the stories we tell ourselves

As a psychology student, I find myself thinking often about our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and how the three interact with and affect one other. I’m someone who reads scholarly journal articles for fun and often personifies my brain in casual conversations, saying, “My brain did this,” or “My brain thought that.”

As I wrap up my undergrad career and prepare for grad school (all at the University of Central Florida—go Knights!), I’ve learned that many of the reasons behind what we think, feel, and do are to make ourselves feel good, protect ourselves, or avoid cognitive dissonance (discomfort we experience with contradictory beliefs or behaviors). Our brains create stories, the accuracy of which can be unreliable, and we want those stories to have endings that make sense to us.

This doesn’t mean that our thoughts or feelings can’t be trusted. On the contrary, I believe they both play important roles in our lives that are vital to learn about, pay attention to, and care for. What’s just as important, though, is an awareness that our thoughts and feelings don’t always communicate what’s objectively factual in ourselves, others, and the world. This can be really hard to differentiate and manage, and doing so takes lots of continual, mindful practice.

With all that in mind, I’ve found it valuable to translate some of the psychological concepts I’ve learned into actual thoughts or feelings I might have on any given day or in any given situation. Like stories, these ways of thinking portray characters, narratives, storylines, and emotions all with hopes of tying it all up in a bow that’s pretty to us at the end. Gaining an awareness of these stories I’ve told myself has helped me grow immensely, especially when what I become aware of makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the stories we might tell ourselves to feel good, protect ourselves, and avoid cognitive dissonance:

Feeling Good

  • I disagree with this person. Therefore, what they believe is irrational, wrong, or influenced by incorrect biases. (This is also known as the Objectivity Illusion.)
  • The world is a just and fair place. Therefore, people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

Protecting Ourselves

  • When I succeed it’s because of what I’ve done and who I am, and when I fail it’s because of outside circumstances. On the other hand, when others succeed it’s because of outside circumstances, and when they fail it’s because of what they’ve done and who they are.
  • I (consciously or subconsciously) have this negative characteristic or tendency. Instead of addressing it in myself, I will point it out in others who are different from me. After all, I’m a good person without any major flaws.

Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

  • Stories or situations without definite endings or causes are uncomfortable. Therefore, I will try to place blame even when blame doesn’t exist.
  • People without definite or familiar characteristics require more effort to understand. Therefore, I believe people groups who are not like me are all alike while people who are like me are all unique in their own ways.

Let’s be clear: I’ve had many (if not all) of these thoughts, and still do at times. Who doesn’t like to feel good, protected, and comfortable at their deepest, mental, and emotional levels? These stories are our brain’s and body’s ways of keeping our whole selves at some sort of comfortable, functional equilibrium. As you can imagine, though, these stories can have consequences that are unintentional and minor at best and intentionally harmful at worst.

One doesn’t need to dive deep into the world of psychology like I have to know that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have influence (probably more influence than we realize). My hope is that becoming aware of the stories we tell ourselves might help us be kinder, lean into what’s uncomfortable, and maybe even gain a newfound respect for each other along the way.