How to tell the stories you want to live by

by Sage Cohen
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At my Aunt Linda’s wedding about 25 years ago, my cousin Shari gave a toast that I will never forget. It went something like this:

John, Linda’s new husband, was relentlessly positive and approving of Linda. To the point that Shari suspected he was a fake. After all, how could anyone be so universally satisfied by another person? No matter what my aunt cooked, for example, it was the best meal John had ever eaten. And so on.

Then one night, Linda burned dinner. There was no question about it: the meal was ruined. Shari was on edge. What could he possibly find redeeming about this meal?

But then this happened.

John took a bite of the burned main course and, without missing a beat, said to my aunt, “Linda, this is the best salad I’ve ever eaten.”

He skipped right over the part of the meal that didn’t work to something he could truly be pleased with. He found the detail that aligned with his core truth: that my aunt was simply a source of endless delight.

This story changed my life.

I saw with such clarity—thanks to John’s wonderful gift for loving my aunt and Shari’s wonderful gift for storytelling—that we get to choose where we put our attention, and how it makes us feel. John simply didn’t focus on the burned dinner. This wasn’t a lie, it was a choice. He invested his attention and his feedback on the part of the meal that made him happy—the part that reinforced his love story for his beloved, the chef.

Every one of us has this same choice, in every moment.

We can decide the story line we want to live by, then focus on the evidence that supports it and simply ignore the rest. As we speak and write about this evidence over time, it eventually becomes integrated with our being as our new and more accurate version of reality, identity, and relationship.

This is how I rewrote myself on the other side of divorce. After a year of deep grief, I decided that the only way my son was going to have the kind of life I wanted for him was for me to invest in a new story about his father—and our family. Inspired by my uncle John, I decided I’d have eyes only for what I appreciated about my co-parent. From that day forward, I gave him only feedback about what I truly appreciated. The more I looked for things to appreciate, the more I found.

As a result, remarkably, within weeks of establishing this new practice, we had a new family system. One that shifted us from our “disappointer” (him) and “disappointed” (me) roles to “satisfier” and “satisfied” roles.

I’m not saying that there weren’t challenges or conflicts along the way. What I’m saying is that I didn’t hang onto them for a moment longer than I had to. Instead, I’d focus on my gratitude that my co-parent answered the phone, that he considered my request, that he did what he thought was right…whatever it was I could possibly, authentically appreciate…that’s what had my attention. And I believe he has held me with the same compassion and grace.

As a result of many years of this practice, our family system today is a coherent and collaborative tribe of parents: my co-parent, his wife, and me. We are all so close that my son feels he has one family in two homes. We take vacations together, we celebrate holidays together, we sing karaoke together, and generally just enjoy each other’s company. Here we all are celebrating my son’s fourth grade graduation last week.

This concept is simple. But the execution can feel like warrior’s work—depending on how big a story you set out to rewrite. I am here to say that it can be done.

Want to try it out? Here’s a quick coaching video that can help you experiment with this kind of transformational storytelling.


Originally published at on June 20, 2019.

Sage Cohen
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