The stories we tell ourselves

“Our choice of the strands of our own story which we choose to tell again and again, out loud, creates our own self-image and our image of the world. Our subconscious is always happy to see only that which fits with our chosen story.” ~Tammy Vitale

I have found myself pondering at great length both the interplay and distinction between emotions, thoughts, and beliefs in the days since I wrote about welcoming each emotion. It seems to me that the lines between thinking and emotions often get blurred, particularly in the realm of positive thinking circles or the discussions about Law of Attraction with its idea that thoughts and/or feelings become things.

I remember a course I took years ago that talked about how our emotions are secondary reactions to events, but these feelings are actually dictated by our beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves rather than by the actual events or situations we encounter. We tend to think that something happens to us, and this produces an emotional response. The actual chain of events is that something happens to us, we filter this happening through our belief systems to produce a story about what happened, then we emotionally respond to that story.

One of our instructors provided a very illuminating example of this. He and his wife owned a vacation cottage, and they would bring supplies when they would visit. One day he noticed that his wife had accumulated an excessive number of rolls of foil in their pantry there, and he reacted with rather extreme anger to this. As he worked his way through trying to figure out this emotional response that seemed to be out of line with the event that supposedly prompted it, he realized that the anger was actually covering fear and that this fear was based on something in his belief system that he was not even aware of. His step-mother, with whom he had been very close, had developed dementia during her later years as she neared the end of her life. One of the symptoms that had manifested itself at that time was an overstocking of certain items in her house, including aluminum foil. He had unconsciously developed a belief that overstocking in this way was a sign that someone was about to die. Therefore, when confronted with an overstock of foil, his unconscious belief triggered a story that his wife must be developing dementia and was about to die. Naturally, this story triggered strong emotions—fear masked as anger—that seemed excessive for the event that supposedly prompted it.

As I look at this example, the presence of the foil itself (the “event”) did not produce the emotional reaction directly. In addition, his conscious thoughts really had little to do with his emotional reaction to the stock of foil. The emotional reaction was entirely due to the story that his belief system produced in his subconscious when confronted with multiple rolls of aluminum foil. That story clearly was a strong threat to his well-being since he loved his wife dearly, and the emotional response was quite appropriate for the story. The problem was that his story was not his reality.

Therefore, it seems to me that all the effort that I tend to put into attempting to control my thoughts and my feelings to make them more positive will be in vain if I have not dealt with the underlying beliefs and stories that are filtering my daily experience. The challenge is that I can pay attention to my thoughts and my feelings, but my beliefs are often a bit harder to ferret out. They tend to live in subconscious, just outside of my awareness. How do I go about excavating beliefs I have that are coloring my thoughts and emotions in ways that are not helpful to the life I want to live?

I think one of the best ways that I can do this is to become aware of the stories that I am telling myself about the things that happen to me. And as I become aware of the stories, I need to constantly be asking myself whether I know that the stories are really true. Questioning the stories that I am telling myself seems to me to be the best way to uncover those hidden beliefs that are ruling my life from backstage. As I question these beliefs, I suspect that I will find plenty that will fall apart upon closer observation—much as his story did about the aluminum foil. I will then have the opportunity to replace those faulty beliefs with ones that will be more helpful to me.

Even the techniques I talked about recently as ways of enhancing my positive thinking are really more about changing the stories I am telling myself about things that happen. While neither of these techniques explicitly talked about beliefs, in reality both of them are really ways to change my beliefs about the meaning or possibilities in situations. My thoughts are of course involved in this process, but it is the thoughts changing my underlying beliefs and stories about the situation that truly cause the shift in my mindset and emotional state to more positive ones.

This idea has sorted out much in my own mind about how I can welcome whatever emotions come and simply observe my thoughts without falling into negativity. The negativity stems from my stories and beliefs, not from the emotions anyhow. The real challenge, and the place that I can have the greatest positive impact, is in dealing with my stories and the underlying beliefs that are generating them rather fighting the emotional response. Emotions can now truly been seen as the teachers they are because they point out to me the stories that generated them. By welcoming the emotion, I can track back to the stories that created them, which leads me back to the beliefs that are at the root.

Some stories will prove to be accurate, and the emotion thus generated can serve as a call to action. I suspect I have many other stories that are either provably false, or at least not provably true. In these cases, it’s time for me to change my beliefs and in so doing change my stories.