We Are What We Think: Four Steps to Change Our Personal Stories


One of the highlights of my childhood was story time.  On special nights, my father would share what he called “imagination stories.”

My brothers and I would lie on our pillows in the dark, and he would make up tales of adventure—everything from trekking across the jungle to sailing a pirate ship.  He is a master storyteller, and his stories would transport us to exciting places. We would feel emotions like anticipation, surprise, and triumph, without ever leaving our pillow.  

As a culture, we continue to celebrate gifted storytellers.  Whether we are reading a Grisham legal thriller, watching a Spielberg blockbuster, or gaining historical insights through a Ken Burns documentary, stories transport us mentally and emotionally.   Yet I believe we don’t fully realize the gifted storyteller that lies within each one of us. We are continually creating stories based on the situations we find ourselves exposed to each day. The stories we tell ourselves about these situations drive both our emotions and actions.  The challenge is that most of this storytelling is at a subconscious level. The key to our own emotional management is working to make ourselves aware of our personal stories and then, if necessary, rewrite them to lead to a more optimal outcome.

The following story check process is critical to becoming masters of our personal narratives:  

First – Define the Situation  

This is simply the facts without added opinion—the unmistakable evidence of what is happening around you.  For example, you are driving along and a car pulls in front of you. These are facts that can be proven in a court of law.  

Second: Recognize your Thoughts

There are two types of thoughts we have—automatic and intentional.  Automatic thoughts are immediate and come from our subconscious. Without us even realizing it, they happen.  My guess is that you may have had an automatic thought as I mentioned the situation above about a car pulling in front of you while driving.  It may have been “He just cut me off! What an idiot!” You started to tell your own story without even realizing it.

Intentional thoughts are those we consciously choose to have.  We may choose to think “He just cut me off! What an idiot!” or we may choose to tell an alternate story: “He may have not seen me.” or “He must have somewhere important to go.”   None of the stories change the reality of the situation, but they have tremendous impact on our emotional state.

Third: Identify your Emotions

Over the last several decades cognitive research has clearly shown that our thoughts control our feelings.  Emotional awareness is a key factor in writing optimal personal stories. Referencing the driving example again, what are the emotions generated by thinking “He just cut me off!  What an idiot!” Most would tend to feel anger, annoyed, or irritated. That is the visceral reaction to the automatic story you tell yourself. In contrast, the intentional story, “He may have not seen me.”, or, “He must have somewhere important to go.” will most likely cause a calmer emotional response.  It may still generate irritation or annoyance, but with less intensity. Alternately, it may elicit feelings of tolerance or even compassion.

Fourth: Choose your Actions

Just like how our emotions are driven by our thoughts, our actions—or the behaviors we display—are driven by our emotions. We act because of the emotions we experience.  When you have the automatic thought, “He just cut me off! What an idiot!”, you feel angry. This will lead to behaviors like revving the engine and tailing the driver, or speeding past while displaying an obscene gesture. Even if you don’t overtly do something that’s visible to the other driver, you may curse to yourself or start another negative thought train by thinking, “There are idiots all around me today!” By most measures, these actions are not helpful in the long-term and may have detrimental consequences.  

In contrast, the intentional thought, “He may not have seen me.”, or, “He must have somewhere important to go.”, may cause you to continue with your drive in a more stable emotional state.  Consequently, we see that by simply altering our personal story, we can have an outcome that changes from an aggressive act to an afterthought.

This story check process is a powerful tool to help manage our behaviors and ultimately get us the results we want.  Our actions are what others judge us by, thus making the stakes even higher for their effective management. However, like all acquired skills, conscious effort is required to make this process common practice.  To illustrate the story check process from a business perspective, here is another example:

Your company just rolled out a new timesheet reporting process for the second time in 18 months.  An automatic thought might be “I was just getting used to the new process, why do they have to keep changing things?” This thought leads to feelings of frustration and annoyance, resulting in a hesitancy to train your team as well as a jaded tone when you do so.

Alternatively, you may think: “I don’t know why they changed this, but I hope this is an improvement.”  This leads you to feel less irritated and mildly optimistic as you immediately train your team with an accepting tone.  

We are what we think

Whenever you find yourself displaying actions that produce less effective results, or if you are experiencing more frequent or intense negative emotions, I invite you to examine the story you are telling yourself about the situation and rewrite it.  You are a better storyteller than you may believe. We truly are what we think. Our thoughts control our emotions, which in turn control our actions, but we control our thoughts.