Life Coach: The Stories We Tell

By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

Many stories start out with Once upon a time… And then there are the stories that we create in our heads—the stories that determine how we react to people and events. Often they have very little to do with the objective truth, but we make them our truth. Maybe they come from feelings of being afraid or insecure or from the belief that what we want is too difficult to obtain, or maybe we are listening to a nagging little voice that is trying to keep us safe by keeping us in the same place.

Wherever the origin, these stories are very subjective. From this information we interpret events and react to people. We get very attached to these narra­tives and don’t consider the profound effects they have on our perceptions of ourselves, our reality, and ulti­mately our lives.

Let’s look at the way one story might unfold. Here’s the scenario: a longtime friend fails to respond to an important phone call. Notice the domino effect, as the narrator creates her own version of events:

I called Jamie yesterday and left a message. I asked her to come to a medical appointment with me. She never called back.

Maybe we aren’t as close as I thought we were. And the doctor is a sur­geon. I told her that. I am scared and thought I could count on her to be there for me.

We had a disagreement 20 years ago. I guess the friendship never really recovered. I feel let down and even more alone.

What happened here? The storyteller made up a story about why her friend didn’t call back. Is the story true? Maybe and maybe not. It is the sto­ryteller’s version of the truth based only on her own thoughts. It is not objective truth. There are many pos­sible reasons why Jamie may not have called back.

Let’s look at the same scenario from a slightly different perspective. Here the narrator takes a step back to consider the situation objectively:

I am surprised that I didn’t hear back from Jamie. I asked her to go to an important medical appointment with me. 

Boy, not responding is not like her. Let me check the number I called.

Oh, now this makes sense—I called her old phone number. I am going to leave another message.

So what’s different? The narrator took a step back and considered the situation in a more neutral way. In­stead of making up a story that may or may not be correct, she looked at the situation with some objectivity: she broke down the events, checked her information, and came to the conclusion that there was a miscom­munication based on human error. No need for drama or a potentially lost friendship.

So many times in life, we make up stories that influence how we treat others. If, after telling herself the first story of why her friend didn’t call her back, the two met by chance, it is very likely that our narrator’s be­havior would have been a little off. Her feelings of rejection and doubt in the friendship would have manifest­ed in the way she interacted with her friend, potentially creating an unnec­essary rift.

So, how do we write stories that we want?

  1. Get Some Distance From A Situation. I like to imagine myself in a helicopter, surveying the territo­ry. What can I see about the relation­ship or situation from this perspec­tive? What new information does it give me? When we are too close to a situation, or too immersed in our own version of the story, our inter­pretations and subsequent reactions are off. This can have a domino ef­fect.
  2. Check The Facts. Remember, a small factual detail changed our nar­rator’s whole story!
  3. Try Assuming The Positive. You may be very surprised how your story unfolds.


Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator. Denise creates and delivers programs for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe on social and emotional intelligence and nonviolent communication. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life, from the international business executive to the stay-at-home parent. She received her MSW degree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York. She earned an advanced certification in systems and relationship coaching and is CTI certified. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at