By Leo Babauta
There’s a hidden mechanism that creates unhappiness, difficulty changing habits, relationship problems, frustration, anger and disappointment.
Barely anyone is aware of this hidden mechanism, even though it’s happening all the time, in all of us. It’s the stories we tell ourselves.
We do it all day long: we tell ourselves a story about what’s happening in our lives, about other people, about ourselves. When I call them “stories” I don’t mean they’re false or that they aren’t based on the truth. It just means we’ve constructed a narrative based on our experiences, a perspective on the world around us, an interpretation of facts as we see them. Not false, but not necessarily the entire truth—just one perspective.
A different person could look at the same situation and tell a very different situation.
A few examples:
You might have a story about how your boss is very supportive and praises you a lot, which means you are doing a good job and like your work environment, and this story makes you happy. Another person might look at the same situation and tell a story about how the work area is messy and people are always interrupting him and he’s tired and the clients are rude and smelly.
You might be upset with your spouse because she was rude to you or didn’t clean up her messes for the last few days. Another person might have the same experience but tell themselves a story about how his spouse has been working hard at her job, has gone out of her way to cook a nice meal for you, and is tired and needs some comforting.
You might have a story about how you keep procrastinating, keep failing at being disciplined, never stick to a workout routine. Another perspective might be that you have gotten some great things done despite getting distracted, you’ve been passionate about learning something and that’s taken a priority over work tasks you’re dreading, and you are tired and need some rest before you can tackle exercise with vigor.
Each of these examples have very different stories about the same situations—it’s about which details you pay attention to, and how you shape the narrative of those details.
Now, telling ourselves stories is natural. We all do it, all the time. There’s nothing wrong with it. But if we’re not aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we can’t understand how they shape our happiness, relationships, moods, and more.
Becoming Aware of Your Stories
Throughout the day, you’re telling yourself stories about what’s going on, about how wrong other people are to do what they do, about how good or bad you are at things.
My challenge to you is to start to notice what you’re telling yourself about everything.
It’s important to be aware of what those stories are, and how they’re affecting your happiness. If a story is making you happy, and you’re aware of that, then great! If you’re not aware of it, it’s not such a big problem if it’s making you happy, but what happens if the story starts to make you unhappy with your life? Then if you’re not aware, you have difficulties.
So start to become aware of your stories, good and bad. Notice them throughout the day.
Notice when you’re getting stuck in the story, spinning it around and around in your head. So and so shouldn’t have done this, and on and on, making you frustrated and unhappy with the person.
When we get hooked on a story, it’s hard to break away from it. But becoming aware of being hooked is the most important step.
What We Can Do
So what can we do if we’re hooked on a story? It can be very difficult to break out of that trap. I know, because it happens to me all the time. I see the story I’m telling myself, but it seems so solid and real that I can’t just let it go.
The first thing you can do is regard it as a dream. That doesn’t mean it’s false, it just means it’s not so solid. It’s something you’re playing out in your head, just like a dream, with very real emotional results. See it as a dream, not solid, and see if you can come out of the dream to the physical reality of the world around you in this moment. What sensations are happening right now, as opposed to in this dream?
The next thing you can do is not act on the story. Even if you’re caught up in it, that doesn’t mean you have to lash out at someone, or run away to distraction or comfort. Just sit with the story, notice how it’s making you feel, notice the physical sensations in your body. Notice that you’re caught up. But don’t act, just stay with your awareness.
There is another way of being: where you don’t cling to the stories but instead drop below them, and are just aware of the moment as it is, without interpretations, judgements, preconceptions. Stories will still come up, but you can notice them and not get caught up. Or if you do get caught up, notice that and don’t hold so tightly to it, coming back to the present moment.
However, this is a pretty advanced skill, and most of us can’t stay in this mode of being for very long. For now, just focus on awareness of your story, regarding it as a dream, and not acting on the story as much as we normally do.
In this way, you’ll be less caught up in whatever is causing unhappiness and frustration, and more present in the current moment.
Leo Babauta is a regular guy, a father of six kids, a husband, a writer from Guam (now living in San Francisco). He eats vegan food, writes, runs, and reads. He is the founder of Zen Habits which is about finding simplicity and mindfulness in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.
Editor: Dana Gornall