When I was six, I got a skateboard for Christmas. It was red. And it was the best present ever. My best friend Barney came to visit and I dragged him to the airing cupboard where it lived. But when I hoisted myself up to the top, climbing the slatted shelves like a ladder, the skateboard wasn’t there.
This story was one my parents and brother told. They laughed when they recounted my “dream” to visitors.
The skateboard never existed, they said. I’d dreamed it, they said.
I don’t remember the dream. But I do remember climbing up the airing cupboard shelves to look for my skateboard. I remember the absolute conviction that it existed. And the crushing disappointment and confusion when it wasn’t there.
Or do I? Is this an implanted memory? If it is, why do I remember this and not showing Barney? And why do I remember it was red? No one else supplied that detail. (Not that I remember—of course.)
And where on earth did the sense of betrayal come from? That’s a pretty sophisticated emotion for a six year old. Did that come much later? When I began re-examining the stories I’d been told about myself?
Whose story are you telling?
What stories do you trot out most readily? Which d’you tell to entertain and amuse new friends? Which stories define who you are?
Where do these stories come from?
- Do they come from your own lived experience?
- Have you inherited them?
- Or, are they stories you’ve conjured to make sense of the world?
- Do the stories you’ve been told about yourself match your own memory of events?
- If they do, is that because the story matches your memory, or has your memory altered to match the story you were told?
The stories you tell come from a thousand sources. But they broadly fall into two camps—biographical stories based on your memory of events in your own life—and stories that draw on ideas, concepts and acquired knowledge not drawn from your personal experience.
We’re all brought up on stories. Our parents and caregivers are our first storytellers. As children, stories are what give us our sense of belonging to a family and culture. They help us form our identity.
But how can you be sure that the stories you were raised on, the stories that have formed the core of your identity, are true? If you didn’t live the story, how do you know? And if you did, how can you be absolutely sure you can believe your own memory?
So, whose story is it?
Can you trust your own memory?
You’d think it’s easy to know when a story is your own. You’ve lived it. You can recall fine details, of place, colour and smell. Maybe other people can even confirm it. But how sure can you be that what you remember absolutely matches reality? And how does talking about your memory change it?
Your memory is at the core of your sense of self. Questioning your autobiographical memories is like questioning your whole identity.
If you are your memories and your memories aren’t real, then really—who are you?
Have you ever experienced any form of gaslighting? If you have, you know that being told your recollection of events is wrong is completely crazy-making. But instinctively, a part of you knows that, even if the gaslighter is wrong, what they’re saying is possible. We all legitimately question our memories sometimes. It’s why gaslighting is so effective.
Your memories can be altered, erased or implanted. But it doesn’t take a sociopath to do it. You do this yourself, every time you recall a memory.
Even recalling and examining a memory is thought to re-write that memory in a process called “retrieval induced forgetting”. Research into the reliability of eye-witness testimony has found the common belief that recalling a memory strengthens it and makes it more accurate is wrong. Very wrong.
In fact, every time you recall a memory, you re-write it.
“It is the equivalent of keeping a file of index cards, pulling one out to read it, throwing it away, and then copying out a new version on a fresh card for filing once more. This is thought to happen every time we recall any memory.”— Dr. Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion
Your memory is a part of your identity. But whose memory is it?
Cultural & social stories
Every cultural tradition has its own set of myths, folklore and other inherited stories. These stories give a sense of group identity, of belonging, a shared understanding of the world and how it works.
Whether they’re religious, racial, ethnic, economic, cultural, political or geographic, these shared stories are essential to your sense of wellbeing and to your survival. As an individual, you’re anchored by your history. It gives you a strength and a resilience to face the world, knowing your foundations are solid. Passing on the stories, rituals and beliefs of your group, can strengthen those social bonds and your sense of belonging.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”— Marcus Garvey
But what happens when you decide that a cultural story—one you’ve grown up with, contributed to and believed in—no longer serves you? What about when the master narrative of your social group is at odds with a personal or family story?
Your family stories
Cultural and family stories are both types of inherited story. Your family stories sit within your cultural framework—a framework comprising a whole mish-mash of complex stuff—politics, race, religion, climate, geography, point in time, etc.
Our family habits, beliefs and stories are inevitably influenced by the time and place we live. But even with that shared context, family and cultural stories don’t always align. When family and social stories conflict with each other, you have to make a choice about which story you follow, or whether you devise a new version of the story that is all your own.
If your family stories sits outside the master narrative of your social group, or your personal stories sit outside the family narrative, you’ll feel the discomfort. In extreme circumstances, you could even be called on to make a life-altering choice about your allegiance.
We’re generally pretty good at coping with dissonance. We love animals, yet (most of us) eat them. We know smoking can kill us, yet 20% of us light up daily. Most religions are built on incompatible belief systems but somehow, for the most part, they muddle through with millions on millions of believers.
But turning your back on cultural or family stories that conflict with your own can be a traumatic choice. It can mean you lose the security and support of the group. So what do you do?
Change your story or change your reality?
You might adapt your own story to fit the existing narrative, deny your own experience, and assure your place in in society, the guarantee of support, of shelter, and of help when in need.
You might chose a half-way route, maintaining your place in the group, while accepting that you won’t always agree. Maybe you’ll just absent yourself from certain conversations. Maybe you’ll argue your point each time, hoping to effect change from within. Or maybe you’ll laugh and nod along in agreement, feeling just a little more uncomfortable each time you do.
Or, you might really question the narratives that don’t feel authentic and don’t fit your true self. You might explore your own story, leave behind parts of that story that no longer work for you or that are part of an identity you no longer recognise.
You don’t have to throw away your entire identity, or your canon of stories because you’ve fallen out of love with the storyteller—whether that’s a person or a whole culture. Inherited stories can still be a key part in your identity.
Every story has at least two sides. And the same story can belong to more than one person.
One story—many storytellers
I spent quite a few years trying to find a version of myself that excluded anything and everything I’d ever been told about myself by my mother. It got me nowhere but lost. When I’d discarded everything I’d inherited from her, learned from her, been told by her, enjoyed with her, all of our shared passions and interests, I was left with a brittle, slightly bitter, and empty husk.
In trying to separate from her, to find my own identity, I had thrown away the core of myself.
When I let go of another story—one that said everything I saw in my mother’s character was her invention and possession—it couldn’t be a part of me without me being a part of her—I could allow myself to pick up and begin to enjoy the things I loved again. Music, art, ecology, walks in the woods and by the sea. Writing.
Writing helped me to better understand us both. To accept that, hurtful as her actions may sometimes be, her intention was not bad. Somehow, working through my own memories and inherited stories, gave me the space I needed to see past events without the discomfort of present but unexamined memories.
Parts of myself I share with her, I also share with my brother, my grandparents, and many of my friends. As well as the people I’m drawn too. Just because I share my story and aspects of my interests and identity with someone else, does not mean I am someones else. I can still be me. I can still tell my own story.
Tell your story your way
Your version of your story may be different to someone else’s but that doesn’t mean either of you is absolutely right or wrong. Once you get your head around this, it becomes much easier to focus on telling your version of the story your way, rather than on trying to prove yourself right or someone else wrong.
Look at your story for what it gives you. What do you want to be your story? Live that story. Tell that story.
And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s wrong, simply because it doesn’t align with their own experience.
You can drive yourself nuts trying to get your head around the idea that reality doesn’t exist, your memory is flawed, and everything you thought you knew about yourself and your own experience might be an invention. All while trying to figure out your own story.
Or, you can make a virtue of your memory distortions. Explore them. Work out where they come from. Tell a story about that journey.
Wherever your story originated, however much of it belongs to someone else, it’s still your story. Tell it your way.
Tips and ideas
If you’re struggling to figure out what’s your story and what’s someone else’s, start by asking yourself these questions—
- Where did I first hear this story?
- Who else has a version of this story?
- What does this story mean to them?
- What words or phrases do I consistently trot out when I tell this story? Where/who do they come from? What’s the emotion behind these phrases?
- How does this story tie in with my family mythology—the stories I share with my parents, care-givers, siblings, etc.?
- How has this story affected my view of myself and what I’m capable of?
- Who does this story really serve?
- What does this story mean to me?
- Is this a story I want to tell?
If you want to share any of your realisations in the comments, I’d love to hear them.