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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity
Why We Get Locked Inside Stories — and How to Break Free
It sounds odd to say that we might be locked within a story. What might this curious expression mean?
Chiefly that we keep unknowingly repeating dynamics that go in very particular — and not especially pleasant — directions. We’re involved in stories of defeat, humiliation, suffering, fear and loneliness, believing ourselves to be original at every turn while in fact rehearsing almost identical patterns in our choices and behaviours. And we probably do this in two areas above all: our working lives and our love lives.
At work, some of the stories might go like this:
— Every time I succeed, I fall prey to terror that others will want to destroy me out of envy — and sabotage myself before they have a chance to ruin me
We can get locked in a story where we strive hard to ‘win’ but the moment we do so, we grow fearful of enemies, either real or presumed, taking their vengeance out on us and stripping us of our advantages. It ends up easier to fail at a time of our own choosing than to live in anticipation of random destruction at the will of others.
— I end up playing the helpful friend to a more powerful self-involved person who eventually takes all the glory for my efforts.
According to this story, we play a meak subservient character who smiles a lot, who listens more than they speak and who winds up unrecognised and marginalised by our dominant friend, whom we have helped to triumph in ways we never do.
Comparable sorts of stories might be going on in our love lives. For example:
— I am drawn to emotionally unavailable people whose love I relentlessly try to secure
According to this story, we repeatedly find ourselves ‘in love’ with people who are either unable to love us back at all or do so in a distracted or half-hearted way (maybe they are very cold or involved with someone else). Whenever an alternative story rears its head, a story involving someone kind and present, we make sure it will be refused and destroyed. We wonder — sincerely — why love can’t be any easier.
— I get into relationships with good people who I betray with random strangers — and then lament being abandoned
In this story, we begin love stories with kind and good people who we find ourselves drawn to hurting through affairs we’re not aware of actively seeking but that we can’t resist getting into. Our stories are guaranteed to end in loss and sadness.
Why are we such addicts of these sorts of painful stories?
As we can guess, because they play out in our adult present the essence of scenarios that unfolded in substantially similar ways in childhoods that we have neither understood nor liberated ourselves from at the hands of our caregivers.
Once upon a time, the characters that are now played by our co-workers or people we meet on dating sites were played by Mother or Father, in scripts we have lost sight of.
We repeat a narrative because specific sorts of pain and unfulfillment feel seductively familiar and because we privilege familiarity over happiness. We have an impression that a story ‘should’ go a certain way, towards darkness, while joy and satisfaction give off a feeling of eerieness and illegitimacy.
Liberation comes when we can dare to start an audit of our narrative choices.
To help us, we might sketch out the last few relationships or workplace fiascos and see what similarities there might be between them. Who left who and why? Where was the pain coming from? How did we act? And how might this be a palimpsest of what happened somewhere long ago?
If we keep being involved in stories of betrayal at work, we can be almost certain that there was once a betrayal that we haven’t understood or overcome. If we keep needing to throw ourselves at the feet of unavailable people, there is someone’s love we once needed and which we have never faced up to not having won. We need to go back and refind the original actors or we will never be left off the stage.
We’ll keep following the same fruitless trajectories until we can better understand why we began them — and, through an awareness of our distinctive roles, give ourselves the opportunity, at last, for different sorts of endings.