I possess the strange and seemingly useless ability to recall song lyrics with almost flawless precision, even if I haven’t listened to a given song in years — sometimes decades.
And although I don’t know why or how my recall is so good with song lyrics (specifically, and not much else), in random moments little sentences and turns of phrase will explode out of my memory and begin rolling around in my mind, over and over again.
One such set of lyrics has to do with storytelling. It goes like this:
“Say it once, tell me twice
Are you certain I’m alright?
Just a sign, to remind me
That tomorrow’s worth the fight
Ever-changing, the storyline that keeps me alive…”
When I first heard that phrase strung together — the storyline that keeps me alive — they arrested me. Replaying like a magic spell, my mind began to search through visual memories of moments in time when stories that I told myself became the banners that I flew, and aspired towards, and kept me motivated to fight onward toward a brighter tomorrow.
In the face of feeling lost, misunderstood, longing, or alone, the stories that I told myself about what my future could become, and who I might be in it, kept me going. They kept me “alive.”
I started referring to these stories as “survival stories.”
Sure, maybe a story that we recite isn’t necessarily going to guarantee living in the face of death. But really, all stories “keep us alive” in a kind of way. The stories of what we hope for and aspire toward keep us alive by reassuring us that there is so much more to live for, enjoy, experience, and become.
They establish our foundational basis for understanding anything, at all — including the wildly improbable odds of our existing in the first place. Our stories “keep us alive” because their continuity from day to day help us to establish our essential senses of safety, security, and comfort in the strange fact that we are living, to begin with
The stories that we tell ourselves and in which we believe give us a sense of purpose, belonging, and meaning. We depend upon many stories to understand our place in the world.
We are storied creatures.
But what happens to the stories that have “kept us alive” — whether it’s those literal “survival stories” that have inspired us in down times, or the figurative stories that we’ve gotten used to for years — but that we have since outgrown?
What do we “do” about the stories upon which we once relied for survival, but that are no longer relevant? Helpful? Motivating, or guiding?
What happens when a “survival story” begins to feel like it’s holding us back from getting out of “survival mode”… and into the place in which we wish to reside, a place of thriving?
If you’ve been feeling that way, it’s possible that you’ve been telling yourself or others a “survival story” for just a bit too long. And it may be time to question whether or not you should keep telling it.
5 Prompts to Release the Stories that You’ve Outgrown
As a writer and storyteller, I believe it is an important practice to not only be aware of the stories we tell ourselves and the world around us, but to routinely weed out the stories that no longer serve us, or those around us, or the good in the world.
I believe that we put ourselves at risk of being held back by our old stories… unless we challenge them, change them, and tell them anew.
To revise, update, edit, or release old stories — even those that have served you so well as to, perhaps, have been the motivation for your “survival” — we have to call attention to the detail of those stories, and call them by name, and acknowledge their presence in our narrative realities.
Use this fill-the-blank framework below to call attention to one such “survival story,” in particular, that you suspect may have overstayed its welcome in your self-storied life:
1. “If there’s one story that I’ve been telling myself for too long, that one story would probably be ________________.”
2. “Why does that story come to mind? It may be because I’ve been hearing myself tell that story a little too often, such as… (answer as many as feel relevant/applicable)
(a) …in moments like ________________”
(b) …with others, such as when I’m ________________”
(c) …in my own head, especially when I’m ________________”
3. “How long have I been telling myself this story? I think it all goes back to ________________.”
4. “If you had asked me back then whether I would still be reciting this story today, I would have probably told you ________________.”
5. “As for the story I’d rather be telling, instead? That story sounds something like this: ________________.”
What did you learn? What did you discover?
Are you ready to let go of an old survival story that no longer serves you?
Remember: We Will Outlast Our Survival Stories
At certain points in our self-storied lives, our “stories of old” (or so-called “survival stories”) can begin to create self-fulfilling prophecies: the histories we recite about who we once were, based upon the stories of what we previously needed to hear, can make us feel static, stagnant, regressed, or like we’re floating in place.
Maybe you’ve outgrown it. Maybe it’s outlived its relevance or helpfulness.
Whatever the reason, remember, the stories that once “keep us alive” will, someday, no longer be one that we need to keep surviving.
There’s a shelf life to the applicability of stories that keep us motivated to keep fighting.
Because, ideally, the goal is to get out of the fight to survive — that’s the case for all of us human beings. Our stories must grow, change, shift, and evolve as we do.
But oftentimes, our stories are the last to “get the message” that we are moving on, moving up, or moving in a different direction.
If we do not do the intentional, conscious work of editing and revising the stories that we are telling ourselves, we will likely find ourselves stuck in an old story: feeling stagnant, held back, regressed, or like we’re floating without a sense of forward direction.
Storytelling can lift us up and keep us “alive,” but they must also change, as we do, to stop us from feeling slowed down, held back, or stuck in an old version of ourselves that we have since outgrown.
BONUS: 11 Conversation Starters to Identify (and Let Go of!) Old Survival Stories
If, even after filling in the blanks of the exercise above, you’re still feeling like a so-called “survival story” may be overstaying its welcome in your heart, mind, or self-storied life, it may be time to talk it out with a trusted loved one or friend.
I’ve created a list of 11 questions that I hope can help guide an intimate and supportive conversation.
- “What is one of my ‘survival stories’ that have kept me ‘alive’?”
- “Has this story outlived its relevance?”
- “What purpose, meaning, or value did I derive from it when I began to tell it?”
- “For how long has it helped me ‘survive’? And in what ways?”
- “Am I still the person I once was who needed it, back when I began telling it?”
- “What value has this story provided me over my journey from ‘then’ to ‘now’?”
- “What might I be putting ‘at risk’ if I continue to tell this survival story, going forward?”
- “Do I still need this story to get where I want to go next?”
- “Have I outgrown the usefulness of this survival story? If so, in what ways?”
- “What can I learn about myself today based on what this story used to mean to me? Who I was when I began to tell it? Who am I now?”
- “Is it time that bid this old story farewell? If so, what act, deed, ritual, or offering might I make as a gesture of thanking it, breaking it, concluding its usefulness, or sending it off, for good?”
(You can also use these questions to keep journaling further. It’s up to you!)
Imagine, my friend.
This story, inspired by a few song lyrics, which I first heard in 2008, about storytelling, which connected an idea in my brain that I’ve never been able to let go of, since: that stories really do have the power to keep us alive.
Our stories are powerful things, indeed.
Let’s just each make sure, as best we can, that we are breathing life into the stories that we want to be telling.
We all deserve that.