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Reinterpreting Painful Stories


I used to spin many painful stories about myself, my weight and my appearance. For instance, I used to cling to a story that said that once I was thin, I’d be beautiful, popular and happy.

I also used to cling to a story that revolved around self-care: I didn’t deserve to take care of myself until I was a certain size; that I somehow wasn’t allowed to feel good until I reached my goal weight.

I believed that I had to earn self-care (along with respect, love and kindness, both from myself and others).

I also believed that I couldn’t do much. I couldn’t exercise. I couldn’t feel negative emotions. I couldn’t do things on my own.

Maybe you, too, are clinging to painful stories about your abilities, looks or weight — or other people, past events or current situations.

It’s amazing the power such stories can hold over us. It’s amazing how they can shape our lives, from the seemingly smallest of choices — what do I eat? — to the biggest decisions — who do I choose as a partner?

The stories we tell ourselves — of not being good enough — can lead to decisions and lives that don’t serve or nourish us (such as dieting or picking poor partners). Decisions and lives that only perpetuate our negative stories and feelings about ourselves.

According to Jennifer Louden (whose work I absolutely love) in her book The Life Organizer: A Woman’s Guide to a Mindful Year, we create narratives to make sense of things.

And once we’ve created a narrative, we only seek evidence that supports it. Which means that it’s tough to think our way out of a story.

“Before you have fully begun to question your interpretations, your mind has amassed impressive justifications for believing your painful version of reality,” writes Jen.

But though it’s tough, it’s still important we question our stories and find ways to retell them.

One helpful strategy is to write our stories down, “since writing helps you detach from your story.”

In The Life Organizer Jen lists several powerful questions to help us reinterpret our tales.

What is my interpretation of this story?

According to Jen, your story may relate to a physical sensation, person or event — or really anything. Write down several adjectives about this story.

For instance, when Jen experienced pain in her knee, before getting it checked out, she created a story about not being able to exercise anymore and needing knee replacement surgery in the future. So she’d write: “deterioration, weakness, end of well-being.”

(By the way, it turns out her knee was OK. Her doctor said she probably had some wear and tear, and a small tear in her cartilage.)

What are the facts?

“Delineating between facts and stories is one of the most powerful life practices you can develop,” writes Jen.

Consider the facts of the situation. For instance, it’s a fact that your boss said “You’re fired.” However, it isn’t a fact that you’re incompetent. That’s a story.

Jen says that it can help to talk to others, such as your loved ones, a clinician or a coach.

How is my interpretation of this story serving me?

Does this interpretation bring you closer or further from what you care about? Does it give you energy or siphon it away?

Jen cautions readers not to judge ourselves for our interpretations, but simply to notice them.

What statements am I thinking that revolve around “this is just the way I am”?

Jen gives these examples: “I’m too fat to be attractive to a partner” and “I’m not smart enough to do what I want in life.”

Given the actual facts, what interpretation can I create?

“Is there a new story, grounded in these facts, that you might be willing to try on?” according to Jen.

For instance, it wasn’t that I “couldn’t exercise.” It was that, deep down, I didn’t want to.

I created another story that exercise was a punishment for being bad (being bad meaning eating dessert or having second helpings). And who the heck wants to exercise when it’s a punishment or a chore?

I also didn’t have much endurance because I simply didn’t practice. It’s very hard to wake up one day and run a marathon. Instead, you practice. You take small steps, building gradually on your progress, until months later, you realize that yes, now, I think I’m ready to run a marathon.

Pick a story you’ve been telling yourself, and consider the above questions. Consider how the story you’re telling yourself is serving you — or not.

Consider how you might retell this story in a way that honors the facts and really yourself.

Reinterpreting Painful Stories

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2014). Reinterpreting Painful Stories. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 May 2014
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