The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Everything is how we see it

Everything in our existence happens in our own heads.

Our brains feed us a particular view of the world that is unique to us, according to our GEBE at any given point in time. No one else sees the exact same world as you do.

Your perspective determines what you see. You interpret reality the way your brain sees fit. However you see the world, however the world is for you.

It is a strange thing that it is possible for a naked starving man, lying in shackles in a cold damp prison to be happier than a billionaire sunbathing on his yacht surrounded by bikini clad admirers. And yet it is true.

The starving man, with a clear conscience and a simple view on life, can see his lot in life as a positive thing. He can appreciate the view from the slits in his cell and enjoy camaraderie with his neighbour in the adjacent cell. In his mind, he rereads his favourite books and plays back happy memories. He focuses on the good things in his past and his present. He remains hopeful for the future and looks forward to better days to come

The billionaire on the other hand is unsatisfied with what he has. Though surrounded by an entourage of admirers who hang on to his every word, he sees them all as yes men, and feels like he can’t trust anyone; he has no true friends. He is also haunted by his conscience, having had to do unpleasant things to get to where he is today. And the stress, oh the stress. It is crippling and never-ending; there are always a hundred and one things waiting for his attention, and he is never able to switch off or just take time to smell the roses. Even now, surrounded by beauty and opulence, his body is in paradise, but his mind is far away, trapped underneath a mountain of problems and grievances.

Happiness is an emotion which is always available to us, no matter what external circumstances may be. As is any other emotion, such as gratitude or contentment.

We don’t have control over most things in life, often including ourselves, but we can consciously direct the stories we tell ourselves.

This is incredibly powerful.

By changing our perspectives, we change our entire world. The world can go from a dark and treacherous swamp to a bright and cheerful wonderland, all in an instant, purely based on your perspective. So you see the world, so the world is.

This is true even of experiences that you might think are relatively objective, such as the taste of potato chips. In experiments, people who sample potato chips from various bowls while a range of crunching sounds are played will inevitably rate the crunchier sounding chips as fresher and tastier. In reality, all the chips are the same - it is merely the perception that changes the taste for participants.

You will have experienced this perspective distortion yourself many times in life.

Let’s say it is Monday. You are at your desk, feeling stuck in a rut, toiling through the endless drudgery of the routine that is the sorry excuse for your life.

The Earth keeps turning.

Tuesday, you find out from your colleague, Adam, that Monica from accounting, who you’ve secretly admired for a long time actually likes you too.

Suddenly angels are singing and the world looks like someone just put a warm Instagram filter over it.

Your mood is dramatically improved. People everywhere seem friendlier and nicer. When your boss makes her usual sarcastic jokes, you find it easy to laugh along cheerfully, instead of feeling mildly offended as you usually do.

You suddenly realise that things are actually going pretty well. You have a good education, a respectable job, friends that care for you, a healthy body, and now, an amazing girl actually likes you.

Now that you’ve taken a moment to stop and smell the flowers you see that life is pretty wonderful really, and it feels good to be positive about things. There’s so much to be positive about after all.

The Earth keeps turning.

On Thursday, you decide to make your move. In a dramatic gesture, you turn up at Monica’s desk with 100 roses, 20 balloons and a guitar.

Within the first 5 chords you can tell from the confused look in Monica’s eyes that something is wrong. It dawns on you that she has no idea who you are.

In the background, you notice Adam furiously gesturing towards another girl, coincidentally also named Monica.

Mumbling an apology, you slink out of the office towing your roses, balloons and guitar behind you like a dog’s tail between its legs.

The Earth keeps turning.

The next few days your world is filled with doom and gloom. Your warm Instagram filter is replaced by a cold, blue one.

On the streets, in the office, everywhere, people are behaving like the assholes that they really are. You turn on the news. More assholes. Humans are despicable creatures.

Sometimes you really don’t know why you bother. You try hard all your life and what do you get? Nothing. Just the same old day in, day out nonsense with the only hope of respite being a long, painful death after 60 years of indentured servitude.

Life is a shit sandwich, and everybody’s got to take a bite.

You stopped to smell the flowers and all you got was a whiff of the turd that they were planted in.

The Earth keeps turning.

Sunday night, you have a nice night out with some friends. They joke about your situation, making you see the humour in it, and surrounded by the camaraderie of close friends, you start to feel better. Maybe life isn’t so bad after all.

The Earth keeps turning.

Throughout this weeklong process, very little about your life actually changed. For all intents and purposes, your world is exactly the same this Monday as it was last Monday. The only difference throughout was how you viewed your circumstances.

The reality of the situation matters much less to your experience than do the thoughts in your mind. One person might go through the exact same events and find it a hilarious opportunity to actually get to know the ‘real’ Monica. Another might take it as such a debilitating embarrassment that they would have to quit their jobs and move to another city.

Either way, the Earth keeps turning.

By tweaking the thought patterns that live inside our heads, we can become happier, healthier, calmer and more successful than before.

In the end, we can either make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves happy. The amount of mental energy and effort spent is the same.

Chances are, whatever calamitous issues you might be facing now, the Earth will keep turning and you will be fine.

Now, unlike previous concepts we have talked about, such as freewill and our outdated OS, the power of perspective is somewhat obvious, and doesn’t require scientific experimentation to determine. Yet it is still remarkably hard to get to grips with in real life.

The masters of perspective were the ancient Buddhists and Stoics who lived around two and a half millennia ago. With remarkable clarity of thought, they independently created similar philosophies two hundred years apart on different continents. These reasoned teachings still resonate today.

To these ancients, it was clear that it was our interpretation of events that caused us to be happy or unhappy rather than any intrinsic quality of the events. Our suffering is self-imposed because of our beliefs and our resulting inability to accept the things that happen in life.

What this means is that, strangely enough, it is not people, circumstances or events that anger and upset us.

When someone rudely cuts in front of you at the pet shop, they didn’t actually make you angry. This probably seems quite ridiculous at first. Obviously you are angry, and obviously it was because of that idiot. If not him then who?

Somewhat ironically – you.

The queue jumper is an external force who has no domain over your internal experience. He can punch you in the face and make you feel physical pain, but he can’t magically make you happy or unhappy or sad or jealous. Only you can do that, by attaching your own beliefs and interpretations to the event.

Your brain is the only force on Earth with the ability to make you feel any emotion. The Supreme Emperor of the Universe could materialise before you right now, tentacles flailing, and order you to feel envious of it, but it wouldn’t do any good unless you actually did feel envious.

For example, if the queue jumper turns around and it is your best friend, you probably wouldn’t be nearly so upset. The hashtag on the story you told yourself would change from #queuejumpingidiot to #queueingwithbestie (whereas the woman behind you would change hers to #twomoronsinapetshop).

Or say you found out that the queue jumper was rushing to get his dying dog one last treat. Your feelings about the matter might change dramatically.

Or say you lived in a society where queue cutting was absolutely normal. Everyone does it, so queueing up is like a game of snakes and ladders. Given that this is the status quo, you would take it less personally and wouldn’t be nearly as bothered.

Perhaps you live in a society where queue cutting is a sign of respect. Important people never need to be in a hurry, time waits for them, and hence cutting in front of you means the other person thinks you’re important. If that were the case you might even feel quite pleased.

In all these scenarios, the events of the story are the same: someone has cut in front of you. Only the story you tell yourself changes, but it makes all the difference.

As the stoic Epictetus put it, ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.’

In slightly more modern terms: ‘If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.’

Similarly, Buddhism (we focus here purely on Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion) has the saying: ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.’

Buddhism also notes that everything is impermanent and transitory. Keeping this undeniable fact in mind helps a lot when considering our perspective on events.

From the largest rock, to the highest mountain, to planet Earth, to the Universe itself, nothing is permanent or fixed. They are all constantly changing in some way and they are all temporary. They had a beginning and they will one day have an end.

If all those things are impermanent, what more so things that affect our emotions like gain and loss, status and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure and pain. All of these things are temporary and subject to change, as are we.

If something happens to upset you, why are you upset?

Often it is because you are attached to impermanent things – possessions, people, ideas, beliefs or outcomes, all of which are little more than fleeting illusions in the grand scheme of things; unstable, unreliable and ephemeral. Equally, you can be attached to emotions such as love, anger, jealousy, sadness, arrogance and greed.

By attaching ourselves to such transient things, by attaching ourselves to certain outcomes, we are bound to feel pain. If you don’t get what you want, you suffer. If you get what you want, you suffer (because what you got will change or your desire will change).

For example:

If you are attached to pride, you are vulnerable to any snide comment or gesture that harms your ego. Your emotions will always roller coaster depending on what others think of you.

If you are attached to other people, you might feel jealousy or fear of losing them.

If you are attached to specific expectations of people, ideas or beliefs, you become sad, angry or disappointed when reality inevitably differs.

If you are attached to material possessions, constant yearning for what you don’t have causes feelings of greed, envy and insecurity. Losing things that you do have causes you great anguish.

If you are attached to a specific image of your significant other, you will face a lifetime of suffering when he/she evolves in times to come.

If you are attached to a specific image of yourself, you will suffer when that image changes. For example, you might be rather devoted to your self-image as a young, pretty, healthy banker with a loving boyfriend, a cadre of admirers, a more than modest apartment and tons of potential. The problem is, if any of those things are somehow lost or diminished, the internal turmoil you suffer will be far more damaging than the actual loss.

Any time you attach yourself to anything or anyone that is beyond your control, you are giving up your freedom. You become a slave to that thing or person, and your emotions are easily disturbed.

Imagine yourself as a ship navigating through icy seas, armed with an infinite number of harpoons. There isn’t space on board the ship, so whatever you harpoon, you simply tow along with you via the harpoon line. First you harpoon a few seals. Then you harpoon some whales. You even manage to harpoon yourself a few icebergs to bring back as mineral water for folk with more money than sense. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before you are completely bogged down by these attachments. Every single one of them holds you back to some degree. You become a slave to them, unable to venture where you want to. If you were to cut yourself free, how much faster and how much further could you get?

It is important to make clear here that non-attachment is not the same thing as being an angst-ridden teenager who claims not to care about anything.

Nor does it mean that you should forsake all your worldly possessions and go live on a misty mountaintop.

Detachment doesn’t mean you don’t care or that you don’t participate in life. It means that you appreciate people, things and ideas while realising that they are impermanent and ever changing. If anything, you appreciate them more because you know that one day they will be gone.

Not being attached doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner, family or friends.

It means that you understand that they are also impermanent, and also ever changing. Your partner in the years to come will not be the same person that you know today. Neither will you. And that is the only way it can be and hence should be. So you love them for who they are in each present moment, without being attached to a specific image of them.

Without such attachments it isn’t hard to see that life gets a lot more pleasant and it’s much harder to get you down.

If it is freezing when you go out, that’s fine, you just grab a jacket. If it is warm when you go out, that’s also fine, minus the jacket. You might prefer that it be warm, but if you aren’t attached to either outcome, then whatever happens, you’ll be fine. Things are the only way that they can be.

Your happiness becomes more internally focused rather than externally focused. What happens matters little compared to what you think about what happens.

Focus where it matters

One part of perspective is how to look at things. The other part is where to look.

A healthy perspective means that we focus our attention only where it is useful, which is only the things that are within our control. Everything else we simply accept or let go of.

There are too many things in the world today to concern ourselves with, too many worries and burdens that we can choose to shoulder, but the vast majority of these things are completely beyond our control (e.g. almost everything that you read and fume about in the papers). And if they are beyond your control, they are not worth worrying or getting upset about. It is futile to emotionally attach yourself to the outcome of a game of dice.

You can get upset that it is raining throughout your entire beach holiday, but all you are doing is ensuring that you have a bad time. You are of course welcome to stretch out your arms, raise your head to the sky and scream in anguish, raindrops dramatically streaking down your cheeks as an imaginary camera circles you dramatically, but it won’t change anything and you’ll probably catch a cold to add to your miseries.

By not accepting things which are beyond your control, you are in effect denying reality itself.

You might as well sit around complaining that the sky is not your favourite shade of maroon. Whatever has happened, has happened and it is the only way things could have gone under the circumstances. Accept the reality of things that are beyond your control.

Funnily enough, in the grand scheme of things, almost everything is beyond our control. We cannot control the circumstances we were born in. We cannot control random things that happen to us. We cannot control the behaviour of others. We cannot control the laws of nature. We cannot even fully control our own thoughts.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard at what you want to achieve, or lie down and wait for whatever fate has in store for you. People can and do triumph against near insurmountable odds all the time.

Acceptance just means that you are fully aware that many things are outside of your control. You do whatever you can within your circle of influence; sometimes things will go your way, sometimes not, but you accept all outcomes cheerfully. Being anxious about it doesn’t do any good.

Instead of saying, ‘This happened to me, and it’s terrible, it’s not fair, and I have to suffer because of A, B and C, and what’s more, D, E and F will probably happen too,’ you just say ‘This happened. That is fine. How do I make the best of it?’

It is what it is, is, and it could not have been any other way. Given a particular set of circumstances and the GEBE of everyone involved, things will happen how they happen. The world is what it is.

You accept the realities that life present, and while you may have preferred outcomes, you are able to accept life however it unfolds and thrive. You focus only on the things you can control, and let everything else go.

To quote the eminent Alfred E. Neuman, ‘What, me worry?’

Unfortunately, thanks to our outdated OS, worry we do, about everything we can imagine, past, present and future. When it comes to worrying about the past, we tend to distort their importance and impact on the present. When it comes to future worries, we often focus on things which never come to pass.

This worrying generally achieves nothing other than stressing us out, but it almost feels like something you have to do. It seems vaguely wrong to be calm and cheerful when there’s something that you could be worrying about instead, as if you’re not paying your dues.

Logically, this is quite silly.

If you have a problem, then you have a problem. There is no point worrying about it. It can be no other way.

If you can do something about the problem, then it’s no longer a problem. There is nothing to worry about. It can be no other way.

And if you can’t do anything about the problem, then it’s not a problem, it’s just a fact of life. Worrying isn’t going to change a thing. There is nothing to worry about. It can be no other way.

The problem is that because of your attachment to specific expectations, you have trouble accepting things the way that they are, and thus frame events as problems, even though they might be neutral events or perhaps even opportunities.

You will generally find that it is your beliefs about the problem that make you worry rather than the problem itself. And often you will find your beliefs to be irrational constructions of your outdated OS.

We all know that life is not and cannot be truly fair. We all know that there are plenty of people who through the circumstances of their GEBE are simply not very nice or reasonable people and that sooner or later we will have the misfortune of crossing paths with them. We all know that bad things happen to good people all the time.

And yet somewhere in the back of our minds we expect the universe to make exceptions for us: Life should always be fair to me, people should always be nice to me, and I’m a good person who always deserves good things.

Obviously, these beliefs aren’t very realistic. The more rational approach would be that you prefer to be treated well, but know that you won’t always be. Your expectations move in line with reality. Sometimes good things will happen, sometimes bad things will happen. That’s just life, and that is fine.

This is not to say that there are no real problems in life, but that often problems aren’t nearly as bad as we make them out to be. And it is always better to handle problems with a calm mind and good humour. We have a tendency to make things much worse in our minds than they are in reality. Either way, there is no point worrying about them. We can accept problems as they are, and do whatever we can about them, and no more than that.

Flow untethered

These are the stories that we tell ourselves – this is who we are, this is our place in the world, this is how we self-identify.

Our religious leanings, our political allegiances, our loyalties, our identities, all these things are just beliefs and stories we construct for ourselves.

Naturally, we are the central characters of our own stories, and whenever something happens to us, our brains gives us a personalised account of what actually transpired.

The quality of our lives depend on these stories.

The stories we tell may or may not be accurate. Frequently they aren’t.

When we tell ourselves stories that are inaccurate or biased, we live lives that are accordingly so. We see things only in the way that fit our story, no matter how miserable or misguided the story is.

We attach ourselves to specific narratives. People should behave this way, things should be done this way and life should be this way.

When life inevitably diverges from the chosen storyline, we get unsettled and upset.

Someone who is attached to the storyline of being a ‘disaster in love’ or that ‘life is always tough for me’, will tend to find life to be rather obliging. When they do find a good potential partner or do have some success in life, they subconsciously sabotage themselves in order to get back to their original storyline, or somehow manage to interpret their good fortune as something negative.

Someone attached to the storyline of ‘people should always be polite’ and ‘partners should love us unconditionally,’ get incredibly upset when they do encounter rude people or their partners behave selfishly. These things weren’t in the original script. They weren’t supposed to happen (despite the rather unrealistic premise of the plot).

The key then is not to be too attached to any particular storyline.

Like a boat on a river, you cannot control which way the river flows, but you can control how you react to the circumstances of the river. Like water itself, you can be fluid and flowing.

No matter what the actual event is, if you aren’t attached to a particular story, your perspective can make the difference between tragedy and joy.

Focus less on the circumstances of your story and more on your beliefs about those circumstances. The story can always change and the alternate storyline can always be as good or better.

Say there’s a major accident on the road and you get stuck in a traffic jam.

You could quite reasonably get irritated and anxious.

Not only will you have to sit around bored and agitated in bumper to bumper traffic for what looks like at least an hour, but you are going to be late for a meeting with an important client.

You could spend an anguished hour thinking about all the doomsday scenarios that might occur, ranging from your client’s uncanny impression of the Incredible Hulk, to losing your job, to being packed off to a Siberian gulag. You might start forecasting all the nasty things your client is going to shout at you, and start rehearsing rebuttals and explanations in advance, feeling anger and stress rise in you, even though all of this is happening only in your head.

Or you could be calm and cheerful about the whole thing.

The traffic jam is not within your control. How your client reacts is not within your control. Depending on your client’s GEBE he may be gracious and understanding about it, or he may not. Most likely it will be somewhere between.

Obviously, your lateness will be an inconvenience, and some people may take that as a personal affront, but the fact is that this could not have been anticipated and unless they happen to have a teleportation device handy, there is nothing either of you can do about it.

You also accept that he has no choice other than to act the way that he does. His outdated OS will simply follow its programming, including any outsized emotional responses he might exhibit. If he should react badly, it will simply be a challenge to be accepted and addressed. Life is full of such challenges. As a bonus, being calm and cheerful makes it a lot easier to handle difficult people.

These doomsday scenarios are rather unlikely to happen. They could happen, but they have not yet happened, and may never happen. Worrying about vague future projections that don’t exist and you can’t control is much like worrying about a meteor strike wiping out life on Earth. It’s possible but unlikely, and even if it did happen, there’s no point worrying about it; you can’t worry a meteor into nothingness.

Understanding all this, your perspective then becomes such that traffic jam or not, you’re fine. Whether the clients are understanding or not, you’re fine.

You now have an extra hour which you could use to rehearse your presentation, listen to an interesting podcast, or simply relax to some good music. And that is a good thing.

Let’s say you’re a billionaire, with a net worth of $1.01 billion and a husband who really loves you for you, and not your money. Your fortune is almost entirely bound up in your company which manufactures bacon flavoured donuts. Suddenly, there is a culinary shift and people switch to eating fish flavoured donuts instead. Your company isn’t able to adapt and sales plummet. Seemingly overnight, your net worth plunges by $1 billion.

Losing $1 billion is probably not a good day for most people. How damaging it is depends on your perspective. If you have strong attachments to wealth, status and image, the loss of them would weigh heavily on you, resulting in much emotional suffering.

And yet, taking a different perspective, having $10 million dollars and a husband who loves you is a pretty good place to be for anybody. Without undue attachment to your previous storyline, you might realise that many people would give anything to be in your current downtrodden shoes. By any measure, you are extremely lucky to be where you are.

Instead of denying the reality of what already is, you focus instead on what you control.

You might be able to see that there are considerable advantages to your new life, free from the stresses and shackles of your previous company and wealth. Suddenly the world is your oyster and there are many meaningful things that you could be doing. Even if you might not be able to see losing $1 billion as a good thing, you might at least start seeing it as not a life-ending disaster. Life is still good.

Let’s say your girlfriend, whom you loved deeply and envisioned spending your life with, leaves you. You have never experienced such pain before. You were very much attached to the idea of being with her. Without her, it feels like your life is over.

Time passes and slowly with clarity and hindsight you begin to see all the ways that she wasn’t so suitable for you after all.

Being single, you are now free to explore things that you weren’t able to before, and have many great experiences that lead to great opportunities. You meet a new partner who is a much better match for you in virtually every way.

Eventually, you come to realise that the breakup was actually one of the best things that could have possibly have happened to you.  

The event is the same, only your perspective and beliefs change.

Let’s say you really, really want to get into a particular university. For years you slave away, forgoing all social engagements and fun. You do everything right, taking positions of responsibility in every club that exists, founding a couple that don’t, winning competitions and consistently coming top of your class.

The fateful day comes. You open the letterbox and your heart collapses when you see the dreaded thin envelope. With trembling hands, you confirm your worst fears – you’ve been rejected from your dream school.

Your world comes crushing down on you. It feels so unjust. All your sweat and sacrifice was for nothing.  

You end up going to your second-choice university, which objectively is still an excellent choice, and yet because of your attachment to your desired storyline, you feel like an abject failure. By no measure are you in a bad situation, and yet because of your beliefs it feels that way.

You mope around for a few weeks until you gradually start to realise that the situation isn’t as dire as you had convinced yourself. You begin to discover opportunities around you that you just wouldn’t have been able to have anywhere else. You go on to meet some amazing people, one of who eventually becomes your husband and business partner. Together, you create a company worth billions, manufacturing fish flavoured donuts and changing the world of confections forever.

Obviously, things don't always work out, but the point is that most events are neutral in themselves. They may seem bad at the time but more often than not, there is a silver lining.

Failures are rarely complete. Losses rarely come with no upside at all. No matter how humiliating a defeat, how complete your suffering or how incredibly sad a situation may be, by definition a new path that was not available to you before has been opened.

Whatever path you take in life inevitably means that you cannot take another. You cannot go both left and right at the same time. You cannot experience a life of adventure in Bali and at the same time be an astronaut in Houston. You cannot become a fully enlightened human being without some suffering.

The trousers of time are mysterious. Going down one leg means that you will never know what was at the end of the other leg(s). There are therefore very few absolutely good or bad events in your life. Even the best events may turn out to be disasters in the long run and vice versa. It is only our interpretations of events and the beliefs that we attach to them that give them their emotional flavour.

What’s your story?

We also need to be aware of the stories that other people tell themselves.

The most important thing to understand about understanding people is that when people seek to feel understood that is not what they actually mean.

As we have seen, everyone has a story they tell themselves, a certain image of themselves that they hold dear. Due to our incredibly poor self-perception and truckloads of cognitive biases, this image is rarely entirely accurate. We all know people who think of themselves as fitting a certain image that in reality could not be further from the truth. It’s likely we’re guilty of this ourselves too.

Because of this, it is entirely possible for you to know a person better than they know themselves, and vice versa; at least in certain aspects. This is also why people sometimes feel extremely misunderstood; they don’t feel people see them for who they are, because they aren’t who they think they are.

When people seek to be understood, they seek to be seen as how they see themselves, not as how they actually are.

When you tell people things that do not gel with the stories they tell themselves their minds instantly feel uncomfortable and the instant reaction is liable to be negative. There is a cognitive dissonance at play because the stories do not match and our OS doesn’t like mismatches. Naturally enough, people are far more inclined to believe their own versions than that of an outsider, which in this case is everyone else except themselves.

Importantly, we need to know when to be kind over being helpful; there is an occasion for both. When consequences are low and emotions are high it is best to understand people as they wish to be understood. See them as how they wish to be seen.

Other times it may be necessary to give constructive advice. Telling people things that clash with their self-image can be painful because of their attachment to their own stories. The more attached they are the harder it is. Do so with tact and kindness – it is not always easy to face your true self.

The view from above

What we feel is heavily influenced by what we expect to feel.

A 2018 study by Marieke Jepma et al showed that people felt more physical pain when they expected to. Stronger activity in the brain’s pain network were detected when participants expected high pain than when they expected low pain, even though the pain stimulus was equal in both cases.

The same is true for emotional pain. You feel what you expect to feel.

If you take a critical, negative attitude in life, you can naturally expect to experience a great deal of unpleasant events and strife. Life will be more than happy to serve up the appropriate content for your viewing. Everything that confirms your world view will be highlighted in red, underlined, circled and placed under a magnifying glass by your mind. Positive things that happen will be classified as mere anomalies, easily ignored.

If you take an easy going, positive attitude in life, you can naturally expect to experience mostly positive things. Life will likewise be happy to serve up matching content. It will be the same content as before, but this time you will be more focused on the positive things within and it is the negativity that is the anomaly.

Change your beliefs, shift your perspective and you remove the ability of events to negatively impact you. You become a superhero, invincible to the machinations of fate, able to weather any circumstance with a cheerful smile and a good attitude.

This takes time and effort to train.

More than your significant other, more than your parents, more than your best friend, you are the one who talks to yourself the most, with no topics that are off limit and full access to your deepest darkest thoughts. You have to be telling yourself the right stories.

Monitor the way you view people and events. Constantly be aware of your thoughts.

Just like the gymnast who practices tumbling over and over, you need to practice guiding the stories you tell yourself until doing so is second nature to you. Practice means day in and day out. You can’t just read a book about sword swallowing and expect to be downing cutlery the next day.

Our brains need practice and repetition to internalise concepts well. Your conscious mind is too slow and too limited; repetition is what trains your subconscious OS to take over the heavy lifting. Constant practice allows relevant circuits in your brain to strengthen and become able to act on autopilot without much conscious involvement.

This is exactly the same as how you are able to walk. As an adult, walking is a largely unconscious act and easy for most of us, yet we all struggled with it once upon a time when it was a fully conscious act; our conscious minds did not have the processing capability to coordinate all the actions involved. Walking is actually a remarkably complicated task. If we spent all our time thinking, ‘Ok, bend that knee, push the ankle out, thigh up, swing the hip, strike the heel, roll through to the toe,’ we probably wouldn’t be able to get much done in life, at least not while in motion. By diligently walking every day, we were eventually able to offload the task to our powerful OS, leaving our conscious minds free to contemplate more important things like ice cream flavours.

It is the same for the stories we tell ourselves. You can talk the talk, now you have to walk the walk.

Guard your thoughts against negativity. Start by asking yourself questions.

Is it reasonable, useful or rational for me to be upset or anxious about this?

Why is it that I am feeling what I am feeling?

Am I unduly attached to something?

Am I not accepting reality for what it is?

Am I choosing to see a neutral event in a negative way?

Am I stuck to a particular storyline?

Am I interpreting events according to untrue beliefs?

And, ultimately, is there any benefit from thinking this way?

It is of course not always easy to be so rational, especially when emotions are running high. There are a few techniques that we can use to help us reframe our perspectives.

The first technique is to take a (big) step back for better perspective.

Too often we get stuck in the minutiae of life and we forget how big the world really is, how many people there really are, and how minor and ridiculous most of the issues that concern us actually are.

To remind us, we take the view from above.

Imagine you are on a hot air balloon, drifting high in the sky.

Looking down, everything appears tiny. Vehicles meander around the streets, ferrying all sorts of people around their busy lives. On the pavements, tiny people crawl across the city like ants. Buildings stretch across the landscape, each of them filled with yet more people. From here, even the most powerful man or the grandest palace looks like a speck of dust.

Darkness falls. Lights begin to illuminate the city.

See the lights in every window, on every vehicle. Each of those lights represents a person. There’s so many of them, each of them with their own hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. Each of these people have their own unique circumstances, personalities and oh boy problems. So many problems and issues with each and every one of them. So many hopes, dreams, disappointments and heartaches.

Down there, a man has just lost his job and is worrying about his children’s education. Over there, a couple has just broken up and it feels like the end of the world, while but meters away a man has just proposed to his euphoric girlfriend. Briskly walking down the street is a man who has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease, while in the opposite direction comes a woman who has just been offered the job of her dreams.

Across the city – countless parties, weddings, divorces, births, deaths, untold joy and immeasurable suffering.

Every one of these people experiences their own version of life and reality. Every one of them has their own story to tell. None of them are immune to suffering, all of them are capable of great happiness.

So many people, so many issues. And yet up here, the air is crisp and clean, everything is quiet and peaceful. The higher you rise, the more petty and trivial things seem.

From this perspective, do most of the things that concern you day to day really matter? Are your worries really that important in the grand scheme of things? Your flatmate didn’t clean the kitchen again, and someone at work has been stealing your lunch from the fridge. You really want this beautiful new handbag that you can’t afford. You just failed an exam, your work was just stolen, and someone you thought was your friend has been spreading lies about you. You gained a few extra pounds and relatives have been making snide comments. Your internet connection has been down for two weeks and despite calling every day your ISP still hasn’t sent a repairman.

There are some real problems in life, others that are merely brief annoyances, and countless more that don’t deserve the briefest attention. The ability of any of them to affect you is simply a matter of perspective.

From way up high do your problems matter quite as much? If they don’t, then they probably aren’t so important at ground level either.

Taking a holiday is often a good way of relaxing, allowing you to extract your head from the chaos of everyday life. The problem with holidays of course, is that you often have to bring your brain and hence problems along with you, and that you usually have to come back home after.

It is generally more accessible to sit quietly and take the view from above. Close your eyes and imagine different perspectives. If drifting above a city doesn’t float your boat, go out even further, see the Earth from space, see the solar system from the perspective of the Milky Way, see the Milky Way as just one of trillions of galaxies. How big do your problems seem now?

It doesn’t even have to be literally the view from above. Surround yourself with crashing waves, towering mountains, endless starscapes and majestic canyons. Feel how small you and your problems are in the scheme of things. How little of it you can control, and ultimately how little most of it matters.

Then when your mind is calm, you can use this new emotional baseline to evaluate your situation from a better perspective, with detachment and acceptance.

Time travel

A similar technique is to detach via time rather than distance.

Something happens to you. Your immediate reaction might be: disaster, panic, doom, horror – my life is falling apart.

This is a good time to take a step into the future.

You’ve been through this drill before. First you feel terrible about something, then as time passes you feel it less and less, till one day you look back and wonder what the big deal was or simply forget about the incident entirely.

Time heals all and strips everything of its importance. Remember how everything is impermanent and changing. There’s nothing like time to show you how true that is.

Empires crumble, mountains rise and fall, and even the most prideful and overbearing man will be brought to his knees. No matter how big your problem seems today, in the grand scheme of things it is insignificant.

Whether you’ve just suffered the greatest embarrassment imaginable, lost the biggest opportunity of your life, or endured the worst injustice known to mankind, as far as your internal story is concerned, none of these things should matter the moment after they happen.

Imagine how you will feel about the issue after a hot meal tonight. How about this time next week? Next month? How about a year from now? In five years will this matter? Will you even remember?

If that’s not long enough, try five hundred years. It’s a pretty safe bet that whatever you’re worried about won’t matter in the slightest. Everyone and everything involved will be long gone, and no matter how crazily important it seemed at the time, you won’t care about it and neither will anyone else (partly because it’s unlikely you will still be around to care about anything, but mainly because such issues are just so unworthy of being upset about in the first place).

From the perspective of time, most worries and upsets just wither away like a time-lapse flower. In fact, many life or death matters simply seem ridiculous when viewed through the binoculars of time.

At one point in time, every level headed reasonable person on the planet believed the Earth to be the centre of the Universe. Babies were believed to be too undeveloped to be capable of feeling pain.

Sperm were thought to contain tiny but fully formed people that only needed to grow up. Later this was replaced by the belief that life resided in the female body, and the male sperm provided the spark to wake it up.

In the late 1800s Americans believed that digging holes caused rain. This resulted in millions of settlers getting busy excavating the land. When rain stubbornly refused to fall, it was sensibly explained that this was simply because the holes weren’t deep enough.

All of these issues were deemed incredibly important, true without a doubt, and in many cases worth spilling blood over. And yet today they are clearly insignificant and ridiculous.

In good time, the people of the future will in turn look back at our society today and find plenty of absurdities. The things that we cared about, the foolish battles we fought, and the beliefs that we clung on to so very tightly may well seem as ridiculous to them as the flat-Earthers do to us today.

Similarly, what seemed unbelievably upsetting to you as a teenager can seem ridiculous as a grown adult, just as what upset you three months ago can feel quite silly today.

The only difference of course is our belief about the issue and the power our minds give to it. Whatever has happened has happened. It has happened now, and it will still have happened five minutes, ten months or a hundred years from now.

The only reason the event feels painful now is because it occupies a prime spot in your mind. You are attached to it, you keep thinking about it, your neurons keep firing, your physiology keeps reacting and you keep feeling it.

With this understanding you can hopefully accelerate the healing process somewhat. Since time is essentially a function of your mind’s perception, you can focus your thoughts and feel what things might be like from a future perspective. If you’re not going to feel bad about this next month, why bother feeling bad about it now?


A third technique is even simpler – be grateful. Gratitude has been proven time and time again to be a cornerstone for happiness. One study showed that people who practiced gratitude just once a week for 6 weeks felt happier for up to 6 months after. They slept better and were more likely to live healthier lifestyles including exercising more.

Schedule a time every week (or every day if you’re just starting out) to quietly sit and write down everything that you are grateful for. Keep a running tally of everything good in your life. Every time you think of something, take a beat or two to really think about it and feel the positive emotions.

We’re not necessarily talking about earth shattering moments here. Your journal is not generally going to be filled with entries like ‘Won the lottery,’ ‘Saved the Universe (again)’ or ‘Married the girl of my dreams’. Big ticket items happen once in a while, but there are many smaller things that you can be grateful for on a constant basis.

Day to day entries will probably be more along the lines of:

‘Had a great conversation with Janet, reminisced about the past and looked forward to the next 10 years of friendship.’

‘Had an amazingly delicious paella at work.’

‘Cute corgi ran up to me and licked my hand before dashing off. Started my morning on a happy note.’

‘Had a productive day, ran a bunch of errands and still managed to fit in some solid work.’

‘Gave the bathroom an overdue clean. Feels so much better now.’

‘Heard a nice song while driving and felt peaceful.’

‘Spoke to parents on the phone. Both are in good health and happy.’

We’re not even talking about the quantity of happy things in your life.

In 2002, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman studied a group of subjects comparing the top 10% happiest people with the middle and bottom 10% across a range of measures. As a result of being happier, happy people benefited in almost every way, having stronger romantic and social relationships, being more agreeable and less neurotic, and scoring much lower on measures of psychopathology. Notably, extremely happy subjects did not experience a greater number of positive life events than the unhappy ones.

You don’t need more happy things if you can focus on the good stuff that is already present in your life. It’s the essence of gratitude. No matter how dreadful you think your life is there is something to be grateful about. If you need more things to be happy, you never will be, because once you get on that treadmill it will never be enough. There is always more you can obtain/achieve/desire before you are finally happy.

By being grateful, by actively looking for things to be grateful about, you are changing your focus. You are training your mind to be positive and exercising your happiness circuits. Literally, you are changing the stories you tell yourself.

The stories you tell yourself can even allow you to draw gratitude from unlikely sources. Instead of being upset about being confined to a wheelchair you are instead grateful that you are liberated by it; without it you would never be able to leave your bed.

Truth and lies

Finally, we have a system to put everything we have discussed previously into 3 simple steps. This helps us dispute our irrational beliefs, increase our acceptance of reality and rewrite the stories we tell ourselves in a healthier way.

The system works by challenging unhelpful thoughts and is based on the core principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that is used to treat problems like anxiety and depression and boost happiness. There is a good deal of evidence suggesting that CBT is as effective, or more, as psychoactive medications for treating a wide range of mental health issues.

As we by now know, our thoughts create our feelings. When we tell ourselves an event is horrible, we feel horrible about it. When we think something is great, we feel great about it.

Our negative feelings arise when our storylines diverge from the ones we were attached to, when reality no longer match expectations. The gap between the two determines your happiness.

Unfortunately, our expectations and beliefs about the world are often irrational and unreasonable.

For example, expecting everyone to be nice to you is all well and good, but we don’t all live in a Disney cartoon. In the real world it is a sad fact that not everybody is nice, and few people are nice all the time.

It doesn’t matter who you are, because it’s not about you. Whether you’re the Emperor of the United States (a real person) or the Queen of Timbuktu (not a real person), people are going to be nasty to you from time to time. They can’t possibly behave in any other way, it’s in their GEBE.

And yet when someone is nasty to you, it’s suddenly a big shock and a huge affront.

Somehow you understand that it’s raining, but yet it surprises you that you get wet.

This is because your beliefs don’t match reality. You accept that there are rude people in the world, but at the same time, you somewhat hypocritically believe on some level that people shouldn’t be rude to you. After all you’re the main character in your story. You’re special. Which you of course are, along with everybody else, including the person who’s being rude to you.

If a tree falls, and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? If, for the past 5 years, an old lady in her apartment has been giving you the finger every single time you walked past, but you never noticed, does it matter? Should it matter to you regardless?

If you expect and accept that your crazy neighbour is going to give you the finger every time you walk past, it simply won’t bother you. The gesture will completely lose all power over you. You’ll just wave cheerfully as you walk past, ‘Spotless finger today, Mrs. White!’

If, despite all evidence to the contrary, you still believe that she shouldn’t be making rude gestures at you and choose to be offended, then naturally you will be, every single time you walk past her house. Every day, every finger, deepens your emotional wounds until all you see is a gigantic finger every time you look out the door.

Seeing ominous fingers everywhere is not a pleasant way to live.

It is therefore time to start challenging these implicit beliefs that you may not even know you have.

1. First figure out what the belief or expectation is that is causing your upset – Why do I feel this way?

Let’s say someone has parked inconsiderately and blocked your car.

Your OS is always trying to make sense of the information it receives, but often takes a great deal of creative license in doing so, spinning stories far beyond the realms of reality. Automatically, your brain starts concocting conspiracy theories. The double parker must be a real jerk, laughing maniacally to himself as he double parks across the city, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. Why does this always happen to you? Why are people so mean?

But why are you really upset? Do you actually believe that everyone is considerate, and everyone is a great parker? Do you really believe that this always happens to you? Do you believe there are always enough parking spots that double parking is never necessary? Do you believe that your time is so valuable that nothing on earth should delay you or inconvenience you? Do you believe that there can never be a situation that justifies double parking? Do you really believe that good people never double park?

2. These don’t seem very realistic or reasonable beliefs. So we challenge them – Are they really true?

These expectations are straight out of Neverland. The story your OS is telling you has more loopholes than a Michael Bay movie, so it’s time to go Mythbusters on it.

Of course there will be people who park badly. It’s in their GEBE, whether its entitlement, lack of awareness, having no choice, or just being in a huge hurry. They parked the only way that they could have. It’s not a personal attack, they neither know nor care about whose car they block. Everybody faces inconveniences and delays, today just happens to be your turn.

3. Now that we know our previous beliefs are about as true as the Earth is flat, we figure out something better – What is a more rational response?

Given all that we know, it seems perfectly pointless to get upset about this. It makes sense to accept the situation with good humour and detach from the storyline where everybody and everything has to be perfect. Of course, you prefer that people park properly and are considerate, but you know it’s not always going to happen.

While you wait for them to return you can read something, meditate, relax or go for a coffee. If you’re in a hurry you can just take a taxi, it’s an inconvenience, but little more than that. This time next year you won’t even remember this, other than being a proud moment when you could have gotten distraught but instead handled the situation with grace and humour.

Let’s say you completely messed up a presentation and are feeling terrible about yourself.

I’m a total loser, I can’t even do a simple presentation without freaking out.

1. What am I really upset about?

Do you believe that absolutely everyone should be able to do presentations well? Do you believe freaking out is so rare and unacceptable that anyone who does so is a loser? Do you believe that people don’t make mistakes? Do you believe that the consequences of messing up the presentation are really that dire?

2. Is it really true?

How does freaking out during a presentation make you a loser? By now you understand more about how your brain works. Freaking out was an emotional response to the overwhelming stress you were under. The stress you felt was in turn a result of your thoughts, which were in turn a result of your GEBE. You could not have done any differently under the circumstances.

You can certainly train your emotional responses and improve how you handle future presentations, but for now you can cheerfully accept the reality of what has happened. The world has not ended. From the view above, this is about as important as a leaf blowing in the wind, and from a step into the future, it is irrelevant. Absolutely no one will care about this presentation a few weeks, days (or hours) from now, with the possible exception of you if you don’t accept reality as it is.

Is it reasonable to expect that everyone should nail their presentations all the time? Public speaking is one of the most dreaded things in modern life. Some people would quite happily be tortured rather than give a speech in public. Almost everyone is bad at it until they’ve had sufficient practice.

This anxiety is your outdated OS at work. Fearing rejection and getting kicked out of the tribe, it sends your fight or flight machinery into emotional overdrive, even though this is shooting itself in the foot. This will be the case until your OS learns through practice that it’s not so bad after all, or until you use the various techniques we’ve discussed to exorcise your fears.

You are not the only human on Earth to have had this experience, and you certainly won’t be the last. This too will pass, and a botched presentation is just a tiny footnote in your life.

3. What is a more rational response?

While anyone would prefer to have aced their presentation, it is perfectly normal to have not. You accept the situation as it is. There’s no point thinking if only I had done this or that. The fact is you didn’t and couldn’t have. If it didn’t occur to you under the circumstances, it could never have occurred to you because of your GEBE at the time.

As a proud member of the human race, you know that you are by nature fallible. You make mistakes, as does everyone, and that is ok. It certainly could have been worse. You’ve made mistakes before and been perfectly fine, and this time is no different. It won’t be the last time you make a mistake either.

You will of course take this as a good learning opportunity to replace your belief that presentations are such horrific ordeals. After all, you’ve just lived through the worst possible presentation scenario and you are totally fine. Next time you’ll know that it really isn’t that bad.

There may of course be some damage from the failed presentation. Perhaps your clients will look elsewhere and your bosses won’t be too happy. That is not your preferred scenario, but should that happen that is completely acceptable. It is what it is. There will always be other opportunities. In the meantime, with a clear head and reconfigured beliefs, you can think about ways to improve the situation.

Sometimes it will take you a few iterations to get to the heart of the matter. Beneath surface issues, you might have some false underlying beliefs at your core that cause you to be upset and anxious in general.

For example, having realised that botching a presentation doesn’t make you a loser, you might then think, ‘but the presentation is just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, I can’t get anything right, I’m getting nowhere in life, and everyone looks down on me.’

You would then go through the steps again, addressing each false belief in turn.

Is it really true that you can’t get anything right? You’ve seriously never managed to do anything right at all in life? You must be an incredibly rare specimen then. Even a broken clock gets it right twice a day.

Is it really true that you aren’t getting anywhere in life? Not everyone gets the opportunity to present to the board. You’ve had many successes in order to get to where you are now. You may not be where you want to be yet, but you certainly aren’t nowhere.

Is it really true that everyone looks down on you? If they did, they wouldn’t have asked you to do the presentation in the first place. Certainly your friends and family don’t look down on you.

You may sometimes feel tempted to insist that your irrational beliefs are true. With the assistance of your loyal friend confirmation bias, you might only see the things you choose to see, in this case things that fit your existing beliefs of failure, and disregard all other evidence.

‘It is true that I’m getting nowhere in life. They asked me to do the presentation out of pity, but they won’t make that mistake again. I’ve been faking it my whole life without people noticing but I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I’m so far from where I should be that I might as well not have tried. All my friends are doing better than I am. Even my parents have always thought I’m a loser.’

In such cases, it can be helpful to enlist the help of a friend or even a neutral acquaintance who can help you dispute such notions. A fresh pair of unbiased eyes can be very useful in dispelling you of self-punishing views. Even a stranger can often see things that you cannot.

Having replaced these false beliefs with more reasonable ones, you might then move on to some other equally upsetting beliefs that you could proceed to reboot as well, until you come to the end of the line.

You might end up at some deep-rooted childhood anxiety. Perhaps you had highly critical parents who always made you feel like you weren’t good enough. Ever since then every small mistake you have made in life has reinforced this feeling: I’m just not good enough.

Is that really true though? You spilled milk on the floor, you laughed too loudly while your parents were on the phone, you dropped the car keys into a drain. As a child. Does that really make you no good?

Surely this is perfectly normal and reasonable behaviour for a child? Do you really believe that any child (or adult for that matter) can be perfect and only by never making mistakes can you be good enough?

Do you really believe it was reasonable for your parents to constantly berate a child for doing what a child does? Do you believe they had just cause for doing so?

Does unwarranted childhood criticism mean that you’re not good enough as a grown adult, despite all you have achieved since then?

People are fallible and say things that they don’t mean all the time. The rest of the time they mean what they say but may be wrong anyway (no matter how confidently proclaimed).

If a random hobo dressed in rags were to come up to you and tell you that you had terrible fashion sense, you probably wouldn’t take the criticism to heart. Naturally,you might decide that he lacks certain credibility in the fashionista department. In addition, he’s a stranger whose opinion you care little for. There is no false belief to counter here because you simply don’t believe what he says, and hence you don’t get upset about it.

But because our parents are authority figures whom we look up to, we automatically place a great deal of weight on their words, regardless of their validity. We believe what they say is true, if not rationally, then emotionally. Through conscious challenging of these beliefs we can move past these deep-seated emotional barriers.

You need a license to sell lemonade and to drive a car, but not to be a parent. In school it is compulsory to teach you about igneous rocks, yet most people never get even a rudimentary education on parenting skills. Everyone is just making it up as they go along, doing the best that they can under the circumstances. This unfortunately means that there are a lot of parents that aren’t quite in the running for parent of the year.

Naturally, you understand that your parents probably meant well. They behaved in the only way that they could have given their GEBE so there is no point blaming them, but at the same time that doesn’t make their comments or actions always valid. Since their messaging was objectively unhelpful and untrue, it is high time to change those beliefs into something more reasonable.

It is of course ridiculous to say that you aren’t good enough. You are a perfectly normal and functional human being. You’ve had successes, you’ve had failures, and you keep trying. Objectively, if you were to reset your life and consider today Day 1, well, you’d be starting out with a pretty good hand compared to many people. You have much to be grateful for.

You realise that self-esteem is just another story that you tell yourself, and you need to work on rewriting that story for yourself, every day.


Once you have a reasoned belief worked out, keep reinforcing it to yourself.

Every day take note of evidence that supports your new beliefs.

Today, I finished the Johnson account ahead of schedule, my boss praised me for the quality of my work, I helped an old lady carry her luggage up some stairs, I was finally able to hold a handstand for over a minute. I’m getting places in life!

To make this technique more effective, try to establish a daily routine of writing it down with pen and paper.

Regularly try and capture your thoughts, challenges and rational responses, along with any evidence that back up your reasoned beliefs. Don’t worry about channelling Shakespeare, you aren’t writing this for an audience, it is just for you. It doesn’t even need to be comprehensible other than to yourself. The very process of writing out your feelings is scientifically proven to have beneficial effects.

These techniques may not get you all the way to happiness and serenity, but they’re a good starting point. At the least, they give you some logical detachment and acceptance from which you can better evaluate your situation and rewrite your story.

With enough practice, your perspective on life will slowly change. You will come to find that few things are as bad as they may first seem. Your outdated OS feeds you exaggerated or unwarranted beliefs all the time. By replacing these beliefs and perceptions, you change your story, and more importantly you change how you feel about your story. And once you change those things, you effectively change your life for the better.