Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mind’s capacity to tell stories. Of course, I’m not unique in this: story-telling is a gift, a way we make sense of the world; a heuristic which helps us interpret events and act quickly. This concept of the mind as story-teller is one of the tenets of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
I came across this picture recently:
This galaxy of lights – some near, some far; some warm, some cold, some sharply in focus and others fuzzily defined – reminded me of the mind-as-storyteller model.
Let me share some of the stories my mind has been telling me lately.
“Catie, you’re just so stupid.” This one has been loud and clear! It’s in response to my reaction to stressors in the past few months. Funny old mind; I’m not stupid, but it’s a persistent story my mind likes to run to in times of stress.
“You’re brilliant!” This after receiving praise for a piece of research I completed and delivered to the client on Monday.
“Nobody wants me, because I’m such a deeply flawed individual.” I’m looking for work at the moment, which as we all know can be a demoralizing experience as those rejection emails keep pouring in. Obviously, not getting shortlisted for a job means that nobody in the entire world accepts me.
“I’m definitely going to get this job! Woohoo!” Upon being invited to interview for a really exciting position.
I could go on, but you get the picture: my masterful storytelling mind can switch tales faster than a cheesy soap, and is quite indiscriminate about which story it picks up in the moment.
My point is, they’re all just stories. Sometimes I behave stupidly. I am also capable of brilliance. As an individual I have flaws. I may get that job, or I may not, and whether I do or not isn’t entirely within my control, because I don’t know who else has applied and what experience they bring to the table.
I talk a lot with my therapist about being “outside” the story or “inside” the story. When we’re wearing our depression goggles, it can be easy to live “inside” the story: to become totally invested in what the story’s telling us about ourselves; to suspend disbelief and accept its premises without question. On the other hand, being “outside” the story, by reminding ourselves that our mind is a storyteller and we don’t have to accept everything it says at face value, helps protect us from the story’s impact. A simple and effective tool for moving from inside to outside the story is to say to yourself: “My mind is telling me …”.
Two final quick points on the mind-as-storyteller: It’s not a bad thing that our mind tells us stories. It’s an adaptive strategy which gives us many advantages in the world. The problem only arises when we take stories as reality which don’t accurately reflect reality and then have thoughts/feelings/behaviours originating from them. It’s also worth noting that the seemingly positive stories, like “I’m definitely going to get this job!”, can cause problems too. We’re less likely to challenge these positive stories, because they feel good, but they can also be maladaptive.
What do you think of the mind-as-storyteller model?