We All Tell Stories.
We're good at it too. We whisper ghost tales by the fire, write works of Middle-Earth fantasy, and dream up ideas beyond imagination. Yet the stories we tell most often aren't ones we hear around a campfire or read in a book. They are the stories we tell to ourselves.
We still have no clue why we do the things we do.
The human mind is a mystery, so to explain what it makes us do, we tell stories. If we've failed a test, we might say it was rigged from the start -- not that we didn't study enough. If we insult a friend, we might say it's because they deserved it -- not because we were hungry or had a bad day. Sue Shellenbarger, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, also claims we have "a tendency to see [ourselves] as smart regardless of [our] abilities, and to exaggerate positive traits in others." Our stories can give us a self-esteem boost. They give other people a self-esteem boost. Everyone gets a boost, and somewhere in self-esteem land, Oprah smiles.
However, when we exaggerate our stories (or if they don't match up with reality) we hit a mental block. It's a phenomenon called 'cognitive dissonance', and it forces us to change our actions and beliefs or change the story we're telling.
Here's an example to explain:
In 1954, an American woman named Dorothy Martin received a message from extraterrestrial beings.
The message foretold of an impending flood whose waters would plunge the world into chaos, and it would happen on December 21st of that year. Dorothy relayed the message to anyone who would listen, convincing them to sell their homes and quit their jobs.
Obviously the world didn't end on December 21st, but rather than confront an embarrassing reality -- they'd been duped by the silver-tongued Dorothy -- members of the group convinced themselves of something different:
"While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to 'put it down to experience,' committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members)."
Everyone wants to feel good about themselves.
Everyone wants to be justified in their actions, regardless of how silly or dumb those actions might be. But nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes and we all suffer the consequences.
However, if we can fabricate a justification, or if we blame someone else, or if we tell a story that casts us in the best possible light, we reduce the discomforts of cognitive dissonance. Our mental block is lifted and we can shove our problems aside. This is not healthy.
If our problems are thorns, our lies and stories are band-aids.
Stories don't remove the problem, they only cover it up so we can't see it anymore. The thorn remains. The pain of our problem persists. The story is re-told, and the cycle repeats.
Are We Doomed to A Cycle of Problems?
We are not doomed.
We can learn how to retell our stories and fix our problems. It takes effort, and not everyone is willing to put in the work, even if the work is minimal when compared to the damage of persistent inaction. But... we all have problems. We all have to start somewhere.
Breaking the cycle means yanking our thorns and learning to tell the right stories. Here's how:
1. Find the thorn.
We first have to find our problems. We need to find the thorn.
Let's say we have a habit of eating twenty Willy Wonka chocolate bars every single day. At some point in the past, we asked ourselves: "can I lead a healthy life even with my chocolate bar habit?"
Maybe our evidence showed us 'yes'. Grandpa is into his 90's and still eats Wonka bars like the factory's going broke, and he's doing great! The same will be true for me.
This is our story. But this is only half of the story. We chose not to see the rest of our evidence: that over-consumption of scrumptious Willy Wonka treats can lead to diseases or death (even if Grandpa is doing it and is fine). We ignored the serving suggestions. We laughed at the heart-health awareness commercials. We shrugged off the concerns of our family and friends and skipped the Oompa-Loompa music numbers.
The thorn was there but we really love our chocolate bars. Justifying our actions with our story -- that Grandpa does it so we can too -- we've relieved ourselves of the work of quitting and the cognitive dissonance of knowing our habit is unhealthy.
The first step to breaking the cycle and retelling our stories is to find our thorns and see them for what they actually are: PROBLEMS.
2. Don't Wait. Yank That Sucker Out.
We've found the thorn. The obvious next step is to yank that sucker out.
Procrastinating on a problem is a one-way ticket to suffering. Putting off our problems might make the present moment more enjoyable, but in doing so, we burden our future selves. Wait too long and we suffer the symptoms of inaction when we could have removed the cause.
The thorn itself can seem overwhelming. It might even seem so overwhelming that we don't bother trying to yank it in the first place. But then the problem persists, and the thorn remains.
Instead of panicking, we should re-frame our story. Let's now ask: if I love Wonka bars, why would I make the effort to stop eating twenty each day? Does greater health outweigh the struggle of breaking my habit? Does more time with family or friends mean more than my chocolate fix?
Maybe we find our answer is 'yes'.
I will quit eating so many delectable Wonka bars for health, or family, or because there's no more Golden Tickets anyway. I will change my story because I see the truth and know I've been wrong.
Maybe our answer is 'no'.
I like my Wonka bars. I want twenty a day. No more cocoa goodness? No way.
The act of removing our thorns should not be made without serious considerations, but if we find we're ready, we wince and yank that sucker out.
3. Heal The Wound.
We've found the thorn. We decided it was time we yank it. There's an open wound now, and although our story is changing, we're not done yet.
Healing the wound starts with a 'how'. How do I go about eating less Wonka bars? How could I possibly stop doing what I've done for so long? It won't be easy. The process is lengthy and frustrating. The good news? We are all capable. We all have what it takes.
We might answer our 'how' with an internet search, gathering tips and advice from those who've nabbed their addictions before us. Maybe we enlist the help of a nutrition expert. Maybe we let the wound heal more slowly, lowering our chocolate bar intake by a single bar each week.
Check out my article Your Path to Success Starts Here for more help!
Whatever we choose, we know what we're doing. We know why we're doing it, and we know how we're going to make it happen.
Don't get discouraged!
The stories we tell are tough to forget and our problems are not always easy to fix. The thorns might've been deep, and the wounds deeper.
We might falter, or even fail entirely, and need to start the process over again.
But we keep our chins up and we don't give up. Science shows the best results come "when people simply block out negative thoughts, envision themselves enjoying future successes or take an optimistic view of their abilities—all of which tend to improve performance or persuasive ability."
The End to the Story, The Start of a New One.
We all want to feel good about ourselves. We want others to feel good about us too. Existing as social creatures requires us to put on a face now and then, and that's even more true now with social media, but striving for perfection is an impossible task which comes with serious stress. Social comparison and self-image obsessions are a fast-lane to feelings of inadequacy.
Humans are by definition imperfect beings. One heart on the left side, liver on the right, and more confusion than we know what to do with. For the most part, everyone struggles in similar ways. We should take comfort in recognizing this.
While it's true that life likes to slap us around, each of us has an inner strength we can tap when we need it. We can find our thorns. We can yank them.
We can all change our stories, and we can all become happier, healthier people for having done so.