The Stories We Tell Ourselves

In the absence of information, we tell ourselves stories.

Many versions of this quote (attributed to many different writers) exist, and its premise is a compelling truth. When we don’t understand what is happening or why someone behaved in a certain way, our brains fill in the details and we tell ourselves a story that helps us interpret the events around us.

Why did that person cut us off in traffic? Probably because they’re a jerk. Why does a coworker never get us their report on time? Because she doesn’t care that it means we have to work late. Why does my boss want to meet with me in the morning? I bet I’m getting fired.

We’re motivated to make sense of our environment, and that includes filling in details when our brains perceive them as missing. But often these stories we tell ourselves are inaccurate and cause us to waste our time and energy in ways that don’t serve us well. What causes this and – more importantly – how do we stop it from derailing us?

Cognitive Biases

The human brain experiences a number of cognitive biases. At their core, these biases represent unconscious errors in our thinking that result from our brain’s efforts to simplify the complex world around us.

Let’s examine two such biases that can be at play when we are telling ourselves stories.

The Confirmation Bias refers to our tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already believe and ignore information that would disprove it. In this instance, if we already think a coworker is unreliable or doesn’t like us, then we look for data that confirms this belief and it factors into the story we tell ourselves about this coworker.

The Fundamental Attribution Error tells us that we believe that our own actions can be attributed to the situation while the actions of others are caused by their personality. For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic it is because they are thoughtless or rude. But if I cut someone off in traffic, it is because I was moving out of the way of a tractor-trailer truck coming into my lane or they were simply in my blind spot when I checked. In this scenario, I believe that the other person acted because of who they are, while I acted because of what was happening at the time.

It's important that we not allow these biases to lead us to act in ways that can cause harm to ourselves or others. Being aware that these biases exist is a great first step in stopping them from coloring the way we interpret events around us.

Curiosity as a Solution

What else can we do to stop ourselves from telling stories that deplete our energy and interfere with our relationships and productivity? Curiosity is a powerful tool. 

Curiosity is the desire to learn and to know more. Curiosity can help us generate alternatives or pause long enough to ask questions. When we ask these questions, we often uncover information that we wouldn’t have otherwise. And even in situations where we can’t ask questions, the decision to be curious can remind us that the stories we’re telling ourselves aren’t necessarily true. This reminder can stop us from expending extra energy on an outcome that isn’t guaranteed anyway.

Why did that person cut us off in traffic? I’ll probably never find out, so I choose to let it go and move on with my day. Why does a coworker never get us their report on time? If you ask, you might find out it’s because she doesn’t receive the data she needs early enough and wasn’t aware of the inconvenience she was causing. Why does my boss want to meet with me in the morning? There could be several reasons and telling yourself the worst-case scenario won’t help you be at your best when you arrive for the meeting.

If I ask someone why they acted in the way they did, I’ll learn more about why their actions made sense to them. And while I might find out that they were ill-intended or didn’t have my best interests in mind, I will have a clearer understanding of the truth and more energy to deal with it productively.

We make assumptions throughout our day; some are correct and some are not. When we make negative assumptions about another person, we risk having a negative impact on our relationship.

Reflect on the stories you’ve been telling yourself about the people with whom you interact. And ask yourself whether a dose of curiosity could help you conserve your energy and find out the truth.

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May 3, 2022 at 9:59 am
Amy Helder

Terrific article! I personally find that expressing a curiosity about something helps me to achieve a fuller and more accurate perspective. Works very well in meetings to take some of the pressure off and allow people to fill in the blanks with actual information.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.