We Become the Stories We Tell

This is an excerpt from my new book on self compassion. Hope you enjoy it!

The camera company Canon conducted a social experiment they called The Lab Decoy. They brought in an actor named Michael.

Several photographers were prompted ahead of time on who Michael was, but each was given a different fabricated story.

One photographer was told that Michael was a self made millionaire.

A second was told that Michael was an ex convict.

The next was told that Michael was a fisherman.

Another was told that Michael was a hero who saved someone’s life.

The photographers were asked to take pictures of Michael that would “flesh out the essence of who he is.”

They came in one at a time to a expansive room with big windows and eclectic furniture where Michael was waiting for them. He wore the same clothes in each occurrence, but people related to him very differently according to the story that they were told about him.

Michael and each photographer did not go into deep conversations about his life. He was simply asked a few questions and then photographed in whatever part of the room the photographer chose.

After the shoot, the photographers were interviewed about their experience.

The photographer who believed Michael was a millionaire said that he was “intimidating” so he didn’t go for a beautiful, perfectly lit portrait.

The photographer who was told Michael was an ex-con said “it was really intense.”

The photographer who thought Michael was a hero said “what I learned from him is that he’s incredibly brave.”

Then, each photographer was asked to choose a photograph that best summed up Michael’s essence. 

In the picture the photographer chose of Michael as a millionaire, his face is blown up to become the focal point, with a look of aloofness and smugness.

The picture of Michael as a fisherman has him in a warmly colored armchair, with a friendly grin on his face.

As an ex convict, Michael stands in the darkest part of the room. His body is away from the photographer, and he looks intimidating.

In the picture of Michael as a hero, he stands tall next to a large window in the room. His countenance is glowing with light.

The video documenting the experiment ends with this quote:

A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.

Here is a video of the experiment if you would like to watch it:

How could all these photographers portray such different pictures of the same man?

That’s easy. The story behind the camera was more important than the story in front of it.

The story the photographers believed became the picture they took. 

When I read about this experiment, I thought about how it related to my desire to be an observer of my inner world, my quest of self compassion. My mind was like a camera to the world, a filter through which my life passed. Just as the pictures of Michael were shaped more by the story in the photographer’s mind than the picture in front of it, my world was shaped more by the stories that I built up in my own mind than the stories in front of it.

As human beings, we are immersed in story. Stories have been a part of the human existence since we learned how to scratch drawings on the wall of a cave. From books to songs to movies to TV to plays to Facebook to stories told around the table and around the campfire, stories became a part of our life when we were young, and will be a part of our life until the day we die.

The most important story by far is not the one we see in front of us, but the one inside of our own mind, the story that we learn and tell and believe about our life.

The story that we are told about ourselves often becomes the story we believe and tell about ourselves. 

We have no choice in the story we are told about who we are, but we have all the control in the world over the story that we believe and the story we tell.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a group foster home in Idaho. It was a place that was both harrowing and holy. These were beautiful paradoxes of children: covered with stardust, cloaked in suffering. I would read them Anne of Green Gables at bedtime and sing them to sleep. As they began to trust me, they would tell me their stories. Stories that were so haunting that I would often get home and weep, praying that I could pry open the their neglected hearts and let a little light in there. Maybe flowers would grow in the asphalt then.

Many of these kids influenced me, but one changed my life. Let’s say that her name was Alicia. She was fifteen. She had a tall, broad frame with short cornsilk blonde hair and big watery blue eyes. While most of the kids there wore oversized black hoodies, she always wore long skirts and bright colors.

Alicia would hold her head up high, yet she would speak with gentleness to everyone. She seemed so confident, which didn’t match her backdrop. Like a dove sleeping in the dirt.

That’s why I was shocked when I found out that her mother had been a prostitute. When they needed more money, mom would take Alicia her with her to lure clients. After years of this, she was finally taken in by social services and sent to this foster home.

One day, I overheard another foster child that struggled with jealousy of Alicia yelling at her. She said “I know what your mother did!” Alicia steadily replied “I know what she did, too. But that’s not all that she is. She is a child of God.” There was not a trace of venom in her voice.

“Well, I know what you are too!”

With the security of someone who knows that they are loved, Alicia said “It’s true that I have had some hard things happen in my past. But when God looks at me he doesn’t see those things. He sees me beautiful.”

Many years later, I got an email from her. She had searched for my address, and wrote saying “Are you the wonderful lady that used to sing us to sleep?” When I realized who she was, I wrote back saying “yes I am. And you my dear, you changed my life.”

She recounted what was going on with her: she was now living in Texas, married to her sweetheart, a mother of two kids. She sounded happy.

Alicia was told one story as a child, but she chose to believe a better story. And in turn, she chose to tell a better story.

She took a jackhammer of hope and busted up those sidewalks. She clawed at the ground with her dirtied hands, pulling up the rocks and the clumps of concrete until she found the soil. And then she planted. New seeds, better seeds. And the flowers that came up made that neighborhood a different place.

She knew that the only way to have a new story was to tell a new story.

She realized that the only way to get unstuck was to reach.


One thought on “We Become the Stories We Tell

  1. Kate,

    I’m not even sure what I’m feeling, but this post definitely opened some emotion and shed some tears in me. Keep writing, and let us know when your new book is out.

    Debbie Darrow

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