I was in grade 10 at the time. My mom dropped me off a block away from the movie theater. I got out of our car, straightened my coat, took a deep breath, and slowly walked toward the group of friends I was meeting that night.
I wasn’t a popular girl growing up. Like most teenagers, I was gangly and awkward, spending most of my days trying to avoid embarrassment. But like most teenagers, I also wanted to have groups of friends and a yearbook full of fun memories. I wanted to be invited out and have a crush on the captain of the football team. I wanted to belong. And on this particular night, that feeling was waiting for me in a row of uncomfortable chairs and new experiences.
Ten of us found seats in the middle of the theater, and I happened to be sitting next to the boy I liked. Tall and handsome, he made me weak in the knees. My “supercrush” and I were having a conversation about our most recent English class assignment when another person from our group boldly interrupted, looking straight at me and saying: “You know what? You have the gummiest smile I’ve ever seen.” And right there, under the darkness of the dimming theater lights, I changed.
While everyone laughed and I pretended to pass it off as funny, a piece of me broke that night. And for the next two decades, I would be extremely self-conscious of my smile, hiding it away for fear of what others might think.
At that moment, a piece of someone else’s story about me became my story. And this is something that happens to all of us to some degree — we’re all impacted by the narrative that others create about us. Maybe it’s something seemingly more subtle, like a comment someone makes in passing about your accent, your body, or your skills. But it also might be something far more significant, like a parent who was never pleased, a bully on the playground, or a great love that broke your heart. The crossover that occurs between ourselves and other people always leaves a mark.
For most of us, this starts as far back as we can remember — during our youngest days and our most impressionable years. More importantly, it starts before we have the ability to write our own stories. So we navigate the world by absorbing what others tell us about ourselves and the experiences we live. Together, they create an identity.
Reframing the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Some of us were raised in environments that emphasized a supportive narrative: “You’re capable, you’re strong, you’re lovable.” But others grew up in more critical ecosystems built around entirely different stories: “You’re a burden, you’re a failure, you’re not good enough.”
Essentially, we leave our formative years with chapters of our lives already written. The problem is that someone else was holding the pen. And we often continue down this road well into adulthood, allowing external voices to shape and mold who we become in life. This is all carried out without us ever questioning if that’s who we really are or want to be.
In our defense, that’s not entirely our fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s simply how we’re wired as human beings — to take in and process feedback from other people. If we’re not careful, though, it’s easy to forget that we’re actually the main character of our story, a story that is entirely in our hands. So how do we find a way out of the shackles of others’ narratives about us? Start with these tips:
1. Determine what’s true.
When it comes to narratives someone else might be expressing about you, the most important thing to do is question the stories. Push back on the narrative and ask yourself: “Is this true?” There’s a significant difference between what we do and who we are. Sure, we might be late for meetings every now and then, but that doesn’t mean we are unreliable. Question the story you’re telling yourself — or that someone else is telling you — and be intentional about finding evidence supporting the contrary.
Learning about how stories are built is one of the most fun and interesting ways to begin living your life through a different lens. Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” outlines the fundamental structure that occurs within all great stories — and more importantly, how it relates to all great heroes. And it’s not just for stories such as “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” It’s a structure that can be applied to all human experiences, including yours and mine. That means we all have the ability to uncover and embrace the heroic nature of our own stories.
3. Reframe the narrative.
There are two sides to every coin. Likewise, there is a gift and a shadow side within every experience. Maybe getting bullied on the playground made us less trusting of the people around us and caused us to feel an immense degree of loneliness growing up. That experience can be incredibly damaging to our hearts and sense of self. The hidden gift of that experience, though, is the ability and desire to be as inclusive as possible. Every person I know who has been bullied in school also has grown up to have an acute sensitivity to those who might feel left out. They’re gifted at bringing people together and go out of their way to ensure everyone feels a strong sense of safety and belonging.
Stories have the power to become our connective tissue as human beings. We are woven into them, and they weave their way into us. We are born into stories, we breathe air into stories, and we give life to stories. But it’s never too late for any of us to pick up the pen and write the story that we want to hear most. Although it’s true that we might not get to control all of the “what” within the stories of our life, we do get to control the “who.”
So let’s write the story of a person who chased their dreams or the story of a person who never gave up. Let’s write the story of a person who gained superpowers from their trials and a deeper sense of humanity from their challenges. Let’s write the story of a person who lived their life and chose to be a hero. Speaking of which, one of my superpowers is going out of my way to tell people how much their smile lights up a room!