutually fulfilling, and recommit to myself each day with rituals that remind me of my innate worth.

We all have antiquated stories that become comfortable bad habits. Left unquestioned, they can wreak havoc. Don’t underestimate the power we all have when we grab the reins on our brain. We can create new ideas, images, stories, and questions that help us solve problems. Among the many mathematical formulas, there’s one equation I’m certain of: Questioning Your Old Stories (x) + Creatively Rewriting Yourself as the Hero of Your New Story (y) = Gold.

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