The Stories We Tell

How did you sleep last night? Hopefully, you had a good one. Can you recall a night in which you struggled to sleep well? Perhaps, it was the night before a big event in your life? Do you sleep well when you have a big test or a big meeting the next day? If you have ever spent the night tossing and turning whether from excitement, anticipation, or anxiety, how did you feel the next morning? More importantly, what story were you telling yourself in the morning? Was it one that focused on the consequences of not sleeping well? Did you deride yourself for not being able to sleep? Would you interpret the poor sleep as a reason for getting in the way of doing your best at whatever big event you’re now facing? Would stunted sleep sour your mood? Or, would you tell yourself a different story; one that helps put things in a positive perspective? Have you been able to frame the shoddy slumber as no big deal. Maybe you’ve had experiences with both kinds of stories? Which of the following stories may be more reflective of your experiences? When the alarm rings after a crummy night sleep, does your self-talk reflect:

“Groan. Just five more minutes please. I didn’t sleep at all last night. Why does this always happen to me? I can never get a good night’s sleep before a big event. I’m already on my heels and will be behind others who have slept well. How am I supposed to perform my best without eight hours of sleep? Heck, I barely got four. I may as well not bother showing up. It’s going to be an ugly day.”


“Guess I didn’t need to worry about the alarm this morning, I’m up anyway. No cobwebs to shake loose this morning. My body is excited and looking forward to the day. I’m glad I’m so prepared. I slept really well for most nights this week. I even went to bed a little earlier this week with hope of catching up on some sleep. I’ll be fine. I’ve survived on much less sleep than what I had last night. My body gets what my body needs. It’s prepared and ready for the event of the day. I’ll be fine today. I look forward to an even better night’s deep sleep tonight once I’ve succeeded.”

Which of these is true? Which is more likely to be helpful? Ryan Holiday writes in a Daily Stoic email, “Is your house dirty or just well-played in? Are you struggling or growing stronger through resistance training? Are you poor or unburdened? Are you rich or temporarily blessed? The way we choose to describe ourselves and our situations determines so much of it. The language we use gives us agency or deprives us of it, hurls judgment or provides hope. Which will it be?”

The Webby Awards is an event that focuses on celebrating works done on the internet. Awards for categories like websites, online film and video, and mobile apps exist. The event is organized and hosted by a group called the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences which consists of over 2,000 industry experts. The Webbys have a 25 year history and accept input from the public in terms of selecting some of its winners. In a quest to solve the never ending battle between winners and event organizers with respect to managing the length of acceptance speeches, the Webby Awards had been unique in that they mandated recipients be restricted to only five words in their messages of thanks. This severe limitation led to some creative responses. The organizers were committed to enforcing the limits but did so in good humor. They had an actor dressed up as the grim reaper with a hook waiting to pull winners from the stage should they violate the limitation. Most adhered to the five word limitation. In 2006, musician, Prince, was honored with a lifetime achievement award. As Prince collected his award the five words he offered were, “Whatever you believe,” then pausing for dramatic effect before finishing with, “is true.” He then threw down his guitar and left the stage. Between the words and the action, Prince had made a mark. “Whatever you believe is true.” What’s true in many areas isn’t black and white. It’s not an objective line in the sand that’s easily drawn. It’s all too often subjective and up to our own interpretation. Before Prince, others have offered similar observations. In The Business of Belief, author Tom Asacker writes, “Emerson once remarked that there is properly no history, only biography. The stories we create about the past aren’t the Truth (with a capital T). They’re a personal fiction, the mind’s meaning-making apparatus at work.”

Psychologist Martin Seligman considered a pioneer of the burgeoning field of Positive Psychology wrote a book in the early 90s. The book, Learned Optimism, was a review of what Seligman coined our “explanatory styles.” Explanatory style is a scientific description for the stories we tell ourselves. Specifically, our explanatory style is the way we explain the experiences we have. We can categorize our experiences into three types, negative, neutral, and positive. How do we explain to ourselves events that cause frustration like not getting a good night’s sleep? How do we explain positive events like being late for work yet having all the traffic lights line up at being green for us aiding our progress? Seligman observed two type of distinctive responses to explain these types of events. He coined these explanatory styles: optimists and pessimists. Seligman writes, “Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world—whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless.”

Seligman, through years of research involving countless studies, determined that our responses to events could be categorized into three variables.  First, permanent involves our assessment of how long this type of experience will be around; second, pervasive is whether our explanation applies to just this experience or more broadly across other areas of our lives; and, third, personal relates to the degree of personal responsibility one feels for a certain event.

Those that fall in to the pessimist camp see problematic situations as being all of permanent, pervasive, and personal. If we believe the cause for a bad event is permanent, we’re more likely to give up. Our explanatory style is communicating “why bother?” Pessimists on the pervasive aspect use words like always or never, while optimists see problems as temporary. It’s no big deal, this setback is the result of today’s issue. Bad things sometimes happen, rarely happen, or occasionally happen. Going on and working harder in the face of temporary set backs is more likely to result for optimists. What’s interesting is that the two groups interpret positive events in the exact opposite way. Again, the pessimists interpretation reduces the likelihood of future behavior whereas the optimists are fueled to dig in and work harder. Where a positive event is experienced, pessimists attribute it to short term events our of their control. The pessimists can be contrasted with optimists that see positive experiences as being a larger, ongoing part of their lives. Optimists see good experiences as always happening or never encountering difficulties while pessimists rarely or never experience good luck.

The second aspect of our explanatory style is pervasiveness. Where permanence relates to time, pervasiveness relates to the contexts or aspects of our lives. We each have home, work, and social lives. We have different friends or family members with whom we spend time. We have hobbies and more. If we experience a setback in one area, do we let the setback flow into affecting other areas of our lives or are we able to compartmentalize our issues to the one context in which it’s being experienced? Pessimists allow problems to penetrate into several areas of their lives. Their problems ripple through flooding all dimensions of their existence. The problems became pervasive. Optimists, on the other hand, are able to compartmentalize problems isolating them to the immediate area where they arose. Being fired from a job is a very negative event for anyone. Pessimists will carry this problem into disrupting their home life and other social relationships. Optimists will feel the same sinking feeling and burden of being let go. However, they will draw strength from and will work hard to maintain positive perspectives related to their home life and other relationships. The impact of the firing is lessened as a result and they are able to bounce back and begin looking for other employment options sooner. In short, pessimists allow problems to disrupt all areas of their lives whereas optimists confine the problem to an area and continue to flourish in other parts of their lives.

The third and final dimension of explanatory style is personal. When something happens we can either interpret ourselves as being responsible for it or attributing the responsibility for the event to an external force. Like our first dimension, optimists and pessimists personalize events differently based on whether they are positive or negative. If something bad happens, a pessimist will interpret it as being their fault. I screwed up. I caused this. Pessimists view themselves as personally responsible for the problem. They see the cause internally. Optimists will attribute the poor experience to an external cause. It was the fault of the equipment. Someone else contributed to the problem. It was the weather. For pessimists, when problems occur, they are at fault and their self-esteem suffers as a result. For optimists, the problems were outside of their control and caused by some externality. Their self-esteem remains in tact. The reactions for the two groups are the opposite with respect to positive events. When experiencing a good outcome our pessimists see the cause as being outside of themselves. The progress is a result of other’s help or the equipment was better or the weather was to my advantage. It wasn’t me, it was the outside world offering me sunshine and rainbows. Our optimists happily take personal credit for the good things that happened. I made this happen. It’s because I’m good, I succeeded.

Seligman and his team created surveys which helped classify people based on their explanatory styles across these three dimensions. They then were able to sort study participants into groups of pessimists or optimists and compare how they performed in a variety of conditions. They were able to predict outcomes building evidence supporting the power of our explanatory style as a predictor of future behaviors. Seligman and others found that our explanatory styles were reasonable predictors of health, achievement, and depression. Seligman’s optimists have characteristics in common with Peter Thiel’s indefinite optimists outlined in an earlier article. Optimists were more likely to engage in positive health habits. There are studies that suggest optimists catch fewer diseases and that explanatory style may boost our immune systems. Life expectancy of optimists tends to be higher than that for pessimists. Moreover, they were less likely to become depressed in the face of life’s challenges. Explanatory styles predicted achievement outcomes where performance on tests of aptitude like SATs were held constant. The stories we tell ourselves through our explanatory styles make a difference in many areas of our lives. What’s even better is that Seligman and others have determined that our explanatory style is something that can be changed. We can learn to adapt our explanatory style to be more productive.

Tom Asacker writes in The Business of Belief, “Stories are powerful. Because we all become the stories we tell ourselves.” What Prince, Professor Seligman, and others are telling us is that our beliefs determine actions. Fables may be false, but fruitful. Porcupines, for example, don’t actually shoot their quills when threatened. Nonetheless, those that believe porcupines are more than prickly, but can send their quills like arrows at them are shown to be more cautious around porcupines. The result is folks with this inaccurate belief are protected from porcupines. Their belief steers them clear. The story may be false but it serves. Whatever you believe is true is “true” to you.

Our thoughts matter. Our thoughts reflect the stories we’re telling ourselves. What we tell ourselves about things influences our actions which effect our outcomes. Are our thoughts kickstarting constructive action? Are we using our thoughts to get better or are our thoughts getting in the way of our progress? Consider cultivating an awareness of how you’re interpreting events in your life presently. Take time once a week (or, ideally, daily when events are fresher) to reflect on something that happened whether positive or negative. Using Seligman’s explanatory style as a framework for your review ask: What was the event? What happened? How did you react? What were your initial thoughts? Did you think you influenced the event in some way? Did you consider yourself a victim of it? Does this type of event happen to you once in a while or does it seem to arise all the time? Was the event isolated to a single part of your life or did you let it influence other areas of your life? Did you carry its effects home with you? As you reflect on more events, do you notice a trend to your explanatory style? Are you more like Seligman’s pessimists or optimists?

Author James Clear offered in his weekly email on July 1st, 2021, “What parts of my story no longer serve me? What stories am I attached to that I need to let go of?” Shawn Achor in Before Happiness puts it slightly differently, writing, “So if your reality is a choice, the important next question is: Have you chosen the one that will help you harness your multiple intelligences to their fullest potential and lead to greater success and growth? And if not, how can you select a more valuable one?” What story do you need to tell yourself in order for you to be happier? What story do you need to tell yourself in order to try harder? What story do you need to tell yourself in order to be optimistic about your future? One of life’s great privileges is that we get to choose our beliefs. We may as well pick those that serve us instead of those that stifle. We’re little more than the stories we tell ourselves, so let’s tell better stories.