Blog Short #24: Stories We Tell Ourselves

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you . My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Human beings are natural storytellers. We love a good novel, a fictional TV show, or a juicy bit of gossip about someone. So it’s not surprising that we also tell ourselves stories.

The problem is we often don’t recognize them as stories. We take them for fact. In actuality, most of the time our stories are a mix of fact and fiction.

Here’s how this works:

Everyday there’s a dance that goes on between things that happen or experiences we have, and our interpretation of those things and experiences. We think we perceive them accurately and recall them factually, but what we actually recall and commit to memory are our interpretations. And these interpretations are greatly colored by our emotions, histories, mindsets, and biases.

What this means is that your view of reality, and of your world, is filtered through your personal lens. You likely don’t consider it necessary to examine your perceptions or ask yourself what’s actually true or real before you emotionally react and respond.

You take for granted that what you perceive is true.

The fact is, our emotions have the biggest impact on our memory and recall. The more emotionally charged and impactful an event is, the more likely it will be stored in memory, and the more emphasis we give it. Also, it’s more likely to become distorted, especially when it triggers us in some way.

It’s almost like we create a fantasy and then react to that fantasy as though it’s true, when sometimes it’s partially true and sometimes it’s not true at all.

These are the stories we tell ourselves.

Our daily narrative.

In a way, our lives are long stories like sagas. We tell the story to ourselves (as the narrator), and have the leading role in the story (as the actor).

Everyday we have a running conversation in our head about what’s happening, and what we think and feel about it. We bring up previous events and go over them. We construct future events. We watch the story, expand the story, review the story, and edit the story, all at the same time.

This narration runs almost by itself, sometimes without our being aware that we’re doing it. We’re watching and interpreting the story continually, sometimes even while asleep.

The problem that shows up occurs when our interpretations don’t take in all the facts or all the information that’s pertinent to the story. We’re limited by our tendency to ruminate and narrow our focus to what affects us the most emotionally.

What we see is only a slice of the story. We miss parts, and our interpretations become distorted.

Here’s an example that recently happened to me.

Several nights ago, I got 4 hours of sleep because my 19-year-old Dachsie was having some problems (which turned all right by the way). The next day I repeatedly said to myself “I’m soooo tired.” I must have repeated that idea in my mind at least 50 times if not more. This is the slice I was focused on.

At one point I caught it. I realized that I was confining my day to the single idea that I was super tired at the expense of everything else. The more I said it to myself, the more tired I got.

I decided to let that thought sit quietly in the background, and shift my attention to other activities. As I did that, I forgot how tired I was, and got a lot accomplished in spite of it.

The story I had told myself that morning was:

  1. If I only had 4 hours of sleep, I wouldn’t be able to function.
  2. The day was going to be a drag because of it.
  3. I probably couldn’t get anything done but the bare minimum.

That was my interpretation of the event (4 hours of sleep), and I fed it with a single repetitive thought. Once I let go of that story, I found it to be greatly exaggerated and not altogether true.

Make your stories work for you.

You can use your stories positively if you become mindful in your story-telling. To do that, you have to:

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Allow yourself time to recover emotionally from something before constructing your story.
  • Take responsibility for your stories, and be deliberate in creating them.
  • Widen your perceptions, and get all the information before coming to conclusions.
  • Question repetitive thoughts, and correct those that are faulty or too noisy.
  • Create stories that help you grow, rather than hold you hostage.

We’re going to tell stories. It’s the nature of who we are, so it behooves us to make the best use of this habit.

If you follow the above rules, your stories will be more accurate, and will reinforce your sense of self and positive regard.

If your stories are laced with these themes, they’ll be detrimental to you:

  • Repetitive self-criticism or disapproval.
  • Blaming others for your problems.
  • Justifying actions not in your best interest.
  • Catastrophic thinking.
  • Ruminating in circles.
  • I can’t.
  • Making snap decisions or being impulsive.

Don’t use your stories to beat yourself up or paint a negative picture of yourself. Use them to:

  1. Perceive what’s true.
  2. Help you attain your goals.
  3. Make your daily experiences worthwhile, enjoyable, and productive.
  4. Consistently grow and improve.

An exercise.

Watch your stories for a day. This means watching repetitive themes or thoughts, interpretations of experiences, and things you say to yourself about you.

As you watch, pull those thoughts out and see if you need to revise them, or lesson them, or discard them altogether. Replace stories that are largely fantasy with stories that are more accurate based on all the information you have.

The idea is to widen your perception and to remember that things pass, things resolve, and there are actions you can take to keep yourself moving in a positive direction always.

Instead of being “sooooo tired” all day, you can say, “It’s just one day and it’s not that bad and there’s a lot I can do with this day in spite of being tired, and tomorrow I’ll get 8 hours sleep.” I changed that story, felt a lot better, and got a lot done. You can do the same with your stories!

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,

Barbara

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