Omar Shehata

Tell yourself better stories

From Omar's notebook.

One of the most powerful techniques I know to improve my mood and general wellbeing is this idea of telling myself a better story. Here's an example:

Let's say I got rejected from a job application. One story for why this happened is that I am not qualified. An alternative story that makes me feel better is that they had already decided who they want to hire before they got to my resume because I applied late.

This doesn't mean you can make up whatever truth you want. The point is that your brain will automatically make up a story to fill in the blanks when you don't know the answer. So why settle for a made up story that makes you feel bad when you can pick an equally likely one that makes you feel great?

The crazy part is that this can be incredibly effective even if you know the story isn't true. That does give you some leeway to ignore inconvenient truths if it helps you. But the important part here is that this works in the other direction too: you might often find yourself believing a negative story (I'm not qualified, my friends don't like me etc) even if you know the facts contradict it, just because it's a really compelling & emotionally charged story.

This is why I think it's really important to practice this skill of self-storytelling. Because knowing the facts is often not enough to feel better, or to really accept it.

I've been personally surprised with how well this works when done right. I remember once feeling very upset & jealous over some friendship, and feeling this uncomfortable tightness in my chest. I tried telling myself a few different stories until I found a version that resonated, and I felt that tightness immediately disappear. The fact that a good story can have this physical effect on my body just feels incredibly powerful.

I'm curious if anyone else does this intentionally. I think even just being able to tell the difference between when you're upset because of facts, or because of the automatic story your mind fills in the gaps with, is incredibly helpful.

Edit: April 24th, 2023

I was walking down the Cornell hill today, on a rainy afternoon, when I realized I was really enjoying this weather. A year ago, I would have found it utterly depressing.

This changed about a year ago, thanks to Jon. We were staying in a little cabin in rural Vermont, and I remarked on how beautiful it was out here, if only it was a nice sunny day, but it was quite overcast instead. He said he actually preferred this weather.

That instant was incredibly mind-blowing to me. I suddenly went from it being obvious that sunny days are better, to it being a choice, or a personal preference. How could anyone enjoy this? "Well, it evokes this ambience of calm, and quiet, of sitting at home with a cup of tea, of ruminating." He had more specific preferences about why he enjoyed gray skies which I don't remember. But what I've taken away is just this idea of allowing myself to enjoy something I once thought I had to suffer. And that feels like such a beautiful gift to bestow upon another human being. It's something I'll always have now: looking out a gloomy day and feeling joy.