Why most of your problems are just stories.
Reading time: 4 minutes 55 seconds
My client, Julie, stared at me. ‘You have no idea how crazy I am’ she insisted. I looked back at her, unimpressed. ‘Try me’. She began to explain to me the weird things that crossed her mind. “This isn’t normal. I’m not normal,” she said.
I paused and leaned forward in the seat. “Have you ever been driving along a road and seen a bridge you’re going under and imagine all of a sudden that bridge collapsing on top of the car and you being stuck there, trapped indefinitely?” I responded.
Julie frowned like she was listening to the weirdest person she had ever met. “No”. “Well,” I clarified. “Those kinds of thoughts go through my head all the time. The difference is that I just think ‘Well, those thoughts were weird’”.
Therapy is full of light bulb moments such as these. The problem is not always the problem. The real problem is the problem you have with the problem.
The stories we tell ourselves
If you’ve heard me speak on the way we talk to ourselves, you’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of looking at the stories we tell ourselves. We build our realities through these stories. They determine what we think, how we think, and what we believe about the world and about ourselves.
Great therapists in the world are brilliant at one specific skill. They are masterful at helping you change the stories you tell yourself. Their main focus is on getting you to tell yourself narratives that empower you and help you through the adversity of life.
Viktor Frankl talks about this in his incredible memoir ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. After going through hell in a concentration camp, Frankl found meaning in his suffering. ‘Logotherapy’ is a therapy he invented that works by helping people find meaning. The stories we tell ourselves about what events mean provide this ‘meaning’.
The key point here is that most of the problems we face are mainly the stories we are telling ourselves about what we are experiencing.
Real and imaginary problems
Dr Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP and a mentor of mine, once said
“Real problems require real solutions. Imaginary problems require imaginary solutions.”
Early in his career, Richard worked with schizophrenics by working inside of their reality. He would take what they said as true and work with it. When a patient of his named Andy would see people coming off the television, Richard quipped ‘Does the term ‘Playboy channel’ mean anything to you?’ This unconventional approach helped Andy and many like him. But it’s not just those with significantly different realities that this works for. We all have problems in life that would fit in the category of imaginary problems.
A real problem is that you are physically ill and need to get better. You are broke, and you need money. Your car broke down, and it needs to be fixed. Imaginary problems are problems that happen as a result of your imagination. Our fears. Our sadness. Our anxiety. Our anger. All of these emotions are a product of what we do inside our heads.
We can’t fix fear by removing the threat because when that threat resurfaces, the fear will return. Instead, we need to learn to change what goes on inside our heads. Primarily, this involves changing the stories we tell ourselves.
The victim and the villain
There are two primary story structures that get us in trouble. The first is the victim story. This is the story most of my clients would tell me when I worked with them. They are the victims of an unfair world, their parents, a shitty system, their schoolteacher, their siblings, their friends, their exes etc.
The reason they have the problems they have is because of others. It’s not fair, and they are destined to suffer because of the cruelty, thoughtlessness, or trauma of others.
The second story structure is the villain story. This is when my clients believed that they were the reason for their own problems. They sabotaged their own success, were simply not good enough, kept ruining everything good, and were frauds and fakes that would be found out at any moment.
They were the villains and yet also the victims in this story and were destined to suffer at their own hands.
When I worked with these clients, I focused on two core qualities they needed to cultivate.
The key to helping the victims was getting them to realize what control or influence they could exert over their lives. They needed to find agency in their reality so they could stop being victims and start being the heroes of their own stories.
All heroes start out as victims, the difference comes down to what they try and do to overcome the challenges they face.
The second quality was the quality of choice. This means recognizing that when you make different choices, that leads to a different future. When you see yourself as the villain of your own life, realizing the power you have to make a new choice is critical to helping you transform.
Sometimes the natural response I get from people around control and choice is the pushback because the person doesn’t have much control or agency.
They can’t make choices because they are impacted by the world around them or the subconscious drives that keep them making the mistakes they make.
The truth is, however, that while sometimes there is little to no control, it is important to focus on whatever you can. You have to do whatever is possible for you to do and avoid blaming yourself for your circumstances. Instead, focus on making things a little bit different day after day.
How to become a hero
In order to help yourself change the stories that cause your problems, try these three simple steps:
1. What is the story I am telling myself about this problem?
2. Am I a victim of someone or something? If so, what can I control or influence to change things? What do I need to do?
3. Am I the villain that is causing my own distress? If so, what new choices can I make moving forward that help me get over this problem?
Overcoming the problem with the problem
The intrusive thoughts that Julie had became a bigger deal because of the narrative she bought into about them. When she learned that other people have just as crazy (if not more so) thoughts, it changed the narrative and she stopped feeling, in her words, like a ‘crazy person’.
We live inside the stories that we tell ourselves. When we can be more conscious of these narratives and work to transform our character to the hero of each story, we will learn to overcome the biggest problems that we face.
We will find the imaginary solutions we need to solve the imaginary problems. While we might not live happily ever after, we’ll definitely be a lot better off.
P.S. If you are interested in catching up on any of the past editions of Inner Propaganda, you can find them all here.