Storytelling is as old as humankind. Before we could write, we told stories to amuse ourselves and preserve our history. We painted our stories on the walls of caves and rocks. Stories were passed down from tribe to parent to child—stories about our customs, history and religious beliefs, our personal and family history, and our desires and dreams of the future. As we evolved, generation after generation, our stories became more complicated. Our thinking expanded; we developed more language. We began to interweave our stories into our conversations.

We also developed the ability to write and edit our stories. This heritage causes everyone to have their own “life story” imprinted into their brain. The imprint is like a timeline database that’s always accumulating more data and sub stories, or changing the data according to the mood of the current story. In this chain reaction, our desire to tell (and have someone hear) our story becomes important. And through this desire, we sometimes run into the trap of telling our stories in a negative, bitter or depressing way.

Right brain/Left brain

Our right brain is abstract, emotional and creative. It feels, thinks and communicates in symbols and is the seat of imagination. Our left brain is unemotional and likes order, logic and sequence. Through the dance of yin and yang, our two brains work together to express language and communication.

Stories hook our attention by causing left and right brain to engage at deeper levels. This dynamic, such as that revealed by a good movie, holds us enthralled. It’s not just the mating of right and left brain that makes us love stories. We resonate with stories in books, on TV or in movies because some part of the story is also “our” story.

The more negative our story, the more unhappy we tend to feel and the more we’re attracted to other negative stories. In the outer world, we begin to attract negative people and experiences. In the inner world, stress accumulates and interferes with our bodily processes. Stress begets stress and our drama hook gets bigger. Additional negative story material accumulates, which begets even more negativity.

We tell the same “he done me wrong” story over and over again until everyone is always doing us wrong and it becomes our theme story.  This is one reason why people repeat the same key experiences in life—because they keep telling the same story! Stories are powerful, and can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. It feels good to tell our story and it feels especially good when others listen and resonate with it. This is how we get hooked on drama.

The power of imagination

The mind is an incredibly powerful instrument. To visualize something repeatedly is to bring it into being in some way, shape or form. Coming through the right brain and deeper mind, universal creative energy is always operating on our thoughts and imaginings. Thus, it’s extremely important to watch what we think and to make our stories positive. Why?to

Our imagination doesn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy. If it feels something, in actuality or imagination, it believes it is real to the degree that the left brain says it’s true. When unchecked or unbalanced, imagination believes everything is real no matter how fanciful because, after all, creation is its purpose. This is why it is wise to challenge your stories. Are they true? How do you know they are true? Is the evidence real and present, or did you just believe it because someone else said it was true? We get smarter than our brain by challenging our stories, choosing our beliefs and recognizing when our imagination is at play.

Magical thinking and denial

We use our imagination all the time. Most of us don’t realize it. Human denial, imagining something is not there, is a coping device that allows us to postpone solving a problem until we can get to it. With unhealthy denial, we simply never get to it.

Every lie is a product of the imagination. If you spend time with small children before their moral sense is developed, you know that their lies are amazingly creative. If a child makes up a good lie (or story), he or she will immediately believe it. You can tell your son that cows can’t really jump over the moon and he will tell you that of course they can—he saw it on Barney. If we tell ourselves the same lie-story a couple of times, the brain begins to believe it’s true. That’s how we get in trouble: lying to ourselves and believing it. We have to work hard to make our stories true. Even if it starts out true, imagination can skew data, exaggerate or minimize, until the real story is lost and all we believe is the more dramatic, twisted version.

Humans are believers. We want to believe; we need to believe. Our brain operates out of our belief systems. Even our behaviour comes out of our belief systems. What’s interesting is that our stories reveal our belief systems and, thus, what is true for us.

What’s the underlying message of your personal story? 

Humans are so incredibly imaginative and creative. Because of this, our brain likes to change a story each time we tell it. Every time we review our history and tell a story about it, we alter it by putting a new perspective (and thus, more meaning) onto it. Over time, we even change the way we remember it.

Our imagination will often deny, exaggerate or minimize different aspects of our “real” story in order to present the message or meaning we want others to have. We can twist the story to fit our audience or mood. We can initiate the responses we want (like pity or support) from the listener by adding details or leaving them out. Three people viewing the same accident will all tell a different story. Siblings of a dysfunctional family often tell stories so dramatically different that you wonder if they really shared the same parents.

Meaning is the bridge between mind and spirit. All of our stories have deeper meaning. Meaning is everything to the brain. Meaning feeds the spirit. A key reason why we tell stories is to make sense of our lives and to gain wisdom of a spiritual quality. When we make sense of a negative experience, the brain can then let go of negative feelings associated with the memory and file the experience as wisdom. This is true for positive experiences as well!

We’re always the ones to decide what something means. This implies that we can consciously avoid negative meanings. If your brain says, “This happened because I’m stupid,” ask yourself: “Is there another way of looking at this?” Encourage your brain to reframe meaning in a more positive perspective. For example, “Oh well, I’m getting smarter every time I make a mistake.”

The stories we tell about ourselves and our lives and the meaning we create become our gospel. The parts we play in our negative stories (victim or martyr) become habitual. Clearly, we come into much more health and happiness by reframing our negative stories into positive ones. We don’t need to agree with someone’s negative story or dramatize our own in a negative way just to hook someone else’s attention. Whether our lives are healthy and happy or not very much depends on the stories we tell.

Jackie Posednar was the publisher of Alaska Wellness Magazine until her death in 2012.