The stories we tell ourselves… and why they might be making us unhappy

I have a saying which irritates the teens in my life. It goes like this. “That’s an interesting story you are telling yourself.” I use it when they say silly things like “I’m not good at maths” or “My teacher doesn’t like me”. My wise words are frequently met with eye rolls and huffs of derision.

By stories I mean the narrative slant we place on objective facts. The meaning we extract, consciously or subconsciously from our experiences, and then consciously reinforce with our words.

We tell ourselves stories about the world all the time. And mostly, we aren’t even aware of it. Much like breathing, the process is largely automatic and uncontemplated. But the stories we tell ourselves matter because they are the fabric of our minds, and they fuel our beliefs about the world and ourselves within it. As a result, they powerfully influence our perspectives, actions, and our wellbeing.

Even more pernicious, our stories literally blind us to reality itself, and the other possibilities that lie within it. They influence what we take note of, directing our attention in very specific and limited directions. This sits at the heart of confirmation bias.

This is not to say there aren’t objective facts at play. Of course there are. Struggling with maths may well be the reality. But writing off a hard subject like maths as “I’m not good at this” leads to a particular set of behaviours – like giving up. On the other hand, telling yourself a different story, like “Maths is a hard subject, but I can do hard things”, opens up quite different options– like perseverance and tenacity. The facts remain the same. But by changing the story we spin about those facts, by changing the story we tell ourselves, we change both what we do and how we feel about the situation.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine my homespun advice registers with my all-knowing teens. Much like the practice of naming emotions to recognize and deal with them (and thereby grow emotional intelligence), I hope the comments I occasionally drop into conversation will percolate in their developing brains and one-day become a useful tool in their mental armoury.  

However… in a spectacular example of “here, take my advice I’m not using it”, I realised quite recently that I too was being beguiled by stories that do not serve me well.

Stories about age, and what success looks like. Stories about who you are supposed to be, and how life is supposed to play out. As I sat in a cognitive science class full of bright, young things all embarking on their first careers, I was besieged by a sense of gloom. Why was I here?  What was I doing this for?

Here are the stories I was telling myself: “I’m too old to be doing this.” And “a successful life is a successful (well paid) career”.  Those are stories society tells us too, with their love affair for youth and money. So I should be forgiven for absorbing them like a fast-acting sunscreen. But they are not healthy stories. Not for me, and not for anyone really.

There are better stories to tell about being older and trying new things. A story about the value of experience, curiosity, and the acquisition of knowledge. A story about, as Tim Minchin advises so well, foregoing purpose or the accumulation of money in preference for filling your life with meaningful things.

So, I’m trying to tell myself some new stories. Like…

I might not have a sparkling, single-minded career (old story: career means achieving in your chosen field), but I have a host of useful skills and a plethora of knowledge people pay me for, which keeps the wolf from the door and our house in its share of international holidays and nice shoes (new story: I have a career, which works for me). I might not know what I want to do with my new degree (old story: life is about having a career), but that’s okay, because I’m not finished it yet and it’s interesting enough just on its own (new story: life is about being curious, exploring the world and expanding the mind). I might not be a wildly successful author (constant refrain: life is about having a successful career) but I have in fact written two books so far, a host of plays, short stories, poetry and articles, one of which you are now reading (new story: I am a writer).

But, in all honesty, it is not as easy as it sounds because our old stories are encoded into the wiring of our brains. They are stitched into our neural networks. We have flexible brains, brains that change, but we have to create and reinforce new connections for them to become as well established and automated as the old ones.

Nonetheless, it is, I think, a path towards more contentment and greater happiness. Noticing what stories lie behind how you feel in any moment in time means you can change them. You can, with effort, rewrite the stories that drive your emotions and perspectives. It’s powerful and liberating. But it requires noticing them in the first place.

So ask yourself, what story are you telling yourself, and how well does it serve you? And then maybe try out some new ones.

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