Do Stories Shape Our Reality Or Does Reality Create Our Stories? Yes

6 min readMar 13, 2017

A train delay has me running late for a meeting with a director I hope will agree to develop a new cabaret/comedy show I am working on. It feels high-stakes, because my inner narrative is negative. It goes something like this: “You are too old to start, this new thing. You will look foolish if you try. This director knows Liza Minelli and every musical theater star in New York, you are totally out of your league.” But he agreed to meet with me after watching a video of my work so I pushed through the doubt to be here in downtown Manhattan on rainy morning.

Anxious, absorbed, and in desperate need of a coffee, I rush through an intersection toward the Starbucks on the corner. The heel of my new sandal gets stuck between two cobblestones as I race through an intersection at a speed no one should be moving in those shoes on that slippery street, carrying an oversize, overstuffed bag. I go down in a spectacular splat as sheet music and notebooks and snacks fly absolutely everywhere. The nearly instant cacophony of car horns heighten the urgency with which I scramble my things together. It feels as if people in every nearby shop, park bench and car are either laughing at or pity me. As I lurch toward Starbucks, I realize that while I have no physical injury, I have no mercy toward myself for having taken this fall. And through the window, I notice a guy noticing me. “Wow, it’s like he’s never seen someone fall down in the street before. The least he can do is look away,” I think to myself. “Oh, now he’s squinting at me. Great.”
As I wait for my order, I feel his gaze. So I approach him.

“New shoes” I say. “I’m not used to them so I lost my balance on the cobblestones. So embarrassing.”

“Nancy?” he asks.

“No, new shoes.” I say, more loudly, as if that will solve the now glaringly obvious misunderstanding.

“Sorry, I thought you were looking at me.” he says. “I’m meeting this woman for the first time and she said she’s wearing a blue blazer, and...I’m sorry”

“Oh, I thought you were looking at me,” I say. “Sorry….”

A second later Nancy appears, their meeting seems to go on as scheduled and it is clear that I only became part of his narrative that morning when I assumed he was rudely judging me.

The intensity of my emotions evoked a story that turned out to be entirely made up, a cautionary tale to slow down those racing thoughts, and find some self-compassion when the embarrassing thing happens. That capacity — to take a difficult true thing and find new perspective on it — is one of the most useful and healing elements of shaping true events into stories. Events can be beyond our control, but the story we tell about them gives us agency. And all the stories that we tell ourselves, “whether they be false or true, are always real,” as Maria Popova writes in Some Thoughts On Hope, Cynicism and The Stories We Tell Ourselves. “We act out of those stories, reacting to their realness.”

Our internal story impacts our perception in important ways. It shapes our sense of what is possible, and can throw shade on hopes and dreams. A young person who flounders academically and struggles for passing grades can carry an internal story about failure that not only haunts every job interview as an adult, but the jobs she sees as accessible or the goals he views as attainable. An older person who buys the story that new love, new projects and new thinking are all in the rear view mirror can miss the openings that do exist and dismiss interesting offers to go in an untried direction.

Seth Godin takes this on in a blog posted titled The Stories We Tell Ourselves:

“Here’s one: “I’m too old to make a difference, take a leap, change the game…” (Sometimes, I hear this from people who are 27 years old).
This is a seductive story, because it lets us off the hook. Obviously, the thinking goes, the deck (whichever deck you want to pick) is stacked against me, so no need to even imagine the failure that effort will bring. Better to just move along and lower my expectations.”

We know that age is not a barrier to creativity nor curiosity nor the will to change course, and neither are race, gender or any of the other demographic differences among human beings. So, since stories have this power to persuade and influence our sense of the world and what is possible, it makes sense to expose ourselves to stories that empower and inspire. Listening to stories on podcasts such The Moth, RISK!, Strangers and a growing number of other innovative programs is an entertaining and accessible way to imagine realities people have lived, get energy from their struggle and maybe see in ourselves some of the heroic qualities we learn about.

“What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better,” writes Paul Bloom in “Imagining The Lives Of Others” on the New York Times Opinionator blog. “In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.”

There is research showing that a well-told tale has far-reaching impact on emotions and behavior.

“Empathy, Neurochemistry and The Dramatic Arc”
“The stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does,” stated researcher Paul Zak at The Future of Storytelling 2012, according to journalist Elizabeth Svoboda in The Power of Story on “When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened.” Our capacity for empathy and imagination connect us to the lives, and stories, of others. And we can tell ourselves that we possess the creativity to reconstruct negative narratives we carry around, because thinking and believing in that narrative makes it true.

The meeting with the director went very well, by the way. He helped me develop my performance, get bookings, and garner reviews that never would have happened without him. The negative inner narrative can still erupt when there is a run of rejection or disappointment that is inevitable in the arts, but it is all fodder for comedy. Creativity is a renewable resource. Our lives are a story that is still being written and we have agency to frame our inner narratives in ways that empower and inspire.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is an approved provider of Continuing Ed for social workers by NYS, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories-with a twist-told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.




LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs