Post 11 – Once upon a time…

This week I’ll look at the stories we all tell ourselves. But first, please make a note of your answer to this question “How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the ark?” We’ll come back to it shortly. Sitting comfortably ? Then let’s begin….

Humans evolved through telling stories, passing on wisdom and teachings, information and entertainment. They help us make sense of our lives, our history, our present and our future. We use stories to bring a meaning to events and experiences, even when they are just random, unconnected events. They are personal and yet connected to those around us.

In the Discworld books the late, great Terry Pratchett created an element called Narrativium, to define the notion that if a story is told often enough and believed enough, then it becomes true under the law of narrative causality.

Here is a personal example: a few years years back when coaching rugby I received some unfair comment by a parent after a training session. At the time I was in a period of stress and took the comments to heart. My reaction was noted by fellow coach and friend, but I explained it away by saying I was tired. My recollection was that he suggested I took some time out and talk about how I was feeling. At the time it felt an important and helpful conversation, with welcome support. Earlier this year I met up with that same friend. I recounted the conversation, as it felt part of the explanation of my overall depression, which like many he was surprised that I suffered from. He could not recall the earlier conversation.

The reality of what happened was that my reaction to the rugby training incident helped me realise I was struggling with stress and shortly after, prompted by my wife, I did use a help line counselling service. In my mind that added emotional context to that training ground conversation. The reality to my friend was a short and unremarkable conversation, which he forgot about. And the sad reality is that I never opened up enough back then to get the full help I needed.

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which never happened” Mark Twain

So the problem is stories are not real, they are influenced by our biases and how we tell them to ourselves.

We all have biases, you have to work hard to spot them and ensure they don’t influence you. However the brain has evolved to allow us to make quick decisions and make sense of complexities with only some of the information. Daniel Kahneman coined the phrase ‘What You See Is All There Is” or WYSIATI. This is a reminder that we often fill in facts to create a story, when actually we may not know enough and may even be missing critical information, which can lead us to accept something as true, when it may not be. The framing of words can also influence our thinking and mood. Which sounds best “this food is 90% fat free” or ” this food is 10% fat” ?

And it’s not just the words of the story, it’s how you tell it. In a recent podcast, Jim Lucas (a therapist and founder of Openforwards) and Dr Mary Welford (psychologist and founding member of the Compassionate Mind Foundation) discussed the tone and inflection of words as part of self compassion. Sounds obvious right, but that means if you use the same words that you always have , which can be a hard habit to break, by changing the way you say it can help rather than hurt. The simple example is what you say to yourself after making a mistake and saying with compassion rather than judgementally.

Within the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker explores story telling far better than I can. One thing that stuck with me when reading was how much the difference that optimistic and pessimistic story telling or self-talk can really make. He recounts some inspiring examples how much that can make the difference between surviving or not surviving terrible events.

Like so much, it’s hard to do when you are depressed. You may appear optimistic on the outside, while inside it’s a continual pessimistic and critical story you are telling. You can’t do WYSIATI as your mind fills in lots of ‘facts’ which are wrong and self-focused.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality” Seneca

Depression itself seems to tell you stories and those are very hard to see through. The most extreme is that the only way out is suicide, which I believe to the greatest and worst story depression can tell anyone. 17th March 2017 is an important date to me, it was when I realised for the first time in my life that a lot of my head stories were illusions. That was the moment when something switched in my head and to remind me, guess what, I created a visualisation. As you’ll have realised by now, imagery is a major part of my depression management.

So let me introduce Harry, the Illusionist of Depression. He can produce illusions so I have false yesterday’s, unfair today’s and unrealistic tomorrow’s. His magic tricks often use the Rabbit of Shame and the Pigeon of Guilt (okay, I know magicians use doves, but go with a pigeon, they have more of a guilty look). My image is of a magician, with top hat, waxed moustache, but to reduce his power, only in his socks and Y-fronts. When story telling I try to listen out for Harry’s voice and ask “Is this Harry’s version or mine?”

Thinking about the story I tell, how I tell it and how much is an illusion is hard but it’s a form of self editing which I think will reap benefits.

Back to the question. Did you answer two or zero? Take a look back at the question, if you answered two can you spot it why it’s zero? It was Noah, not Moses. It’s called the Moses illusion, from Daniel Kahneman’s book. Its pretty common to answer two, as your mind is processing what is a fairly simple question and animals going into an ark has a biblical context, within which Moses fits. WYSIATI.

Love to hear any thoughts or comments. Have a weekend of seeing things for what they actually are, both in significance and meaning to you. Chris

If you want to follow up on any of the above then I highly recommend the following books:

Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Eric Barker

Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

The Openforwards podcast referenced above and well worth listening to is available on iTunes or at

Image copyright BBC.


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