Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Jan

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

TypewriterExperts have understood for decades that the human brain is geared toward storytelling. As anyone who created bizarre scenarios to memorize random facts for high school tests knows, we recall information better if it’s organized within a story. In Grok’s day, this fact likely had clear benefits for passing on crucial information such as hunting and foraging strategies (and epic mistakes), medicinal remedies, migration routes, navigation principles, survival tactics, and familial bloodlines. From a less pragmatic sounding (but rather pivotal) angle, the human mind is also moved by narrative in a deeply emotional way. Sure, band life was organized around the daily company and collaboration of members, but Grok and his crew weren’t automatons. Stories of many kinds undoubtedly helped maintain or explain those bonds with tales of history and alliance (and, I imagine, humor). It’s kind of fun blow-ten-minutes thought: what would Grok have laughed at? But I digress…

While this “natural affinity for narrative construction” proved adaptive for the species, it worked because it operated in individuals of course. On that level, our forebears used story to lead, impress, teach, learn, remember, entertain, interpret and negotiate – generally, we assume – to their benefit. Each of us ever since was born with this affinity. For better and for worse, we experience our lives and our environments within this cognitive “narrative” framework every day. Indeed, we experience our own selves within this narrative context – for better and for worse….

Stories, of course, naturally highlight what we’ve done and been and what’s happened to us. Likewise, however, they suggest what we haven’t done or what we don’t consider ourselves to be. They reveal us but inevitably circumscribe us and define us to a point.

Think for a minute about the stories that you tell yourself – about you. Not necessarily the narrative you would like to tell about yourself (some meticulously crafted testimonial or eulogy). In fact, brush away all the public posturing and cocktail party introductions we all end up doing to some degree at least in certain situations. What is the real narrative you live each day when it’s just you and you. In other words, what inner tape ends up playing? What lens gets applied to the outer circumstances? What’s your role, and what characteristics describe this figure you walk around in each day?

Obviously, this concept has broad applicability in our lives. In terms of health, how does it play out? In terms of vitality, what reflection do you see? What does your script say about fitness, food, play, self-care? Does your script have you assigned the role of fat person? Does it tell you you’re a sugar-holic? Does it suggest you’re not an athlete? What does it tell you about your relationship to food, to fun, to overworking? This is the stuff that makes for people who lose 100 pounds but who sabotage themselves into regaining because they can’t recognize themselves in the mirror. There’s an emotional difficulty running underneath this that can’t integrate the new look (and attention) into the old psychological template. They have a new body that’s incompatible with the old mental operating system – a system that was likely founded in actual events but self-bolstered over time again and again.

Part of understanding why we get so hooked into these narratives and the assumptions about ourselves that they impose is understanding what incidents or outside messages created them in the first place. As they say, if you don’t process the past it will keep showing up in your present. The fact is, we can talk ourselves into (or out of) any myriad of opportunities or changes simply because we’re ruled by past scripts. We never really get off the ground for a fitness goal because middle school gym class taught us we didn’t belong or would never meet the standards. We battle food because it was our coping mechanism, and we were always praised for being the “good eater” in the family. We can’t learn to prioritize ourselves enough for some meaningful self-care because we were supposed to be the caretakers. Stress management seems like a nice but foreign concept because we grew up in emotional or logistical circumstances that always seemed to be foreboding another impending crisis.

Psychologists examine how the enormous collection of random incidents in our lives get sifted into actual memories and then further filtered by the power of repetition or magnitude (e.g. trauma or celebration) into “self-defining memories,” those experiences and messages that become a watershed for our self-perception. It’s the nature of human subjectivity (and a brain that can’t and didn’t evolve by storing every bit of input). Data isn’t created equal on a cognitive level. Our ancestors scanned but prioritized their attention. We do the same whether we’re surveying traffic or filing emotional feedback. What we end up with at the end of this cognitive filtration process is what becomes our personal scripts, the memories but also messages we use to define ourselves.

Once we recognize some of the original inputs, we can see how we ourselves have reinforced the stories over time by giving them – or their messages – too much of our faith and attention. Our stories, we find, need to be rewritten.

To dismantle such a foundation can feel unsettling, however necessary it is for our health and happiness. As fundamental as these narratives – these organizing principles of personal past and formulated identity – may seem, they aren’t real. They don’t exist in the same way the tangible present does. Things happened in the past, but they have no more significance than what is happening literally right this second. The past only has the power we give it each day. What could it mean to absorb this idea – to live the rest of your life in it?

Experts have examined our cognitive processing of memories and demonstrate that our self-stories clearly influence our behaviors. Yet, how we frame these memories also determines our relationship to them. Do we define ourselves by past disappointments, or do we see them as challenges overcome? Do we use failure to justify a negative self-concept, or do we weave it into a bigger story of redemption? How we make meaning from our negative experiences will significantly determine their impact on us. The more we can act in the spirit of the latter choices, experts suggest, the better we’ll weather life’s difficulties and encounters with our own human fallibility – and the more confident we’ll be that we can make effective change.

How Do You Change Your Story?

There’s the old adage, whatever we give our attention to grows. Changing our scripts means retraining our brains. Moving beyond old messages necessitates creating a new narrative. What are we dumping from the old scripts? What do you need to let go? And what needs to take its place? What do you want to be living? What are the messages you want to believe when it’s just you and you?

First, accept that new messages won’t ring true for a while. This doesn’t matter. Set your intention, and your mind will catch up eventually. Visualize what you want – on you, and continually take tangible steps toward making it happen in each mundane day. I caution putting up photographs of other thin, fit, happy, etc. people. Instead, put up a list of accomplishments or events you will do, and start scheduling them. Put a new piece of clothing you want to fit into in full view in your closet. Buy high quality exercise clothes and shoes for yourself to make you feel like you’re already an athlete – because you are. (You’re just honing your skill and strength or endurance.) Make a list of a hundred things you like to do instead of eat compulsively or overwork, and put it on your wall. Schedule some every week. Make sure you do at least something every day toward that intention. Afterward, acknowledge you made a choice to live from a different place than you used to – because you did.

On another note, affirmations or mantras might seem woo-woo to a lot of folks, but I’ve seen them work more times than I can count. It’s in part basic functioning of the brain. For something to get lodged in our brains, it’s got to either be the shock of major trauma or the consistency of daily input. An affirmation/mantra/personal saying/whatever you want to call it is totally meaningless said once or twice or ten times. Depending on many factors, you might begin to feel something after 30 days. Maybe it will take 100 days or 300 or 3 years, but every day you’ll be closer. The ultimate point is whether it’s worth it. Do you want to keep living with the same tape going in your head, or do you need a new script to live the life you want? If you do, it takes some persistence, which is pretty easy when you think about it. Just show up for the message each day, and eventually you’ll find it’s already there, inherent in you and how you approach your day. You’ll have 100 and then 300 and then 1000 stories that show you the life you’re living, the one you’ve chosen one thought and action at a time.

Let me turn it over to you now. What stories have fueled your Primal journey, and what have you had to let go of? What’s helped you in this process, and where are you looking for feedback or support. Share your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “There’s an emotional difficulty running underneath this that can’t integrate the new look (and attention) into the old psychological template. They have a new body that’s incompatible with the old mental operating system – a system that was likely founded in actual events but self-bolstered over time again and again.”

    My mental picture of myself has been overweight for my entire life, because I’ve been overweight for my entire life—but as I get older I think I wasn’t as big as my mental picture made me think I was. Anyway, when I recently got down to 187 pounds (after being 241) and people started calling me skinny, I had a weird reaction to it. It didn’t fit with my mental picture of myself, at all (plus I really dislike that word, almost as much as “fat,” but I digress). I feel like something changed for me mentally and I’ve had a really, really hard time staying primal ever since. An odd combination of pressure to continue to be the skinny girl everyone was seeing and of remaining “me,” even though physically I’ve changed quite a bit. I honestly don’t remember weighing less than 180 pounds, and not knowing what I would look like kind of scares me. It’s a really odd feeling and I’m not sure I can explain it. But this post made me tear up, because it’s just exactly what I needed. Thanks Mark

    Stacie wrote on January 9th, 2014
    • Wow. Keeping putting that left foot in front of the right. I hope you find your healthiest you!

      Marti wrote on January 10th, 2014
  2. there are lots of quotes and sayings and cliches out there that can give you inspiration and motorvation,but it really does just boil down to knowing that YOU control your thoughts,feelings,actions,story are your own master and no one can tell you how to feel or react to feelings.
    and to throw in another from sly,
    “its not how hard you hit,but how hard you can get hit and keep moving foward”

    duck wrote on January 9th, 2014
  3. Bottom line: Nothing changes until you’re ready.

    PrimalGrandma wrote on January 9th, 2014
    • And you can decide to be ready at any time…

      framistat wrote on January 16th, 2014
  4. The story I keep telling myself? That after reading MDA and everything Paleo for about 2 years, including the Friday success stories I am still not committed. I have started, stopped so many times! The weird thing is that I KNOW Paleolithic is the way and when I follow 80/20 I feel fantastic. I have 2 kids under 3.5 and packed on about 60lbs from that, stress and of course food. While I have no medical complaints – thankfully – I do want to look better, be more active as a positive health model for the kids and have less brain fog. I even have a supportive (climber) husband who can cook a badness piece of any meat you give him. My sugar demon gets me every time and it is a chain that goes to gluten and then the FOG.
    My friends have told me that I am passionate when I talk about Paleolithic. I fantasize about being the Jamie Oliver of Paleo. Going from school to school and even hospital, prisons and making folks well and less foggy and aggressive via food. I believe it is all possible. I teach and for long classes I bring almonds and jerky to share. No more junk food in my classes! But I don’t fee l I can tell strangers about Paleo as I am not there yet and still carry lots of weight.
    Now if I could just stop putting my ghee on toast…

    Unlikely Paleo wrote on January 9th, 2014
  5. I love this article. We too often determine our own failure before we ever give ourselves a chance to succeed–attitude and perspective are very important!

    Brent wrote on January 9th, 2014
  6. Loved this post! I especially identify with the idea of perpetuating identities we set up for ourselves (or were set up for us) as children. I wrote about this on my blog last year, if anyone is interested:

    I am a physician who grew up in a doctor-phobic household, thinking I was too squeamish for such things. I am also an athlete who grew up thinking I was too clutsy to play sports.

    You can be whoever you want!

    PracticeBalance wrote on January 9th, 2014
  7. I’m going to chew on this for a few days. Thought provoking.

    Colleen wrote on January 9th, 2014
  8. Thanks Mark…this is a great reminder that often our internal monologue is compounded by an initial choice – a choice to see ourselves in one way or another – in a good way or a bad.

    One way I’m trying to improve my own version of myself when faced with a damning obstacle (finishing those last few hundred meters on the rowing machine, speaking in front of large crowds, resisting that piece of chocolate) is by reminding myself that I have chosen to be here in this moment, and that I have a choice to conquer and win or to give in. By making this choice, I’m building myself up one step at a time.

    And it’s working.

    Krystal wrote on January 9th, 2014
  9. I am working on my “personal brand” now for a variety of reasons and this is right on topic. I’ve noticed (and am also working on) that sometimes we can pick up great parts of our story from others. (As my of you have comments, and not so great, but I’m listening now for the great side).

    For example, I sprained my knee in December and when I called make a PT appointment, the scheduler asked me what sort of activities I do. I told her, and she said “Wow, you are very active.” And I’ve been walking around ever since then with this little “very active” halo over my head, continuing my activity while tending to my knee. Think of all the people she must talk to and to think I’m very active! I rewrote my story on the spot. Never would have come up with that on my own.

    Juli wrote on January 10th, 2014
  10. Mark, did you go on a psilocybin trip over the holidays? JK, but these are the exact revalatory thoughts experiences like that can provide. Not that it takes a psychedelic experience to invoke these thoughts, but it is important to reflect on the tape we play each day. We can choose to modify the tape, take the movie in another direction. We can modify our gene expression and become the exact person we want to be. I think the Primal Blueprint inherently causes deep reflection and personally it had a profound effect not just on my diet but overall lifestyle.

    BFBVince wrote on January 10th, 2014
  11. I have been struggling with being second best my entire life. I have felt, because of the recurring tape that plays in my head that I’ve always been the “also ran” in every event or competition, regardless of the goal.

    Today, I change that tape and rewrite the script. From today, I am the winner, I can achieve, and I am the one that finishes first. I am ready to “Party like a Grok-star!”

    Bill Zaspel wrote on January 10th, 2014
  12. I love this post. I adhere to the primal lifestyle: eating, sleeping, exercising, avoiding injury. I’m still working on a few areas as we all are. Now I’m attempting to get my aging, overweight, unhealthy parents (wow that sounds mean) on board. The hardest part is getting them to accept that eventually, they will have to change their lifestyle. I think the trick will be to introduce small changes that they can implement gradually while all the time keeping a vision of a healthier happier life! Thanks again for the great post, Mark. You Rock!

    Finch wrote on January 10th, 2014
  13. I find myself constantly peppered by the ongoing battle of the little red devil on my right shoulder and the annoying white angel on my left! A third glass of wine gives me whiplash. An appointment for a massage turns into a running commentary on “it’s a good healthy thing that makes me feel better,” vs. “a massage, really, why don’t you go volunteer at the homeless shelter for that hour, you slacker.” I find I really don’t worry about what others think of me all that much, I’m too damn busy trying to figure out what I think of me.

    How can I be a world traveler spending my days working for clean water in impoverished countries and also be an artist who really doesn’t like to leave the house unless it’s on fire? I fear my mantra would go something like, “I am an artist, well, I try to be, but what do I know, really.” “I am a great cook, except for that Indian dish which ruined my pan last week.” I suppose I will confidently keep making art, cooking meals and all the other things that fill my days… I just need to flick one of those voices off a shoulder and stop the second guessing. Any advice on which one it should be?

    Marti wrote on January 10th, 2014
    • Are you familiar with the old TV show “Herman’s Head?” I suspect we all have not just two, but often more, voices in our heads giving us various directions. At least I do and they made a TV show about it.

      Family Systems Therapy is a fascinating effort to help us ID and reconcile these voices, also known as “parts.” I suggest a Google. It explains a lot and helps reconcile these internal conflicts. (Or in my case, I at least know who’s talking and winning :)).

      Juli wrote on January 10th, 2014
  14. I would like to share something on this subject more deeply. I once worked with a person who advised me that we make agreements with ourselves as we go from baby to adulthood. That’s the content of the script we read.

    He suggested we can remake these agreements and recommended a multi-part path for doing so, including words, images, colors, sound, etc.

    From others, I have learned that somewhere in me is my “best self,” and finding ways to gently connect to that and let it guide me have been very lovely.

    It’s certainly not a straight line and we don’t always have an easy time hearing our own story or understanding what others perceive it to be — that’s the first challenge to me — but a bit of beneficence toward ourselves is wise.

    Another self-story project I have done is “the path not taken.” Draw a vertical line representing your life, and draw the forks in your road, noting which you took and why. We probably all find some regrets but also courage and enterprise. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    Juli wrote on January 10th, 2014
  15. I loved this post. I think it is the next thing in the chain to start working on.

    Jenny wrote on January 10th, 2014
  16. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a valuable tool in changing the stories we tell ourselves, for the better.

    There are a variety of techniques involved, for example, taking a previous bad memory and shrinking it down in the mind, making it black and white, and pushing it as far back as possible. You can then play it backwards with comical music, realizing that it’s just a small silly memory that has no basis on the present reality.

    Of course, this is just one technique, but I encourage anyone interested to check it out!

    Adam wrote on January 10th, 2014
  17. “Maybe it will take 100 days or 300 or 3 years, but every day you’ll be closer.”

    This should probably be my mantra, haha. I’m an extremely impatient person and often if I don’t see results within a week I give up. I need to change that story.

    Alysia wrote on January 11th, 2014
  18. What an enlightened post. I’m equally impressed by the humble, honest comments, what a supportive community. I’m a long time vegetarian that is trying to embrace primal/paleo with seafood and eggs (can’t bring myself to eat red meat or fowl). This site is a great inspiration, love the holistic approach.

    e.m. wrote on January 11th, 2014
  19. Thank you Mark for a great post!
    I do let my past, my self-defining memories and my untrue thoughts tell me who I am but they are wrong!
    – I was the worst in my gym class – always last in runs, worst in jumps and throws, always got hit by ball in all the ball games, more often than not ended up with sprained ankle or wrist. In the last few years I have started to do bodyweight exercise, walk and even run (not anymore as my left knee doesn’t like it:) and realistically I think I am in better shape than most of my class mates who were making fun of me then.
    – I do believe I am sugar-holic and that I have no self-control. But then I did Whole30 last August and I am doing it right now. My colleagues think I do eat super healthy and actually envy my willpower.
    – When I was younger I was always told by my family and my ‘friends’ that I am not pretty and that I am fat. Right now while not skinny I have an hourglass figure and am slimmer than some of my peers. What is MORE important though is that I am stronger than most of them. And yes, I also believe I’m beautiful in my own way. Not that it matters but have to fight the past….
    This makes me see my life much more positive and gives me hope for future! Thank you.

    Monika C wrote on January 11th, 2014
  20. Thank you so, so, so MUCH for this article! This is exactly what I needed to read tonight. I am enacting this method tomorrow! Time for a new story!

    kelli wrote on January 11th, 2014
  21. This is so true. The mind has incredible powers. I think it was Henry Ford who said: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” That’s one of my favourite quotes and rules to live by.

    Emma wrote on January 12th, 2014
  22. I have to say thank you. This is something that I have struggled with for years, and have read numerous self help sites, habit books, etc. But this is the first time that any writing actually laid out a way to turn your mindset around.

    Olivia wrote on January 13th, 2014
  23. A short, humorous presentation on the use of language to conjure demons (diagnostic labels of modern mainstream science) and then referencing “labels for effects” as if they are causes, then attempting to treat/cure/remedy symptoms that are merely indicators of dysfunction, not sources of dysfunction:

    JR Fibonacci wrote on January 15th, 2014
  24. FABULOUS POST!! Reminds me of how easily I changed “Don’t forget…” to “Remember….” in my vocabulary because it’s more positive and people tend to “forget” the “don’t” part as I learned in a marketing class. I need more “remember” type language in my own conversations with myself.

    I have heard this message from multiple sources over the past week and am heeding it… currently HayHouse Radio is posting daily classes on this exact thing, too. Affirmations and positive self-talk is so important to sticking with this. I think it must be a natural thing for those who find it so easy to transition to in life. I’ve been struggling and partly because I worry about what happens when I’m no longer protected by having “fat and ugly” as an excuse for so many things.

    People say to never take financial advice from a broke person or health advice from a fat person. No wonder people don’t listen to me when I could so help them with health issues. It’s time to change the tape and become someone worth listening to.

    Thanks, Mark and Team!

    Sonya wrote on January 15th, 2014
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    NICOLE wrote on April 18th, 2015
  26. This is the most profound post I’ve currently read and it hits the nail on the head. Having been defaulted into caregiver role for my father, brother -both deceases – and now caretaker of my dementia burdened mother, it’s very difficult to see my life as nothing but negative and only time waiting for the other show to drop. But, these events have written my script about me and my future. This is not who I have to be.
    Thank you for this. I am seeing this at exactly the time I need to. I have to stop fighting against better changes as hard as they are right now. Rewrite the narrative and open the door to freedom and a HAPPIER future.

    HeuristicFireFlower wrote on October 3rd, 2015

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