We all tell stories about ourselves. Humans are storytelling creatures and we like to make narrative sense of the world. We present ourselves to each other in the stories we tell about what we’ve done and seen, where we’ve been and who we’ve known. Many stories are very short and often we don’t notice them – as tellers or as audience, or what effect they might have.
I’m intrigued by people who tell stories about the sorts of people they are – that they are empathic people, or highly aware, sensitive, special – these come up around Paganism a fair bit. These are stories that tend to come from people who seem to be none of those things, in my experience. Then there are the people who want to tell a story about who you are – to measure you and demonstrate that they understand you. When there’s depth of relationship this can be valuable feedback, but it’s the empathic people who do it off the cuff I find least helpful.
No doubt we’re all inclined to make ourselves look good when we tell our stories. We want to pick out the best bits. At some point there’s a line to cross between a good retelling and an actual falsehood. That line is seldom easy to see.
One of the falsehoods I see frequently, and that I know to be harmful, is the habit of bigging yourself up. Social media is full of it – people putting their best self out there and doing their best to look like they have great and successful lives. I see authors doing it too – overplaying book sales, what ‘best seller’ on Amazon means, and the like. Success is attractive, is the theory. Who wants to buy from a moderately successful author? The trouble with this comes when you need help.
If you’ve been telling stories about how good you are, but those stories aren’t true, how can you ask for help? I’ve seen authors who have presented as successful start Patreons and not get any support – either because what fans they have believed the success story, or because they never had many fans in the first place. On the flip side, creators who are honest about how things work for them are often much better supported. Fans understand the struggle, and care and want to be involved. In practice, most creators don’t earn enough to live on and investing time in creativity alongside regular employment isn’t easy. But when you’ve overplayed your success, this is hard to talk about.
When you’re over-invested in the story of your own success, you can end up tied in knots about your reality. This way lies cognitive dissonance. When you have to believe in your literary legacy, even though no one seems to be reading your books. When you have presented a perfect family and cannot then admit how your household is falling apart… The greater the distance between your stories and your reality, the harder it becomes to let anyone into your life. The more you’ve misrepresented to look good, the harder it gets to effectively ask for help.
The stories we tell to ourselves, about ourselves and about our relationships with other people are tiny, every day things. We might not even notice when we do them. We might be crafting it deliberately as good PR, as fake it until you make it, as positivity or to feel better. But, these distortions come at a cost – they increase anxiety and feelings of pressure to succeed and they don’t reliably work as marketing strategies, whether you’re trying to look good to your family, or sell more books.
Most of us identify more with stories of honest struggle and occasional success than we do with people who seem to have it all. Our kindness is engaged by empathy with other people’s trials. We can enjoy the success of people we feel have earned it but may resent people who seem to have had it all handed to them on a plate. Better not to fake it until you make it. Better to be real, and human, open to being supported and able to have a wail about the crap along the way.