The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I once read somewhere that our brains are wired to create stories, and that concept strongly resonated with me. I believe that this process stems from our evolutionary needs: in order to survive, our ancestors needed to put two and two together very quickly. Today, however, I think we should be more critical of the stories we tell ourselves.

Our brains love to generalize and remember selectively, turning a summer filled with two part time jobs, a disastrous family vacation, and an on-and-off-girlfriend into a “summer of love,” and the subsequent Autumn punctuated by holiday feasts, tackling the hardest class you’ve ever taken, and a break-up into “that Fall she dumped me.” I am sometimes amazed at how my mind twists memories in retrospect. I had one summer when I wasn’t very happy, but I jogged a lot (I also worked at a hospital, traveled to Boston, and hung out with my best friends a lot.) These days, I tend to remember jogging through the sadness, although a ton of other, important things – both happy and sad – happened that summer. My brain has constructed a story I like – fighting through despair – because it sounds good and makes that large chunk of time easy to remember. All these borderline self-delusions would be fine, except that memories impact our actions today. So, I think we need to try harder to remember what actually happened.

Relationships may be the easiest example of this phenomenon, because memories of love tend to be either black or white: we idealize and force situations and emotions into neat little categories into “good” and “bad.” Idealizing an ex, a past crush, or your first love is a common place thing. The opposite is also true: “he wasn’t good for me. He was bad to me.” Well, he couldn’t have always been bad to you, Carol, otherwise you wouldn’t have dated him for three years. I think we find it easier to box up and move on; maybe because we seek closure and want to feel like the past is in the past. Maybe it’s because we just don’t like to think hard.

Of course, relationships are not the only place we tell stories. Think of the last time you tried to get into shape. What do you remember? Is it the first time you ran a 5K, stepped on a scale and were happy, or looked in the mirror and saw what you wanted to see? Or is it the many times you had to force yourself out of bed, into your gym clothes, and out into the cold? Do you tell yourself a story of triumph, or a story of perseverance? Do you remember every last bit of it?

Our brains are also wired to find patterns, even in a series of disparate events. When we have a bad day – the dog throws up in our shoes, the bus breaks down, the printer gets jammed – it’s comfortable to connect these events and claim that the universe is conspiring against us. Of course, that’s not the case. It sounds primitive, but that’s exactly what we do on a larger scale. Two bad dates don’t mean you’ll die alone. I think most of us realize that in our more rational moments, but it just feels better to build a narrative. Don’t.

We like being heroes of our own stories, even if we’re tragic heroes – the kind that doesn’t realize their underlying fault. So, we tell our stories in stages: “Last summer I was happy. Then I got fired and struggled to find myself. Then I traveled and found myself. Then I worked hard, and now I’m happy again.” It’s never that simple. I’m amazed at how differently time can flow depending on what we’re doing – it can fly by so fast, we tend to forget just how much of it we have. Find an analog clock with a second hand, and just sit still and look at that for a minute. If you can manage that, do it for five. How did that time feel? Now imagine an hour. There’s a lot of time, and a lot of things happen every day. “That summer I traveled and found myself” involved a lot of different moments other than finding yourself, including tedious train rides, a lot of uncertainty, and your cousin’s birthday where you got drunk and kissed that one girl that gave you butterflies in your stomach.

So, what’s the point of being aware of how our brain interprets memories? I’d like to believe that not seeing everything in black and white opens up possibilities. You’re not a hero on a movie set; your life isn’t defined by a scripted story arc, and every day presents new opportunities to change the road you’re on. In the past, you’ve loved, you’ve cried, you’ve been neurotic, and you’ve been heroic, and you’ve done a million other things – sometimes all at once. While patterns of action-consequence certainly exist, we should be cautious about forcing ourselves – and our memories – into archetypes. Telling stories limits both the breadth of our current possibilities and the beauty of our past.