When your stories collide

I’m fascinated by stories. They’re the framework through which we understand ourselves, our struggles, other people, and the world around us. Stories help you make meaning out of the events in your life, from everyday encounters to life-changing events.

Your thoughts about yourself and the environment around you did not appear in a vacuum. From the moment you were born, your brain was surrounded by stories, from the books we read to messages in the media.

Your thoughts about yourself and the environment around you did not appear in a vacuum.

When most people start paying closer attention to the thoughts that drive their emotions and their actions, they start noticing that some of them seem to be at odds. In fact, they might even find thoughts that appear contradictory. 

Time and time again, I find that clients are frustrated when their thinking doesn’t add up, or when they discover they hold beliefs that they wish they didn’t. I always offer an example from my own life:

As a child, my favorite book was called By George, Bloomers! It’s the story of a little girl in the 1850s named Hannah who begged her mother to let her wear bloomers so that she was free to run and jump and climb trees like the boys. Hannah’s mother refused, believing that bloomers weren’t lady-like.

This outraged me. It was so unfair! I read the story over and over again and tried to figure out why people would treat girls and boys differently. From that point on, I fought my mother tooth and nail when she attempted to get me into a dress for the holidays.

Years later, I received a subscription to YM for my birthday. Each month when it arrived I devoured the articles inside and tried to practice the tips and suggestions. I was drawn to headlines like: How to Get Supermodel Hair; Sneaky Makeup Tricks that Fix Flaws; and Bikinis? Yikes! There’s Hope Inside.

Two powerful stories were taking shape in my life:

  • women should not be forced to conform to certain standards of beauty (Hannah and her bloomers)
  • women should conform to certain standards of beauty (YM).

These opposing beliefs impacted the decisions I made. In my early twenties, I would talk to anyone who would listen about the sexist norms imposed on women’s appearance. At the same time, I was fixated on reaching my “goal” weight. I thought forcing women to conform to certain standards of beauty was bullshit while trying to conform to those very standards.

I thought forcing women to conform to certain standards of beauty was bullshit while trying to conform to those very standards.

Understanding these stories were both there is what finally gave me authority over them. Once I could see how these two, very different, thoughts played out in my life, I started to understand behavior that had long bothered me: How on the one hand I could be a fierce critic of the objectification of women while on the other hand objectify myself.

Gaining authority over these two very different beliefs meant learning that both were in my subconscious. Both impacted how I felt and how I acted. But instead of beating myself up for thinking something “wrong,” I had to make a deliberate practice of choosing to think differently.

When I find myself (as I sometimes still do) criticizing my appearance, I remember that the story of valuing a woman’s appearance above all else isn’t something I created. It’s a story that has been drilled into my head every time I pick up a magazine or turn on the TV. But just like Hannah, I can keep fighting for something different.