190 - The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”
— Marcus Aurelius

How often do you find yourself upset over something someone said? Maybe you’re stressed out over something that is happened. Maybe it’s the opposite and you’re extremely excited about some event happening in your life. Whatever it is, every event that causes some kind of emotion for you is all driven by the story that you tell yourself.

One of the most important aspects of applying Stoicism in our lives is understanding our perspective on the events the occur. We know that our perspective is what influence the thoughts that we have, and those thoughts lead to the emotions that we feel. Sometimes it’s not easy for us to notice the perspective we have on things. We have all kinds of unconscious thoughts. We have emotional triggers from our memories of the past. There are biological stressors that we may not be all that aware of. There are a lot of things that can influence our thinking, and the more we can be aware of them, the easier it is for us to manage how much we let them have control over us

One of the most effective ways we can understand our perspective on events is ro pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves. Now what do I mean by that? When an event happens, we experience external stimulus through our senses. Our brain takes in all this data and tries to make sense of what is happening. It does this because it is trying to help us figure what to do next by making a prediction of what is going to happen.


The Making Of A Story
Most people like a good story. It’s what we’re drawn to as humans. In every culture, the stories and ideas contained in those stories are the ways that we share common ideas and beliefs. It’s why religions are centered around powerful stories. It’s the reason movies, gaming, music, and publishing are billion dollar industries. It’s why we’re drawn to certain people. When we get together with friends we share stories about what is happening in our lives. When our partners or kids come home they tell us about their day and the events that took place. Everything is a story.

With every story, there is a backstory, a history which sets the stage. All of us have a history full of events and memories and emotions that influence how we interpret things. Our brains are pattern recognition machines trying to understand things by pulling from the past to see if anything matches what we are currently experiencing. Stories tie the past to the present and the present to the future. The more familiar we are with a situation, the easier it is to identify what is happening, and more confident we about predicting what is most likely going to happen. We use stories to try and make sense of the world around us.

Unearthing these stories is not an easy process, and when we first start listening to our self-stories they are often a bit unclear. There are often strong emotions involved. We may find it difficult to be honest with ourselves about what we really think or feel because it can mean admitting some aspects of ourselves we may not like to see. We can all have a lot of shame around the darker parts of ourselves. It’s tricky business.

So why do we want to understand the stories that we tell ourselves? Because this is the narrative of your life. This is the lens in your minds eye that interprets everything that you experience. If you’re not aware of the stories you’re creating, then you’re just running on autopilot.

“The most common act of violence is the relentless mental violence we perpetrate upon ourselves with nothing other than our thoughts.”
– Bill Madden


Oh The Stories We Tell
Understanding the stories tell ourselves is often a much easier way to understand why we do the things we do. If we just focus on the circumstances and the outcome of a situation, we can often find it perplexing how we got to where we are. If instead we take the time to walk ourselves through our story, we can find the the plot holes, misinterpreted situations, and motivations behind our own behavior.

For example, say that you apply for a job, and after several steps in the interview process, they let you know that you did not get the position. You’re devastated because you were really excited about the opportunity. You start to think about what went wrong and start to analyze every interaction that you had. What is the story that you are telling yourself that is getting you so upset? Here are some possible things:

“Maybe I’m not smart enough to do the job.”
“If only I had a degree from a better college.”
“If only I didn’t talk so much.”
And on and on…

Unless they told you explicitly why they didn’t hire you, these are all just thoughts your mind is making up. And sometimes your mind is not very nice to you. Understanding what you’re thinking is very important because those thoughts create the emotions you feel.


Unleash Your Inner Film Critic
When you’re digging into a story, you need think like a film critic. By doing your best to lay out the storyline, you can figure out “how did I get here?”

Some of the questions you can ask yourself include:
What are the fact, the circumstances, and events?
What thoughts did I have in response to those event?
What feelings where created by those thoughts?
What actions did I take in response to those feelings?

And probably the most important question of all:
“What is true?”

By asking yourself this question, and working hard to be honest with yourself, you can uncover a lot of your own thinking errors. This type of work takes mindfulness. It’s not easy to be aware of your thinking. I find that either writing it down or saying it out loud is very helpful in following the chain of events.

Let’s apply this process to a scenario that happens fairly often in real life.

Say that I’m working on a project on my house. My partner asks me what I’m working on. I tell her and explain how I plan to accomplish my task. She scrunches up her nose and say something like, “I don’t understand how that can work.” I feel like I she is criticizing my idea and we end up in an argument.


What are the facts, circumstances, and events?
My partner criticized my idea.
What thoughts did I have in response to those event?
“She thinks it’s a stupid idea. She thinks I’m stupid.”

What feelings where created by those thoughts?
I felt hurt

What actions did I take in response to those feelings?
I lashed out at my partner

Now let’s give it a second pass by asking “What is true?”

Did she actually say that she thinks it’s a stupid idea or she thinks I’m stupid?
No.

So much of what disturbs us is not what the person said, but what we make those words mean. Stopping and asking what is true and what other information we added is a great way to parse it out. We will often just take what they said and morph it into to something else because of our own history. If we’re used to being heavily criticized then we hear things through that kind of filter. We immediately assume anything that is not explicitly positive is criticizing us.

What we’re trying to do here is defuse the strong emotions that come up, not by suppressing those feelings, but by intercepting the thoughts that create those feelings. If we can change our thinking, we can change our feelings. And the thing is, we’re not lying to ourselves or making something up so we feel better. In fact, we’re kind of doing the opposite. We trying to see things for what they really are, so that our thinking is clearer, which helps us regulate our emotions better because they are much more in proportion to what is actually going on.

Understanding this process is not going to magically fix our problems for us. Even when we understand what is going on in our minds, changing these deeper patterns and behaviors is not a trivial task. But more than anything, it takes awareness - awareness of what is really happening, and awareness of what you are thinking.

Because it takes consistent work to do this, it’s easy to let it slide. Consistently being aware of your thinking is something that you have to work at every single day. At first, this kind of awareness will only happen after a situation has occurred. As you work on this kind of awareness, you will be able to move it closer to real time. You’ll notice the thoughts as they occur. You’ll be able to give yourself some space to think about what is really happening. You’ll be able to choose how you want to respond, and make better choices.
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