What are the stories you tell yourself?
In the last chapter you investigated the nature of individual thoughts, how they arise and flow and then move on. In this chapter, I’m going to have you take a look at how these thoughts can link together habitually in what becomes your own personal belief system. A belief system is really just a pattern of stories that you have been taught or have learned since childhood, or that you have developed in response to your own experiences. It’s how you frame and understand the things that you encounter in the world around you.
You have created a personal belief system about everything you have ever come across, every new discovery, every interaction and every activity, in order to fit things in with what you already know. You never just experience something without also experiencing the story that you then create about the event, based on your personal belief system. This is part of how one thought leads to another in patterns that tend to repeat themselves. It’s a normal part of your brain’s functioning to try to make sense of the world by relating new things to what you’re already familiar with. However, what’s helpful to you in providing meaning and context for novel experiences can also be harmful to you if you have developed a belief system that encourages a stress response.
For example, when you look at another person, you project your belief system onto him or her. This helps you to decide if someone is to be approached as a friend or feared as a threat. But your first impressions, your beliefs, your patterns and your stories are not necessarily true. People are often afraid of my patient Larry when they first meet him. He’s a big man and a little scary looking, but you couldn’t ask for a nicer person.
We all form immediate opinions about the people we meet based on prior experiences, our cultures, our previously formed opinions and our upbringings. We form judgments about people without even having talked to them and without knowing who they really are and those judgments could be incorrect. If your belief system encourages you to judge a person negatively, then of course your behaviour toward that person will reflect that judgment. You could be in immediate and stressful conflict with someone based on a habitual response pattern triggered by his or her clothing, smile, or hair color.
Many times, if people are acting, or dressing, in ways that don’t fit with how you believe they should be behaving, or looking, then you most likely react negatively to them. However, what you’re actually doing is reacting to a behaviour that you see in those people that you reject or deny in yourself. For example, if you see someone who is dressed in what you feel is a sloppy manner; you may find yourself thinking negative thoughts about him or her. You’re really rejecting the idea of ‘being sloppy’ yourself and so, you reject the characteristic when you see it in another person as well.
Perhaps it was a notion that you first formed in your childhood. Your parents may have initially defined “sloppy” for you as a negative characteristic. When you see someone who is dressed in what you describe as a sloppy fashion, you’re really just reinforcing the idea that you reject that quality in yourself. An understanding of belief systems and patterns can allow you to see that judgments are more about your own history than about the person, event, or situation being judged.
You have views about money, health, and relationships, about everything! But these judgments are really just stories that extend beyond the actual reality of the event itself, or the new person that you’re meeting for the first time. These stories are simply your belief system at work trying to help you negotiate and understand your daily environment. Despite the fact that your belief system seems true for you at any given time, it’s really just a set of interpretations, or tales, that you tell yourself.
You have internal and external sensations that are constantly demanding your attention, but what’s instantly created in response to these circumstances is a story… your story. Even your thoughts, as they pop up out of nowhere, are immediately captured and slotted into existing patterns. Your mind doesn’t record the original experience like a computer. It remembers the conditioned, reactive story that you created around the initial event, sensation, or perception and that becomes your reality. You completely forget the original event and only see the situation from the perspective of your own story.
Isn’t it fascinating that we all lead our lives through the ways in which we look at the world? We never see the world objectively, or how it really is. We can only perceive it through the unique filters of our belief systems and the stories that those systems tell us.
Let’s take a look now at how your mind reacts to the internal and external sensations that you’re receiving. I’m going to suggest various images for you to think about and I’d like you to just notice what stories occur for you in response to the original thought.
Close your eyes and think about someone you don’t like. Just sit a moment and notice the thoughts that arise. Try to recognize the story that comes up in response to the original thought. What is it you tell yourself about this person?
Next I’d like you to think about a person or a pet that you love. Again, just familiarize yourself with the stories that arise. These stories are just your belief system at work.
Choose to think about someone that is very neutral to you, such as the newspaper delivery person, or the person at the checkout at the grocery store. You don’t know these people very well at all. Observe the thoughts that you have about them. Remember that you’re simply exploring the makeup of your own mind.
Next, think about your work and observe the thoughts and stories that arise.
Usually when you think about someone you love, your story about that person will characterize him or her as this wonderful, happy, supportive and caring individual. When you look at someone you don’t like, your thoughts and stories about that individual will reveal characteristics like negativity, selfishness and aggression. Your stories are hard at work. Even just walking down the street, your belief system has something to say about almost everything and everyone. You might see someone with tattoos and/or body piercings and think about that person in a certain way. Someone else could view the same individual in exactly the opposite fashion, because his or her belief system has something else to say. So now you have an idea that what goes on around you is filtered through the stories that you create in response to your belief system. Let’s look a little closer at the stories themselves.
Do stories change?
You may have had the experience of having been in a relationship where originally you were in love and your partner could do no wrong. Unfortunately, over time, this perspective may have changed and in the end, now that the relationship is over, you view your former partner in a totally different and negative way. The same person can therefore be viewed very differently over time.
A friend may have acted in a way that you felt was rude, or mean and then you discover that they have suffered a significant loss recently and are grieving. Your story about this friend instantly changes from an unfavorable to a favorable one and you may feel caring and concerned where you were angry and hurt only moments before. The source of your stress is not the person so much as the story, or in other words, how you’ve interpreted the person’s behaviour.
Similarly, the beautiful new car you bought eventually just becomes a means of transportation, a money pit for repairs, or ultimately out of date and burdensome. You may even come to dislike it abruptly on seeing a nicer, more modern and flashy vehicle. Your stories can instantly change depending on the circumstances at any given moment. You should not hold any of them as a fixed, unchanging belief.
Hindsight is 20/20, but for right now seeing better is just perfect and I want you to start to view your stories as things that can and do change. Often, when you look back at stressful events in your life, you wonder what all the fuss was about. It just doesn’t seem that bad once you’ve gone through it and you know it all worked out. Almost all of the stress that you’re experiencing will work itself out one way or another, but the harm that you do yourself, as you go through a stressful event, is something that can be changed. You just have to see today’s stressful events with that 20/20 vision of hindsight!
Think of a time when a story that you told yourself about a person, situation or event, changed. Let’s explore belief systems and stories a bit further in order to understand how you can use these concepts to combat stress.
Are your stories true?
One of the biggest and most helpful questions that you can ask yourself when you’re stressed is simply, “Is this true?” Your automatic stress-filled response will most likely be a hysterical, “Well of course it is or I wouldn’t be stressed!” By now you know that most of your stress comes from the story you tell yourself, not the event that you think is causing your stress. You also know that your story is probably going to change.
It’s a reasonable course of action to examine and fact-check the story that you’re trying to tell yourself while the stressful event is actually happening. You’ll usually find that you’ve made a lot of assumptions, quite a few jumping to conclusions, some catastrophizing (i.e., thinking of the worst that could possibly happen) sprinkled with a bit of foretelling the future. Could you look at the story and see it another way?
Your beliefs are held as truths. However, the stories you tell yourself are your own relative personal truths and they reflect your unique perception of the world. As I mentioned before, another individual might look at a similar situation and see something completely opposite about it. Neither position may be absolutely true! Problems arise when you hold onto a belief rigidly without questioning it.
When it snows, one person might be happy as it means they can ski, while his or her neighbor is stressed because that person has to shovel the driveway. For now, simply allow yourself to be open to the reality that your stories are true for you only and there is more than one way to look at any situation.
Consider the following topics and see what beliefs or stories come up when you think of them. Afterward, try to look at the same topics in a different way. What would someone say who disagreed with your view on these topics? Briefly examine your beliefs about politics, homosexuality, abortion and religion.
Where do your stories come from?
Your stories are unique to you. No one else has the same stories. How you look at marriage, work, or finances, is shaped by your belief system and the stories it generates. These in turn, are all influenced by the belief systems that you were exposed to by your parents, relatives, friends and caregivers. You may also have been exposed to belief systems through various media, in your school, in your workplace, as well as in society in general. You adopted bits and pieces of these belief systems and subsequently shaped what was to become your own unique belief system. Most of what comprises your belief system originated in your childhood and came to you via your parents or caregivers.
Can you think of a belief that you hold that came to you through your parent(s)/caregivers? What did they believe about that subject? Is your belief different at all? Think about whether your own experiences, your friends, or society may have also influenced this belief. Your beliefs are likely shaped, in part, by all of these inputs but most of the groundwork was laid when you were very young. Your stories and beliefs are further influenced by habits, contexts, and experiences. You’re constantly shaping your belief system in response to what goes on both around you and in the arena of your mind.
Why do you have these stories?
Your childhood is a key component in understanding how you created the belief system that leads to your stories. You initially created a belief system early on in your childhood, which was modeled predominantly on your parents’, or caregivers’ ideas. As a child, you were very vulnerable and naturally dependent on your caregivers.
Children adopt their parents’ standards and beliefs in an attempt to deal with the need for safety and love, as well as an understandable fear of abandonment. If they are “good children” by acting in a way such that their parents would approve, then they feel safer and accepted. Remember, that as a child you internalized much of your own parents’ or caregivers’ belief systems. Subsequently, your exposure to friends, extended family, media, society and religious attitudes also worked to shape your belief system.
Genetics also contribute to a child’s personality traits and how he or she responds to the world. A child’s personality may be naturally inclined to be open, closed, friendly, suspicious, frightened or exploring. When an internal or external sensation is received, the mind compares it to the internalized belief system and memories of prior exposures to similar sensations. The sensation is rapidly labeled as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral depending on whether or not it meets the child’s need to feel safe and loved.
Your belief system is largely unconscious and unexamined. Your stories are your survival mechanism. They arise in response to your belief system whose patterns of thought have likely been in place since your childhood. By adulthood, these stories and their underlying patterns can sometimes do more harm than good by distancing you from the reality of the experience itself.
It can be a difficult practice to regularly examine your thoughts and belief system and the stories that they have to tell you about your experiences, but it’s worth it. A lot of the really scary things that your stories have to say are simply not true and never come to pass. If you can teach yourself to recognize that fact in the middle of a stressful event, you’ll be in a better position to act instead of simply reacting.
In the last chapter you practiced observing your thoughts on a daily basis and in response to a predetermined daily cue. Now I’d like you to add to that practice the following suggestions:
- Observe your mind whenever you’re upset. What’s your mind saying? Try to identify the original thought that came into your mind and then see if you can recognize the story that came after. Ask yourself, “What’s the fact?” and then “What’s the story?” Ultimately, this may just be you stating, “Fact… . Story.” Write it down if that helps you to figure it out or makes it clearer for you.
- Observe your mind whenever you’re happy. What’s your mind saying now? Try to identify the original thought that came into your mind and then make a note of the story that came after.
- Whenever you go outside, try to really experience the sensations of nature such as the wind blowing, the sound of thunder, or the feel of the rain. Listen to the sounds around you such as traffic, construction noise, voices, or bird song. See how your mind labels these experiences. Then try to refocus on the pure sensation that you’re experiencing and enjoy it for what it is. See if you can separate sensation from story.
- Sit in a park, or mall, or wherever people pass by and simply observe the story your mind tells about each passing individual. Even though you don’t know these people, your mind has created a judgment about them.
You’re teaching yourself to recognize your belief system in action and that’s always the first step in de-stressing. You’re on your way!
- You create stories around internal and external sensations.
- You react to situations in your life based on the stories around the event rather than the event itself.
- Your stories are changeable.
- Your stories are your own unique personal patterns of thought.
- Your stories are based on beliefs you learned from your parents, society, friends and role models.
- Many of these beliefs were first established in your childhood.
- These stories are often unconscious.
- Your stories distance you from the original actual experience and are not necessarily true.