The Stories We Tell Ourselves



Just like in movies each character has their own backstory, in the real world every person has their own story. These stories are a blend of various experiences, both good and bad, which the person has lived through and has been shaped by. These past experiences can have a strong grip on many of us as they can potentially continue to affect us by influencing our actions even in the present.

Though everyone has their own life story and everyone has received their share of difficulties, the prevalent problem is that we are too absorbed to even notice that beyond our own stories there are thousands of other stories, each story being played simultaneously alongside our own. Since we have learned to view the world through our own personal lens, we fail to see things from someone else’s standpoint and end up constantly asserting our own view instead of spending time understanding theirs.

When we have a protagonist view, everything is either happening for us or to us.

In a way, we build the world with ourselves at the center and everything else revolving around our own personal story. This can be referred to as a make-believe habit that affects us tremendously. For one, it makes us more self-centered and indifferent towards others. Secondly, it not only affects our relationship with others and the world but, more importantly, it also jeopardizes our relationship with ourselves.

When we have a protagonist view, everything is either happening for us or to us. So if anything goes wrong even if it were something totally out of our control, we start seeing the things around us as forces which are working against us, and as a result, we start believing that our life is falling apart, everything wrong is happening to us, and life is just one big struggle.

In a recent Zen Habit’s post, Leo Babauta spoke about this exact mental crisis. He explains how we habitually create make-believe stories in our heads and how that gives rise to groundless fears and unnecessary difficult feelings.

He gives a lucid example of watching movies for explaining this habit of ours.

When we go to the cinema to watch a movie we unknowingly make the decision of abandoning all our beliefs which form our reality and submerge ourselves into the fictional world created by the film. Suspending disbelief in such a way makes us feel all that the movie aims to make us feel, we may cry, feel sorrow, anger or joy, all because we choose to believe in the make-believe story presented to us.

This make-believe story telling is something which, most of us if not all, have been religiously iterating in our minds, be it when interacting with other people, confronting a difficult situation, or having a totally new experience.

For example, consider a boy who on his first day of college comes across a girl. They interact, spend some time together, talk about a lot of things throughout the day. Here, the boy takes this interaction with the girl for something special. He is excited deep down, thinking she could be his girlfriend and they would have this fanciful time together.

we are at the center of the world and everything else revolves around us.

He creates a long beautiful story in his head that circulates around this new person that has just entered his life by imagining how they would hang out, go out on weekends, watch movies together and do everything else as per the romantic fantasy he has going on in his head.

Whereas on the other hand, the story in the mind of the girl is completely different. From her perspective, there isn’t even a story going on between them. She looks at him as a good friend. That’s it.

A girl and a boy, both friends, probably of the same age, and yet two completely different stories taking place at the same time.

Leo Babauta highlights this behavior with precision. Each of us tend to believe the stories in our head in which we are at the center of the world and everything else revolves around us. Hence, we often look at things only from our perspective. This is one reason why (in the example above) we have a single story yet two totally different interpretations of the story.

The boys misinterpretation maybe for various reasons – his past, his view about relationships etc. But the most important thing to be observed here is how this obsession with our own story affects us and the world around us.

Now the real problem begins, when things go against the direction of the story we have going on in our heads. As the author says,

When we think about how someone has been inconsiderate, we believe in a story where we are the hero and the other person is the villain, and think of how they wronged us. When we are disappointed when someone else doesn’t love us the way we want them to, we believe we’re in a romantic comedy and the other person should fall in love with us and be the perfect partner. This happens over and over: all of our anger, stress, sadness, depression … it all comes from the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in the world around us.

So when the boy and the girl begin to interact further, the boy’s expectations from the girl would have likely grown from the initial feelings of attraction to seeking closeness and affection whereas the girl still considering him to be his friend, would expect nothing of this sort. She might, in fact, choose to distance herself from him because of his behavior and as a result, the boy might take her reaction to his actions as cold and insensitive.

Due to the story playing in the boy’s head, he now probably feels crushed and has negative feelings towards this girl, who might still consider him as a good friend.

Jack Adam Weber refers to this as the “unconscious emotional bias” where we can’t see or hear what is really going on outside the stories in our head and the reactions in our body, just like in the above example, where the boy cannot see what is really going on as he is entirely absorbed in the romantic story playing in his head. Here, he crafts a similar example which communicates the detrimental effects of mental storytelling in a relationship.

For example, say I believe that my girlfriend doesn’t want to go out to dinner with me (due to whatever stories and past hurts I unwittingly still carry), and I conclude that she is selfish and thereby I treat her poorly and even justify doing so. Even though she tells me she is just tired, I don’t register this truth and decide that it’s not for this reason. What I have effectively done is risk living in disaccord with reality, acting unfairly to my partner, and adding to the bad story in my head.

In this example, the guy believes that his girlfriend doesn’t want to go out with him for dinner and he takes her response as being selfish and insensitive. Though in reality she is tired and says so, the guy due to whatever reasons (his past stories or whatever emotional baggage he’s carrying) overlooks the reality of her being genuinely tired and takes the response as her being inconsiderate to him (as explained by Leo Babauta).

This further worsens as the situation moves into a downward spiral when he treats her badly and justifies this treatment by relying on his mental story where he is the victim of her mistreatment. which is likely due to his emotions formed through bad experiences in the past – due to reasons like parents not being emotionally available or being hurt in a similar manner before or anything else.

The answer, Leo Babauta says, is quite simple.

Look at the movies as what they really are movies: a combination of several parts crafted to work together as one – “from props, sets, costumes, digital effects, scripts, sound studios”.

The things happening in the world around us don’t revolve around us, and aren’t part of a story. They’re just happening. Often it’s all random, but to deal with this chaos, we try to make sense of it as part of a story. We create meaning where none exists. We think the other person has bad intentions towards us when actually they are just thinking about their own stories.

Remember that, each one is living their own story

So when we interact with people around us and are exposed to their behavior, they are not doing things to us. We have to remember that each one is living their own story and their actions/reactions are guided by the experiences which are unique to them and only they have been through.

Therefore when someone is being rude or harsh, it becomes easy when you understand that they are living their own story and possibly struggling with it due to the similar make-believe storytelling going on in their heads – where they are the victims of certain situations and are just lashing out at you out of their personal frustration, and you just like them, playing a story where you are the central character in the world around you, look at it as a personal attack and feel wronged.

Thus their reaction to you, be it fair or unfair, is just their response based on their own story which influences their view of the world and of the people around them.

To summarize in the words of Leo Babauta, this is a simple choice which we can make on a daily basis. We can choose to stop believing in the stories going on in our heads and we can even choose to stop creating stories in the first place.

In this manner, we can gradually learn to see the reality and decide to stop feeling the unnecessary hurt, anger, pain and fear, which we often voluntarily take upon ourselves.


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