Once Upon a Time you were small. When you were small, you relied on your caregiver(s) for food, shelter – your very survival. To you, your parents were like gods, at least according to your perception, and thus, according to Reality.
What develops, according to Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology, are natural feelings of inferiority. These inferiority feelings arise from relying on other people for our survival, and these feelings continue as we grow. But they should begin to diminish as we learn a sense of mastery. Unfortunately, we may not receive enough support and guidance from our parents in order to develop positive regard for ourselves and build sufficient self-confidence in order to reduce these feelings.
Unfortunately, depending on how we were treated, what can happen is that we develop further feelings of inferiority. Along with these feelings, we develop a story of How the World Is. It includes beliefs about ourselves and others, which includes how we “fit in”. Often, we strive to receive attention from our families and our peers. The same motives to excel in school and get all A grades may be the same motives as those to become the class clown or a disciplinary problem.
Our story line depends not only on our family but on our perception. As adolescents, this need for recognition and fitting in could lead to such diverse activities such as joining the debate team or doing drugs or even being a loner; they meet the same needs, but the direction we go will depend in part on the way in which we struggle to reduce these feelings of inferiority.
It’s not Self-esteem that Matters
Whether we move in a direction toward healthier or unhealthier actions rests on how we view ourselves in relation to others. This is not related to esteem; in fact, studies suggest that criminals with high self-esteem tend to commit more crimes. Rather, once we develop inferiority feelings, the direction we go also depends in part on how we try to overcome them. This could include trying to cover them up by developing feelings of superiority, which in turn may lead to feelings of entitlement. This in turn can lead to feeling O.K. about not being concerned about other people.
On the other hand, when we develop an interest in other people’s welfare in addition to our own, we tend to move in a more positive direction. If we make this part of our story lines, we may develop sufficient self-confidence and sense of mastery in the major areas of life; relationships, friendships, occupation, spirituality, and your relationship with yourself.
Your Personal Fable
The story line, complete with feelings of inferiority and superiority, is what could be called your Personal Fable. And not only is your fable influenced by your parents, but it’s influenced by your siblings as well. Once you and your siblings have established your roles in the family, it can be very difficult to move into their place of importance (where they fit in), so there’s a tendency to adopt another position of significance. For example, a Shining Star sibling who excels in athletics can cause you to try to meet or beat the sibling’s athletic skills, but it’s more common to try to find another avenue to get attention and to feel loved and accepted by your parents.
If that doesn’t happen — if you don’t feel that smart or talented — you can become discouraged, which leads to giving up or become overly preoccupied with yourself.
Discouragement may lead to what appear to be self-sabotaging actions, because any unhelpful coping strategies as a child (withdrawing, becoming aggressive, etc.) – which are based on your fable — are generally used by us on an unconscious level as an adult. The situations you may experience as an adult are generally different than when you were a child, but quite often the feelings resulting from your story line are similar to those when you were young, which tends to verify your pre-existing beliefs and thus continuing you fable. That is why you may not have to revisit early childhood experiences to learn about your unconscious motivations and beliefs; they are happening Now. But going back may help you to figure out how your fable came about.
As an example of where our story lines lead us, what has happened when your Prince or Princess Charming turn into the Ugly Demon after being together for a year or two? One possible answer lies in the continuation of two peoples’ story lines at the same time, and the dynamic of your relationships accommodates both! And although personal fables play out in romantic relationships, they often play out in friendships and business relationships as well.
Changing your Fable
Once we develop awareness of our fables, we can begin to recognize the ways we developed our story lines. Many story lines lead to resentment and bitterness. Here are some examples: Everyone is happy except me; I don’t get any breaks in life; What’s wrong with me – why can’t I be like other people? Life treats me unfairly, etc. These story lines often lead to beliefs such as: I might as well get all I can in this world; I’ll never have the career I want; I am better than those other people, I try but I never succeed, and so on. And then we act “as if” our fables are true. Your actions are based on your perception, which sets up a cycle of verifying the beliefs that make up your fable.
However, you have the power to make changes in your life, to expand your beliefs. Even if you have no power over a particular substance or behavior, you do have choices, and in choices, therein lies the opportunity to make changes.
There’s a catch. Why can’t we just take this or any information to make changes? First, you must become aware of your operating belief system (your personal fable), which is often out of your awareness. But, most importantly, we can accept only an intellectual understanding of what advice or insights are offered through others. Even the best advice can only provide small changes, which of course helps, but it doesn’t provide the deep, long-lasting changes we seek.
Instead, an emotional understanding must occur for permanent change, which involves a change of heart. Knowledge, which comes from this emotional understanding, assists us in transforming these insights into action. And this involves a process that could take months, even years, to achieve the match between how we see ourselves now and who we would like to be. But we can escape the prisons of our limited belief systems and use our uncovered personal fables to find new ways to achieve better relationships, peace of mind, and continued growth.