Work, Life, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Telling ourselves stories is how we make sense of the world — we all do it, all the time. It’s as if our minds are on automatic story-making-up and re-telling mode. Whether it is some variation of your own history that ends in “things generally work out for me,” or “I don’t have enough time,” at the core these are simply things we tell ourselves.

There’s nothing wrong with it per se, though in the variations above, one story seems to lead down a happy path, the other an unhappy one.  If we’re not aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we can’t understand how they influence our happiness, experience of work and career, moods, and more.

These stories drive our reactions and experiences—positively, negatively or even neutrally—that we tell ourselves. Everyone comes to me with their narrative of events leading to this point in time where they request my help in making change.  As I listen to their stories, I hear similarities to my own past or current stories, and I may nod or even chuckle in recognition:  it seems to be a universal human phenomenon that we all do this.  If the stories veer to the negative or self-limiting, however, they can induce suffering, depression, and lack of motivation towards making change.

Think about it related to career, where you may be experiencing some form of block in either obtaining employment or advancing your career.  Yes, there may be situational factors to address such as skillset, educational attainment, behavioral issues related to organizational skill or leadership capacity. Marketing issues like a poor resume, weak LinkedIn profile or subpar interviewing style, and even bias like ageism can also be present.  As counselor, though, I am also interested in how the person thinks about their situation.  How is their mind portraying the situation, and could that be contributing to the block?

Consider the anxiety-provoking scenario of being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (see my last blog).  Here are two very different stories about the situation:

I’m being set up to fail  |  This is a wake-up call for me to evaluate what I want in this situation/job.

Granted even the second, “positive” self-talk is still a story.  But, what a difference ensues from not having your mind and body taken over!  Even noticing that your thoughts are writing these stories in your head is significant—most people are not aware they are constantly telling themselves stories about everything.

Why do we do this?   One wise psychologist writer suggests, “We all construct a life narrative to condemn or exculpate ourselves or others.  From this story that we keep telling ourselves and others, we form a set of governing scripts; for example, we are helpless victims of our past or of how people are treating us now.  These scripts explain our conditions in life and get us off the hook about amending our lives in conscientious ways.” (Richo)

So how do we at least catch ourselves in the act of telling negative stories, and possibly reframe the script and the control it exerts over us?

  • Catch and release. When you “catch” yourself rehearsing one of your stories, appreciate in the instant that your mind or ego has created this fiction, or maybe others told it to you.  Regard it as a made-up story, a dream to which you have just awakened.  Unhook and release and let it go like a wild trout.
  • Chill, don’t act. Stay in the awareness of the moment.  Take deep breaths and focus on your breathing. Acting on a story can lead to reacting adversely to others, wanting to run away, or even dueling! The word “chill,” as in chill out, makes me smile, and that in itself brings my awareness back to the present moment.
  • Go deep. This may be a stretch, a more advanced perspective if you will:  how we view ourselves can limit who we become.  While staying in momentary awareness, ponder: “Our self is not an accrual of experience but an ongoing, ever-changing manifestation of potentiality.” (Rosenbaum)

These steps I’ve suggested above can help many people with daily stressors, though my counselor training compels me to say that deep-seated issues often require in-depth therapy, and there should be no hesitation in seeking qualified help when you need it.

For most human beings, we are all trying to make sense of what has been called “an impossibly complex world.”  When our narrative strays into self-limiting stories, however, we may need to access another frame of reference to save ourselves; at these times it can be helpful to catch and release, chill, and even contemplate deeper meaning in order to open up opportunity and possibility.


Dave Gallison, MS, LPC
Dave specializes in a short term, action-oriented approach to providing career management solutions to clients seeking to choose, change or advance their careers and reach their professional and personal potential. His unique strength as a career counselor is preparing you for informational interviews and directly assisting you in gaining access to employed contacts within desired organizations.



  1. Career Coaching | Portland | Open Doors to Fulfilling Work - June 12, 2018

    […] perspectives and seeing things from others’ points of view can open up new options. See this post by Dave Gallison with tips for how you can change what you think you know about what is true about […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: