Why We Tell Ourselves Stories


Every day of our lives, we tell ourselves stories. We seek to explain things, to know the reasons why, to somehow find a way to make sense of insane, swirling uncertainty that we exist in. It feels better that way, it feels safer and clearer — if we know. And if we can’t know, we pass the uncertainty guessing. Making stabs at what things mean, creating narratives of ways we think things are in our heads and projecting them onto our lives. Onto reality. And often, without us even realizing it, these stories start getting tangled up in what actually happened until we can’t tell the difference. 

We’ve all done it — speculated why someone is acting the way they’re acting, why we didn’t get that job or why someone isn’t texting us back or how events are going to unfold. We can’t sit with the uncertainty of simply not knowing, so we start to try to fill the void. I have sat numerous times in rooms full of girls (and occasionally in rooms full of guys as well) trying to interpret text messages, everyone weighing in with what they think the phrasing and punctuation indicates about Love Interest X’s feelings for the friend in question. It’s not necessarily problematic in and of itself to do this — to try to interpret the things happening in our lives and the lives of our friends, but it is when we take it that next step further and start to have emotional reactions to those interpretations that we get ourselves in trouble. 

Tracking the thought process is the most fascinating part — watching the way things are linked, the leaps that are made as if jumping from one concrete fact to another. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether or not the theory is soundly logical or wildly speculative — what matters is that we recognize that no matter what, it is only a theory. The only true data we have to go off of is what actually happened — everything else we have to remind ourselves is something we made up or something our friends made up. Accurate or off-base, it is a story we are telling ourselves.

It often begins with something real, with something that physically, literally, happened. Someone hasn’t texted in a few days. Instantly we start jumping, leaping into this strange, imagined space. They’re angry. They’re no longer interested. They lost their phone. Something terrible has befallen them. We then choose whichever of these explanations seems most probable, and suddenly we start to react to it as if it were real. As if it were certain. We decide that they’re no longer interested and a dread starts to creep up — a real, visceral dread that it’s over, that we did something to mess it up. Then comes the anxiety, the sadness, the frantic searching for what could have gone wrong, for what they could be thinking. It spirals further and further from reality, further and further into our own insecurities, our own imaginations. We have real, full-on emotional reactions to something we made up in our heads.

Sometimes, we are right. Sometimes our worst fears are confirmed. Sometimes it’s over or we’re being ignored. But other times, you have entirely convinced yourself that that person who didn’t text you back is uninterested, that it’s over, that you’re being blown off, and five minutes later you look at your phone and they’re calling you. And sometimes you make excuses, trying to convince yourself that there’s a good reason for the lack of texts and that nothing is wrong. Sometimes you’re right and sometimes you’re only fooling yourself. But the point is not whether we have guessed correctly or incorrectly — the point is that we have to acknowledge that no matter what, all we’re doing is guessing.

We tell ourselves stories because uncertainty makes us nervous. It makes us uncomfortable. But we are trying to put together a puzzle we only have a couple of pieces to, trying to solve a case with only a handful of clues. And having full-blown emotional reactions to theories, to hypotheses as if they were foregone conclusions is irrational. It is human, it is normal, it is something that likely all of us have done at one point or another, but it is not productive and it is not making us feel any better.

We have to step back, we have to take a few breaths, we have to be able to discern between what has actually happened and what our minds have created. What are the facts? What are the real events that have actually happened? What do we actually know? And what are we inventing, what are we imagining to fill the gaps, what stories are we telling? There are enough real things around us to have feelings about without having feelings about hundreds of hypothetical truths or possible outcomes that may never actually exist.

Slow down. Breathe. Remember what’s real. Uncertainty is a part of life and always will be, and there are at least two options that are better than telling ourselves stories and then forgetting we wrote them — learn to accept the uncertainty and live with it, or ask. Find out. Get real answers instead of making ones up. They may not always be the ones you hoped for, but at least you know they’re real.

featured image – Barney Moss