The stories we tell ourselves
The stories of our lives aren’t just recollections of past events. They have a fascinating impact on our future too
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Karine, a woman with an incredible story. An incredible story that is a perfect example of how our minds are continuously working in the background to build the world around us.
When Karine was in her early 20s, she narrowly avoided being kidnapped in the Phillipines. She was being threatened, and had to flee the country with the FBI’s help, travelling under a fake name.
I can’t imagine the trauma that she went through during that time. Thankfully, she was able to make it back to her home country of France. Now I think for many of us, the natural reaction may have been to bunker down in the comfort and familiarity of home and family, and perhaps never leave again (or at least for quite some time!)
Karine, however! She chose to leave with a year of being home, first travelling to Paris, then onto London where she lived and worked. She told me she had decided she wanted to move forward even more now than when she had boldly moved to the Phillipines.
And this is where we get to Karine’s internal story — the story she tells herself.
Karine sees these actions as both escaping herself and trying to find herself. Her central idea was that she was running away, and that her actions were motivated by cowardice.
When I reflected back on our conversation, this point fascinated me. A young woman who had survived a terrifying experience was seemingly bravely moving on with her life, and still many years later she recounts this as cowardice. How could that be?
This is where our brains get…tricky. The thing about events that happen in our lives is that there are two components.
There are the facts. The ‘what actually happened’. The clear, observable parts of an event that everyone would agree on. In Karine’s story, these are things like: the kidnappers phoned her and threatened her, the FBI were involved, she moved to Paris and then to London.
The other component is perceptions. These are less clear cut. They’re the parts of an event that you might have trouble getting anyone to agree on.
Karine’s perception was that her moves to Paris and London were born from cowardice. Although she did have a moment of realisation during our conversation that perhaps her actions were driven by a wish to control her life, to regain some of the control taken away from her by the acts of those men.
My perception of what Karine did, purely from listening to her story and knowing some of the key facts, was that what she did took courage.
So that’s three quite different versions of the same event: the cold, hard facts, Karine’s perception, and my perception. But which one is more true?
The obvious conclusion is Karine’s version, right? She knows what was going through her head at the time. She knows what caused her to take action. And yet… even during our conversation, years later, she started to reconsider her version, to second guess her reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t cowardice after all, but a need to take back control of her life.
So, what’s going on?
There are two things at play (stick with me here while I get a bit nerdy — it’s worth it, I promise.)
The first thing:
We have two types of memories — implicit and explicit. Implicit memories are gained and used subconsciously, like being able to ride a bike after years of not doing it, or belting out those song lyrics you didn’t know you knew.
Explicit memories you experience and recall consciously. Like having to remember what the capital of Japan is (known as semantic memory), and personal experiences like Karine’s story (known as episodic memory).
To become long term, explicit memory, this information initially goes through a changeable state and over time becomes resistant to change, until it’s consolidated. This process normally takes a day or two.
Recent work has shown that explicit memories are re-consolidated each time we recall them. This means that the act of remembering something makes the memory temporarily changeable again.
This means you can experience something and your brain sends the experience of the event to your short term memory and onto your long term memory. But then when you recall that memory, it’s not in read-only.
You could add a bit to it that didn’t exist before, erase a word here or there, or change a reaction or feeling. And then it goes back into your long term memory, with all those changes saved over the original version. So next time when you recall the event, it’s not quite the same and it’s likely it will be changed a little this time around too.
Consider a story you’ve told a lot, say ten, twenty or even thirty times. Maybe it’s a favourite funny story that always breaks the ice at social gatherings. Did it really happen just like that, or is there a bit of flair added to make people laugh? Chances are, whatever version of the story you tell now, it feels true. That original memory has changed in many small but potentially transformational ways.
So. Is Karine’s memory of her motivation more accurate than my perception of the story? Perhaps.
This is where the second thing comes into play. Think about when you’re scrolling through Facebook. Are you more likely to click on a story about a natural disaster, or a story like “Local butcher wins award”?
Or think about when you drive to work — are you more likely to remember the driver that cut you off or the one that waved you through at a busy intersection?
If you answered the natural disaster and the jerk that cut you off… then you’re in the majority of people!
And this isn’t just you (or most of us) being a downer. Our brains are wired with a bias for negativity. It goes back to pre-cavewoman times and is thought to have evolved that way so we could keep ourselves safe. Paying attention to the Sabre-tooth tiger rather than the pretty sunset is a good way to stay alive.
So although we’re not often faced with the choice between Sabre-toothed tigers and sunsets now, our brains are still on survival duty. So we’re more likely to dwell on the time our boss told us our work was shoddy than the time our colleague thanked us for our amazing input. And when we replay memories of events, we are more likely to remember the negative thoughts we had about them than the positive.
Couple this with the way our memory becomes temporarily changeable when we recall it and there’s the potential to add a little negative flavour to those memories every time.
So in Karine’s case, it’s possible she had many motivating factors that pushed her to get back into a world that had recently seen her go through a very traumatic experience, but the ones that come to the front of her mind are negative ones.
Is Karine’s current memory of her motivation more accurate than my perception? Again, perhaps.
But after all that (and thank you for sticking with me through the nerd out!), what I want Karine, and you, to know is… it doesn’t actually matter.
So why did I spend all that time explaining it? Because understanding the fundamental ways our brains work can help us identify when they’re being less than helpful, and what we can do to get them more on our side.
We can see that memories of events, and our thoughts about those memories are essentially stories. The story that Karine is telling herself is that her actions were caused by cowardice. If we asked 10 people to give their perceptions of the story and her actions, we’d likely have 10 different versions.
And while it might seem logical to declare that of course Karine’s interpretation is the right one (it is her life after all!), when we consider how our memories can be changed each time we recall them, and our bias towards negativity, we really have to acknowledge that many years on, Karine’s memory of her actions may have strayed quite a bit from fact.
So the reason I say it doesn’t matter whose perception is ‘right’ is because right doesn’t matter to our brains as much as the story that we invest our mental energy on. That’s why the stories we tell ourselves are so important.
Now the good news is that decades of research in cognitive behavioural therapy and narrative psychology has shown that people can indeed change their stories to ones that move them forward rather than hold them back — all while respecting the facts.
For example, if you’re telling a negative story about a part of your life, you can try asking yourself what evidence there is for that version of the story, or the negative view you have on it. And after that, look for any evidence that could change the version of the story you’re telling. I can definitely see evidence of courage in Karine’s story!
Now that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you have to take out the negative pieces and switch them for positive ones. You can, of course! But for many of us, that’s a stretch too far. And when we stretch too far, our brains get defensive and go into fight, flight or freeze mode. In this case, you can fight against the positive words and may end up rejecting them completely.
You can start with introducing a positive view alongside a negative one. Maybe Karine was running away from herself AND maybe she was showing courage by getting back out into the world on her own.
Another technique, recommended by Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning, is to try telling the story in the third person, or imagining that someone else is telling you the story. We can see things more clearly with some distance.
I find this understanding of perception, stories and memory so powerful as a leader. If we’re able to remind ourselves that the way we, and others, view the world is related to the stories we tell ourselves, it allows us the opportunity to be curious, challenge unhelpful perceptions, and give ourselves and others more grace.
We don’t need to compromise facts to change the stories we’re telling ourselves, whether it’s about events, others or ourselves.
Are there any stories that you’d like to change your view on?
Rochelle is the Founder of Her Leadership Way, where her passion for supporting and guiding more women into leadership roles allows her to share everything she’s learned about the psychology, brain science and real life experience of leadership.
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