The psychological power of stories we tell ourselves

Welcome back to The Snow Report, where we explore how to think and see the world differently. Feel free to forward this along to anyone who you think would like it. And thanks for joining this journey! <3 Shane

Not long ago, I had to babysit a terrible two-year-old. By myself.

She was adorable, and infuriating.

I was stuck with her on the front porch while my girlfriend (now fiancé—yay!) and the two-year-old’s mom were doing something in the house. Every 30 seconds, the kid started winding up a tantrum so she could get her mom’s attention—and my job was to prevent this from happening.

After a few failed attempts to distract her, I inadvertently found a way to extend those 30 second intervals into a full 30 minutes.

I told the little girl that I was a dinosaur hunter, and I needed her help to find where all the dinosaurs were hiding. She immediately got on board.

We searched the corners of the yard, pretending that the flies and beetles and sparrows were dinosaurs. Finally, her mom came out, saw what was happening, and decided that her friend needed to marry me immediately. (Great success!)

What happened here was a version of what we’ve all seen at some point with kids. When you turn the spoon full of food they don’t want to eat into an airplane, suddenly a toddler wants to eat ALL the food.

In psychology terms, this is called “cognitive reappraisal.” In normal human terms, it’s “telling yourself a different story than what is actually happening.”

Cognitive reappraisal, in a nutshell, makes it easier for us to get through hard things.

And it doesn’t just work on kids. As Eric Barker explains in his wonderful book Barking Up The Wrong Tree, cognitive reappraisal is a powerful tool for adults as well!

  • Research shows that people who call themselves “optimists” often have a too-rosy view of the world vs “pessimists”… but they also manage to overcome work obstacles with more success than “realists.” That’s because the stories they tell themselves (about how things will work out) help them to work harder when the going gets tough.

  • When University of Virginia professors experimented with telling students with academic challenges to change the narrative in their head from “I can’t do this” to “I just need to learn the ropes,” they found that this alone dramatically decreased dropout rates.

  • And in a surprising look at Navy SEAL training: The difference between the small percentage of candidates who make it through the brutal training required to become a Navy SEAL and those who don’t make it isn’t the size of their muscles or their overall physical fitness. By the time you make it to SEAL training, you’re in pretty good shape. The difference between those who make it through training and those who don’t is almost entirely explained by the “self talk” the candidates give themselves when going through the training. The soldiers who turn the extreme underwater breath-holding or carrying the giant log for miles into games in their heads—rather than thinking about it as the horrible physical challenges they are—push through and win the day.

Another fascinating book that gets into this idea is the wonderfully original The Hypomanic Edge, by Dr. John Gartner. In it, Dr. Gartner psychoanalyzes various groundbreaking explorers and innovators in history—from Christopher Columbus to Alexander Hamilton—and shows a fascinating pattern:

  • People who are crazy enough to believe that they can beat the odds often do things other people would never do—and this helps them beat the odds.

  • Many times this kind of craziness coincides with other bad traits (Columbus was no saint, and was more than slightly crazy), but like The Little Engine That Could, the people who are willing to tell themselves a story that they are special and “can do it” are much more able to push their own envelope than people who don’t.

If you’ve been getting The Snow Report since last summer, you’ll remember that I wrote about A Book About Love, wherein neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer outlines how both talk therapy and journaling help us to move on after big mistakes or horrible circumstances that have happened to us.

Both of these activities do the same thing: they ask us to turn what we’ve done or been through into a story. And once we’ve turned our pasts into a narrative, it’s much easier for us to lives with ourselves.

So the next time you face a challenge, tell yourself a story about how you can do it.

When you need to push through that final dumbbell set or that last excruciating triangle pose, tell yourself that you’re the kind of person who can endure this.

When you find yourself furious at that person who you “can’t deal with anymore,” tell yourself a story that helps you reframe the situation (“This is so great; I can’t wait to text my friends about this later!”) or a game (one of my favorites: keep count of how many times the annoying person does the annoying thing). Or just tell yourself the story of how you are the kind of person who can deal with it.

Because you can deal with it!

Perhaps most important: Use some cognitive reappraisal on yourself when it comes to the things that haunt you. You can put the painful past into a story—and no matter how good or bad the story, you can live with a “story” better than you can live with “general pain.”

And telling the story of where you’ve been and how it’s changed you for the better—rather than the story of how your past has screwed you up—will help you make it up the next mountain.

The best thing about this is it’s backed by real brain science. Positive self talk isn’t just hippy mumbo jumbo.

I can attest to this myself as I’ve put self-storytelling into practice. And not just with two-year-olds, but my own inner child that wants to throw a tantrum every time life gets hard.

Here’s to turning that pill we need to swallow into an awesome airplane!

Until next time—much love,

Shane