Questioning the Stories We Tell Ourselves
As you go through your familiar routines, what are the stories you tell yourself along the way – and what might they be costing you?
We all have these narratives that run in the background of our consciousness as we go through our days. They’re stories we tell ourselves (consciously or not) about why the people around us do the things they do, what they mean, and what’s about to happen next. And if you’re anything like me, it can be startling to notice how often they involve jumping to negative conclusions.
That doesn’t automatically make us pessimists - we really do believe we ‘know’ these worst-case-scenario stories are valid, from our experiences. And yet the longer we go on believing them, I think it only gets tougher to recognize A.) how often we’re wrong, and B.) the cost of believing these assumptions.
I noticed this habit in myself last month when Joe and I took our trip to Seattle. I love to travel and I was way excited for this trip – but few things in this world make me more agitated than airports and pre-flight jitters. They have this way of making me especially, mmmm, shall we say... disenchanted with fellow humans. Probably because I believe I know what to expect from my own experiences – and it’s not great.
The lines. The delays. The impatient crowds.
But for some reason that Wednesday morning, something felt different. That day, I could pinpoint my usual thought loops and patterns as they popped up; I was willing to look at them, and gently question their value and their validity.
Imagine a sort of split-screen in your mind as you read through the pairs of little vignettes below. The blurbs under "Expectations" go on the left side of the screen; the blurbs under "Reality" go on the right.
(Ever seen (500) Days of Summer? It should look a whole lot like this scene.)
- The alarm goes off at 5:30am and I groan as I feel around to hit ‘snooze’ again. Five minutes before our cab is scheduled to pick us up, we haven’t gotten our usual dispatch notification. I’m wondering what I’ve forgotten to pack, while lamenting how our cab is probably running late.
- Our cab pulls up a few minutes early, and morning rush-hour traffic on 395 moves along at a surprisingly steady pace. The security lines are some of the shortest I’ve ever seen. Our bags roll smoothly though the bag-check and out the other side, incident free. Our gate is nearby, with plenty of open seats.
- I stumble sleepily toward the Starbucks, already feeling irritated at the long lines, the slow-moving lines of cranky under-caffeinated people, and the many roller-suitcases that I’m sure will be clogging the waiting area.
- The line is short, and moves quickly. I grab a bottled water, and pause to notice the bottle's perfect size and shape; not too big, not too small. I exchange silent pleasantries with a man next to me as we wait for our coffee; I find comfort in his salt-and-pepper hair, his smile wrinkles, his friendly aura. They remind me of my dad.
- At the gate, I absentmindedly grumble about the lingering crowds. Why does everyone crowd the gate so early? Why do they insist on creating unnecessary tension? Are we impatient children?
- Our group is called to board first. We slip easily into line. The man who scans my boarding pass is that perfect blend of warm, and efficient. There's plenty of space for my bag in the overhead bin.
- We find our seats, and immediately start dreading the long flight. Being on an older plane probably means no little luxuries, like seat-back screens. (#firstworldproblems) We’re surrounded by young kids, who I’m sure will be fussy the entire time. It’s gonna be a lonnnng flight.
- We luck out with an open middle seat between us. I push my carry-on under the seat, and notice there are chargers. (Surprise!) As we take off, I watch the kids in front of us press their noses up to the window, shouting “BLAST OFF!” with delight. The drink cart comes by, and they're passing out my favorite: Biscoff cookies.
- Just as I'm settling into my movie, I feel someone behind me grab onto, pull, and jostle my seat. I bristle.
- I feel a hand on my shoulder, as a silver-haired woman behind me lets her friend out. “Sorry to bother you.” We exchange smiles, and my shoulders relax from around my ears. Inhale, exhale.
Beyond the “look on the bright side!” and “there’s always a silver lining!” platitudes we’ve heard (and rolled our eyes at) since we were kids, there was something deeper that I started to understand from my travel experiences that day:
All those little pleasant surprises I listed? They didn’t magically appear as a reward from the universe for changing my perspective. They were there the whole time, regardless of whether I chose to pause to appreciate them.
And they could have just as easily gotten drowned out in the noise of negative expectations.
We do it all the time. We keep our blinders on, hellbent on validating our assumptions and mentally fast forwarding through the details of our reality – some of which might have pleasantly surprised us if we’d paused to notice them – straight to the crap we’re expecting. We skip ahead to the worst-case-scenario, bypassing who-knows-how-many opportunities to be present, or surprised, or grateful.
I was listening to my new favorite podcast on the plane called Doing the Work with Jay and Becca (haven’t heard it yet? You definitely should) – it was an episode about your Small. Jay defines ‘your small’ as all the stuff that gets in the way of being your highest, best self. My Small involves a lot of irritability, assuming the worst intentions, and annoyance when the world around me doesn’t match my idea of what it should be – people’s behavior, the way scenarios play out (traffic, vacations), etc.
- That guy cut me off because he must be a jerk trying to get ahead of everyone in traffic.
- Ugh, great, this airplane is full of babies. Can’t wait for them to cry the whole time.
- What was I thinking, going to Trader Joe’s on a Saturday afternoon?! It’s gonna be a miserable zoo.
And sometimes, I might be right about that stuff. But... is that really a ‘win’?
When negative assumptions become our baseline, it becomes that much harder to detect actual red flags in our life and relationships that need our attention.
If we’re regularly leaning into the impulse to be ‘right’ about the negative stories we tell ourselves, begrudging and complainy slowly becomes our natural state. And on top of being a generally un-fun way to live, it also makes for less emotional contrast.
If feelings of “meh” gradually become your new neutral, we get used to that feeling. Dissatisfaction and disappointment become unsurprising - so then what happens when we bump into something in a relationship that poses a threat to our sense of joy, in a more substantial way? It becomes easier to dismiss as “fleeting” or “normal.”
But we owe it to ourselves - present and future - to make sure ongoing pain in our relationships and relationships that ask us to quiet our voices are so far from our norm, that they immediately get our attention when they pop up. By actively inviting more joy and gratitude into our day-to-day emotional ground zero, that contrast only becomes more and more pronounced – and when there is a bigger issue in our relationship that needs addressing, it will become easier and easier to spot from a distance.
By regularly questioning the stories we tell ourselves and replacing the small grumbles with gratitude more often, we can start to understand our everyday reality through a more patient, hopeful lens – and that small shift allows the legitimately troublesome stuff jump off the page more easily.
So now, I’d love to hear:
Is this a phenomenon you experiences, too?
How to you make room for more gratitude in your life?