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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Posted By Mark Sisson On January 9, 2014 @ 8:00 am In Personal Improvement | 92 Comments

Experts 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 [7] 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 [8], 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 [9],” 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 [10], 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 [11] 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.


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[7] Grok’s: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/about-2/who-is-grok/

[8] vitality: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/thrive-survive/

[9] self-defining memories: http://digitalcommons.conncoll.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=psychfacpub&sei-redir=1&referer=http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=self-narratives%20health&source=web&cd=7&cad=rja&ved=0CG4QFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fdigitalcommons.conncoll.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%3Farticle%3D1014%26context%3Dpsychfacpub&ei=KErMUuOsFOnW2gXsq4CQDQ&usg=AFQjCNEDZWLg0SAsqhlg5vwg59o6k9Gl_w&sig2=qwZPQc0Y7nMzihHXoJNjgw&bvm=bv.58187178,d.b2I%23search=%22self-narratives%20health%22

[10] experts suggest: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/health/psychology/22narr.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

[11] mantras: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/8-primal-mantras-for-beginners/

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