Scott H Young

We Become the Story We Tell Ourselves


I’ve made it a habit to find out what drives someone, the first time we meet. I find that knowing this reveals more about a person than politics, religion or any of the normal things people use to distinguish themselves.

At first, it surprised me how much of a person can be summarized, once you know the answer to that question. Sometimes you’ll even understand the person better than they do themselves. The person who is driven by ambition, but complains of stress, will never really stop working.

The reason, I believe, is that we become the story we tell ourselves. Not because of fate, or self-determination, but because we filter the future and edit the past to fit our preferred narrative.

Perhaps for all the time we spend talking about success or trying to design the perfect lifestyle, we miss a more powerful force that guides our life—the story we tell ourselves every day about it.

You Can Change the Past

No, time travel doesn’t exist. But you don’t need a DeLorean to alter the past, we change our past all the time. In fact, we can’t not alter our past.

Science has overturned the view of memory being a static, unchanging photograph. Instead, they’ve shown that the act of remembering changes our memories. Unlike pristine transcripts of our lives, we warp and shift them each time we remember.

In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Leher describes a study where rats were taught to associate a shock with noise:

“But Nader, LeDoux and Shafe took this simple experiment one step further. First, they made sure the rats had a strong memory associating the schock witht he noise. … But what made their experiment different was its timing. Instead of interrupting the process of making a memory, they interrupted the process of remembering a memory, injecting the noxious chemical at the exact moment the rats were recalling what the noise meant. The long-term memory should exist independently of its recall. … After the poison is flushed out, the rats should remember their fear.”

“But this isn’t what happened. When Nader and his group blocked the rats from remembering their fearful memory, the original memory trace also disappeared.” [emphasis mine]

Leher concludes by stating, “The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”

In this view, we change our past all the time. It’s as if, each time we remember, we are not consulting a photograph, but re-painting a scene. We emphasize, replay and exaggerate the details that fit the story we tell ourselves, and omit any that don’t.

We Think in Stories

The issue doesn’t just extend to corrupted memory. Our present is dominated by story as well. I would go so far as to say we think and reason in terms of a narrative.

It’s not hard to see why this is true. Just think of primitive religions and their explanations for thunder, lightning or seasons. To us, the idea that seasons are caused by a goddess’ sadness at her daughter staying in Hades, is a little silly.

Some might argue that early religious interpretations were from people wanting to believe, needing reassurance in an otherwise toilsome life. I don’t really agree with this interpretation, as supernatural forces were just as often evil and misanthropic as they were comforting.

Perhaps a better explanation for Zeus’ lightning or Apollo’s chariot of the Sun, is that people reason via stories. It took years of scientific discipline to overcome this natural tendency to come up with narrative explanations. Our native language isn’t the objective world, but the fictional one of stories.

Someone once told me that, “the greatest truths are in fiction.” The point was meant to be profound, contrasting the factual nature of nonfiction books, to the deeper truths underlying fiction.

It’s hard to understand why this statement feels true. Certainly any deep philosophical argument made in a work of fiction has also been argued explicitly in a non-fiction work. How then, expressing the same truth, could one be “greater” than the other? I suspect the reason is that story is our native language, and in hearing a philosophical argument with evidence and rhetoric, we are merely listening to a translation from the way we understand the world.

If our thinking and reasoning are done in story, then it seems our future decisions are ultimately guided by the most important story—the one we tell ourselves. Like Zeus’ thunderbolt or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we explain ourselves through story.

Rewriting the Story

Our past is warped and our present viewed through the story we tell ourselves. What does this mean for living well?

First, as important as the narrative is, it’s not clear to me that it’s easy to change. To a certain extent, I feel our identity becomes inseparable from the story we keep repeating. Even if it is a fiction, it’s a powerful one, rewriting the past and sculpting our decisions for the future.

I guess this is why I’d like to have more empathy for other people. The truth is, you don’t know the narrative that is shaping their life. Too often I hear trite advice to people who have real problems: Fat? Stop eating so much! Poor? Don’t spend so much money! Lonely? Go out and meet people!

Accurate, but not always helpful. If the narrative of your life isn’t one where the protagonist triumphs in the end, I can imagine why it would be difficult to change, even when the solution seems obvious to an outsider.

Second, it’s important to remember that it is a fiction. Life is not a story, even if we warp our perception to believe it is. If I scan through old journal entries, there isn’t the same definable plot arc that I sense from my memory. Just a jumble of random thoughts, stochastic wobbles of happiness and frustration.

Perhaps reminding ourselves of this essential fiction is a way to change it. After all, if you are a literal believer in your own story, you can’t rewrite it. Recognizing that it’s a fiction, albeit a necessary one, gives you the flexibility to rewrite the story.

Past pains can be rewritten as battles won, not scars collected. Nostalgia can be enjoyed without giving up anticipation of the future. Maybe if we can outgrow the stories we’ve told ourselves, we can become something different.


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25 Responses to “We Become the Story We Tell Ourselves”

  1. Hi Scott, this is one of the best articles I’ve read of yours, particularly the paragraph on empathy and how easy it is to make judgements with no knowledge of somebody’s ‘story’.

    Brilliant work man.

    Matt

  2. I look at the past as a series of experiences that I went through without adding a story to it. The past just is, nothing more than that, unless you want to add a story.

  3. Chris says:

    Have you heard of Narrative Therapy? It’s a whole type of counseling that’s based on this idea.

    (Well it’s got lots of other aspects to it as well, but that’s a half decent way to sum it up)

  4. Nicky Spur says:

    I like this — I seem to find a resonance in most of your posts about the identity behind human beings. In this case I really feel that it relates to how someone interprets the world. Positively, negatively, or with a drive to change makes a difference. Both our past and current life — and even into our future are able to be seen through a wide spectrum of lenses. I agree with what you’re saying, and I also think it’s a powerful point. Nothing is set in stone, it’s only what you make of it.

  5. Gabe says:

    Great observations. The only thing I’d add is that I wouldn’t say that even our years of scientific discipline have overcome the need for narrative explanations. When I first began writing peer-reviewed academic papers in the sciences, one of the first things I learned from a seasoned faculty member was “you can’t just present a bunch of facts and hope your readers will get something out of it… they have to be convinced that what they’re looking at is important. You have to tell a story.”

  6. Andrew says:

    Amazing article, you really touched on something here. The idea reminds me a lot of “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman and why optimist lead better lives than pessimists: they interpret the same events differently.

  7. Scott Young says:

    Justin,

    I don’t think it’s possible not to add a story. People just don’t view their lives as a bunch of chaotic, completely random things that happened in the past with a bunch of chaotic, completely random things happening in the future.

    My argument isn’t that people *add* a story to their experiences, but that they fundamentally interpret the world in those terms.

    Chris,

    No–I haven’t heard of it. I’ll have to take a look.

    Gabe,

    When I coach students, I teach them to use stories to understand concepts better. Stories aren’t superfluous, they’re necessary to make sense of the world. I guess my point about scientific discipline is that it took years to recognize that they are an essential *fiction*, not always literally the best way of interpreting the world.

    Andrew,

    Certainly. The most haunting thing I’ve read about psychology is studies conducted which showed that it was *only* depressed people who correctly saw how much of the world they could control. That psychological health involves necessary delusion is startling to me.

    -Scott

    -Scott

  8. Prithvi says:

    Hi
    It’s a good site. Reading this article gave me an idea why not write your own story again. If i try to compare past with an old canvas of paint, it won’t be wrong but anyone if they have the correct realization can get a new canvas and start throwing new colors. It has given me an idea to write my own success story. The title of this story is brilliant.
    Thanks Scott. Keep up the good work.
    Prithvi

  9. Hi Scott.

    I agree with Matt, Andrew, and the others in that you delivered the message very well here, and the message was one that needed to be said. Telling a fat person to eat less misses the concept since the person may be running through a depressing narrative daily that leads them to eat to balance out their bad feelings. We don’t know what is going on in the heads of most.

    Also, this article makes us each look at our own mental story, and if it is playing out just as we do or don’t want it to. It would be a shame if some of us are causing our own anguish.

  10. Life is Good says:

    I’ve had hard times in the past, and I allowed that to dictate for future for quite a while. This article really drove home a good point, and really helped me reanalyze the direction that I should be going in and the way that I should be thinking. Thanks a lot for the article Scott!

  11. Meredith says:

    Hello Mr. Young,
    You said, “I’ve made it a habit to find out what drives someone, the first time we meet.”

    I was wondering if you could give some examples as to how you go about doing that? It’s taken me quite a while to learn what drives my closer friends, or perhaps that’s just because I haven’t entered college yet.

    Thank you for rephrasing and emphasizing that our “self-talk” is more than a conversation with ourselves – it is the story we tell ourselves to become.

  12. Apfelsafty says:

    “stochastic wobbles of happiness and frustration” is an extremely pleasing configuration of words, thank you for sharing it!

    I agree with you that we all inevitably form narratives. I’ve struggled with it a bit…I just don’t like the idea that people will, intentionally or otherwise, distort the truth in order to make it fit in better with the ‘story’ of their life. I think it’s an important realization that everybody does this, i’m just not sure what to do with it yet.

    Ryan Holiday has written some good stuff on this:
    http://www.ryanholiday.net/the-narrative-fallacy/

  13. Steve says:

    Hey Scott,

    After reading this post I asked a close friend her to write her memories about a 3 day trip to NYC that we took together and realized she not only emphasized different things than what I found important, but some of the same experiences were almost completely different than what I remember.

    It reminds me of people arguing over political views. People think ‘if they just knew what I knew they would vote x’ but they don’t realize that everyone sees life through their own lense, and that lense is a completely different prescription than the one you are looking through. The sum of our experiences change the was we see things.

    Empathy is a great quality.

  14. Scott Young says:

    Meredith,

    Generally I’ll ask people the normal questions of what they do, what there plans are, etc., but I make an effort to try to see the drives underlying those goals.

    For example, if I talk with someone who is planning on a big career move, what’s the underlying force? Does this person need material advancement? Are they looking for lifestyle quality? Family? Finances? Ambition? Contentment?

    You can’t know this definitively within one conversation, but assuming the person isn’t being guarded about their motivations, it often leaks out.

  15. [...] Young takes a slightly different spin on the self-fulfilling prophecy by saying that we become the story we tell ourselves. In fact, it is quite possible to change the past if you simply tell yourself a different story [...]

  16. [...] productive, shy to charismatic and pessimistic to optimistic take years of work and often fail. We become the story we tell ourselves, and that narrative is deeply [...]

  17. [...] Young says you can change history because We Are The Story We Tell Ourselves. The power behind this concept is amazing. Memories are not facts, they are very flexible, and I [...]

  18. Meredith says:

    Thanks Scott!

    In a sense, the “drives” underlying the goals we set are the priorities we hold utmost. Did I get that straight?

  19. [...] Like Scott H. Young said, “It’s as if, each time we remember, we are not consulting a photograph, but re-painting a scene.” [...]

  20. jess says:

    I wonder if this would have been better as a story…har har

  21. jess says:

    No, but seriously, I enjoyed the read. things i’ve been realizing myself in life…my story seems to be undergoing revisions these days as my paradigms shift…

  22. jess says:

    Wait, did my other comment go through? Well, if not, I also wanted to say, on a more serious note, that this was a fascinating read and something I’ve seen played out in my life of late. It seems that, as my life story gets revised/rewritten, I’m finding the courage and strength to live in the present and have hope for the future.

  23. [...] If you tell a story with confidence and consistency, in the moment and after—home every night for dinner, never once went to bed angry, gave it my best shot—maybe the truth becomes you.  Accentuating the positive eliminates the negative or, if you prefer, vice-versa.  Control the narrative:  be selective; add emphasis; make shit up. [...]

  24. […] Psychologists suggest using the power of “But” to counter this short dip in morale. […]

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