There is an enormous power to the stories we tell ourselves. They control how we interact with the world around us and the people we encounter. Everything can be understood in terms of the stories we tell ourselves and while it is tempting to apply this only to the things we perceive as negative it affects the things we feel positive attitudes towards as well.
I’m going to share a story I tell myself. It may strike you as silly, or sad or a hundred other things. But it’s a true story and I tell it purely to illustrate a point.
Putting it as delicately as possible I have problems with digestion. Nothing totally debilitating, often just annoying but these problems go back to at least me late teens and have always been put down to food allergies or intolerances. If they kick in I need to be in close proximity of toilet facilities so they make spontenaity difficult but I’m not a particularly spontaneous person so that’sokay.
Sporadically it gets worse though, prompted probably by stress, at which point I make a half-hearted attempt to investigate it. The last time was about 8 months ago when I saw a gastroenterologist. After various non-invasive tests he offered me his medical opinion. He said it was most likely a food allergy. It had been stable and relatively unchanged in severity for many years so it was unlikely to be anything serious like cancer (a possibility that had not occurred to me up to that point). He offered to refer me to a dietician but said that was a tortuous process and it would be easier if I simply cut food groups from my diet for a period of months to see if it made any difference. If things didn’t improve He would be happy to see me again and make further investigations. He suggested I start by cutting out milk based products as these were a common problem.
So I cut out dairy and things improved dramatically. I missed living on chocolate but that aside things were definitely improved. I began to recognise the part stress played in things and that I needed to eat at regular periods.
Everything was good.
Then I developed an umbilical hernia (called Albert) and went to the doctors to look at getting it corrected. The doctor referred me and I ended up visiting a service run for the NHS by a private company. I saw a surgeon who asked a handful of questions and then decided he wanted an endoscopy and a colonoscopy performed before he touched the hernia. This was irritating and seemed wasteful to me, but I didn’t question it. When I got home I grumped about him wasting NHS money. Later that evening I thought about the questions he’d asked, which were few in number, and through the miracle of Google I researched what he may have suspected that caused him to request further investigation. Computer says Bowel Cancer.
Environment affects the stories we tell ourselves. My dad died some ten years ago from the effects of brain tumours and about two years after I developed a problem with bad and frequent headaches. The story I told myself was that I had brain tumours and these things were probably hereditary and I was going to die. It turned out I needed glasses. Something I was aware of but hadn’t paid attention to how it was affecting me.
I come from a family of pessimists so imagining the worst, telling myself the worst possible story was not out of character.
Anyway, back in the present. I have the Colonoscopy and endoscopy on 1st of October. Despite having been told by a gastroenterologist that cancer wasn’t an issue, despite knowing that I have a sensitive stomach (where I hold my stress and tension) and that a hernia could upset it and has previously, despite my wife, who works for the NHS, telling me that the surgeon is just being extra cautious and there’s no need to worry despite all this, the story I choose to tell myself is at odds with this. Having lost my father and father-in-law to cancer, having become aware of the reach of cancer and that it’s not just an old person’s disease or a smoker’s disease, I choose, subconsciously, to tell myself that it could be cancer. In my darkest moments I tell myself it probably is cancer and that story affects the rest of my day to day life.
I am trying to tell myself a different story but it’s hard. Environment and upbringing particularly define the kinds of stories you tell. When we tell ourselves stories with no basis in fact, stories based on gut feelings, we run the risk of damaging ourselves and our world.
I haven’t shared this story looking for sympathy or attention. It is likely to be nothing, and the NHS will be billed for two unnecessary procedures. I want to use it purely to draw attention to how our thinking, our stories can harm us. It is also worth remembering that the stories we tell ourselves affect not only us but others as well. Stories can be used to share great truths that we would ignore if given to us as “facts” but they can also share great harm if we do not check them ourselves.