A Happiness Journey

The stories we tell ourselves

I know I’ve probably spoken about this in past articles but I heard something on a podcast this morning that resonated with me so I wanted to discuss it further. She was talking about the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.


The fact that I heard this morning, and one I have heard before, is that our brains are such amazing ‘problem solving’ computers, that when we solve a problem, a hit of dopamine is released and we get an instant reward. The hilarious thing is that the ‘solution’ doesn’t actually have to be correct, it just needs to be a solution! Isn’t that crazy? Our brains are like cheating toddlers. They don’t care how they get the solution, or whether the solution is correct, as long as they get the reward.


What that means is that when something happens, when we experience or witness something, our brain needs to instantly come up with a story that explains what we have just witnessed or experienced. It needs to make sense of it immediately and provide a solution, a neat little bow around the thing we’ve experienced, so it creates a story. “This thing has happened, and based on what I know, or what I have perceived before, or what’s happened to me in the past, I will take it to mean X”. Once the brain has its story, it can then go about scripting the rest of the day, based on the story, that it has already decided is ‘fact’.


In her book “Rising Strong” Brene Brown talks about this beautifully. She tells a personal story about her and her husband going for a swim across a lake they holidayed at. Whilst they’re swimming she feels deeply connected to her husband as they’re sharing this pastime together, and she looks over to him and says “I’m so glad we decided to do this together. It’s so beautiful out here”. Instead of the gushy, heartfelt response she was expecting, he replied a non-committal “yeah, waters good”. So she tried again and said “This is so great, I love that we’re doing this together. I feel so connected to you right now” and as he seemed to look straight past her, instead of at her, he replies “yep, good swim”. By the time they get to the shoreline she has told herself the story in her head that he didn’t like her in her new swim suit, it must be because of how much weight she’d gained since having kids, that he’d rather be anywhere but where he was, and he saw swimming with her as a duty, rather than a pleasure etc etc. This then set the tone of their day as she was then annoyed, he didn’t know why she was annoyed, cue a long day of catty remarks and a fight at the end. But instead, what she did was stop and say to him “I’m annoyed because I kept trying to connect with you and you keep blowing me off”. She then said “what I have taken that to mean is that you don’t find me attractive any more”. Because she faced her story head on, he was then provided with the opportunity to tell her that what actually happened was that the whole way across the lake he was fighting off a full blown panic attack, and he was doing his best to stay focused by counting his strokes. There were boats out, the water was deep and he’d had a dream the previous night that his kids had had an accident in the lake. Based on her own insecurities, her brain jumped to a conclusion, a ‘story’ about what his facial expressions, tone of voice, and vocabulary, meant. And she could not have been further from the truth.


This is a perfect example of how the stories we tell ourselves become our reality and can set the stage for our whole day and every interaction following. She could have carried on being annoyed with him. This could have then affected her children and created internal conflict within the family unit. She could have then used her confirmation bias to look for further ‘proof’ that she’s no longer attractive in the way other people respond to her. It could have changed the way she chose to dress in future, maybe she would have given up swimming so she didn’t have to face the world in a swim suit again, etc etc. All that damage, because of a fantasy she told herself, in that moment, that wasn’t even true.


Brene calls this story our “Shitty First Draft” or SFD for short. I love this because now, when I tell myself a story in my head, I think of it as my SFD.


She says that “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”


Her process involves 3 steps:


The Reckoning

First we must be willing and able to reckon with our stories. Recognise our triggers, where our emotions may be off kilter, and where our buttons have been pushed. Then we get curious about how what we’re feeling is connected to our thoughts and behaviours.


The Rumble

To rumble we must get honest about the stories we have made up about our struggles. This involves checking our own narratives and delving into any areas of our lives this may bring up. It gets gnarly here as we start to look at past shame, blame, resentment and heartbreak etc.

What this does though is allow us to move past our first response to a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.


The Revolution

To wrap this up full circle the revolution allows us to transform, and fundamentally change, our thoughts and beliefs. Rumbling with our own stories and owning our truth, allows us to write a new, more courageous ending.


When we’re telling our SFD it’s important to first engage with the feelings behind the story we’re telling and get curious about the story we have chosen to tell about the emotions we are experiencing. The wonderful thing about picking apart the SFD is that you get to move forwards to create a new draft.


You might ask yourself some questions like:

“When was the first time I remember feeling this way?”

“What does this feeling remind me of?”

“What does this situation remind me of?”


Asking these questions may help you to see some patterns in your stories. Are you always the victim in your story? Is someone always wrong-doing you? Maybe you always blame yourself first in your story? Maybe the story always has a theme that you’re not being valued (that’s one of mine) or that you’re always putting yourself out and no one ever appreciates it. Maybe you’re always the hero, always the saviour, always the martyr. Whatever you tell yourself, in a moment, will have its roots somewhere and it’s worth looking at the story to see what the common theme is.


One thing you can always do is actually approach the person you’re having the story about and just say “Hey, when you said that thing to me before, the story I told myself in my head was ….. Is that accurate or have I completely got the wrong end of the stick here?”


If you don’t feel brave enough to actually have that conversation out loud then maybe, you could sit down and tell a few different versions of the story on a piece of paper to see if there could possibly be a perspective you haven’t considered. You won’t necessarily get to the truth that way, because the only way to get to the truth is to literally ask the question, but what it can do is allow you to see the possibility that your version may not be the actual truth, and that just opens your mind a little.


If your story doesn’t serve you or make you feel good (and you have no intention of asking the other person their version of the story) then another good exercise is to re-write the story to one that does feel good. Since you’re going to tell yourself something anyway, and the brain wants to have its solution so you can get the dopamine hit, why not make the reward even better by making the story one full of love, that leaves you feeling all warm and satisfied?


I’ve used this quote many times before but it’s worth repeating.


“You don’t see the world the way IT is, you see it the way YOU are”

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