Key idea #3

Our “stories” are the hidden architects of our constructed experience.

In other articles ( here and here ) we talk about the way our experience is constructed by our unconscious processing and unconscious processing is by far the bulk of what our brain engages in.

Here I wish to talk about the way our “stories” are a kind of architect that lays down the blueprint for that constructed experience.

Some examples of what I mean by “stories” are:

1. The ideas we have about ourselves. For example, those deeply held ones like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m an impostor”, “I’m the best”, “I’m lovable”, “I’m unlovable”, etc.
2. The ideas we have about others related to difference or sameness. I.e. stereotyping, profiling, in-group out-group categorisation. Often these are hidden or implicit biases that we do not know we have. See: Yassmin Abdel-Magied
3. The ideas we have about the world. For example, the world is dangerous, hard, exciting, a challenge, a playground, etc.

We build these stories over the course of our life based on our experience, what we are taught, what trusted others tell us, what we read, what we watch on TV and film, what we see on the Internet, etc.


In the context of this article and the work we do, “stories” are those ideas which might or might not be consciously available to us and for which we might or might not have much evidence. We use the word “stories” to remind ourselves that we’re potentially dealing with a work of fiction rather than just accepting the stories are true. The kind of stories in which we are particularly interested are those not in our conscious awareness. In many ways these are the most potent agents for the delivery of behaviour that we might or might not want, as well as being a rich vein for personal change.

Every day, we filter from the vast array of potential stories we are hold. The two main filters of relevance here are “how does this story support my well-being in the world?” (as I perceive that to be at this time); and, “to what extent does this story agree with my existing stories?”. Remember, our existing stories are related to survival and survival is a powerful reason to keep the story from changing! Those two filters generally operate out of conscious awareness.

Google and Facebook are useful metaphors here. Our search results and what turns up in our news feed are largely determined by what these automatic algorithms determine we interested in. It is possibly uncomfortable to consider that our brain is doing exactly the same thing on a second by second basis. The self-reinforcement of the “Internet bubble” is not much different to the way our own mind works except that the sheer volume of reinforcing information coming by way of the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than we typically encounter in our “off-line” lives. We are so receptive to it simply because it is the way our mind works.

Cognitive Dissonance

An important unconscious psychological process of relevance here is Cognitive Dissonance. When presented with information that varies from our current set of beliefs we almost always dismiss that new information unless we consciously take steps to analyse and evaluate it. This is especially true when the information relates to our identity. In that case we invariably resolve the dissonance in favour of our current view of ourselves. If we have a belief that, for example, we are not good enough or an impostor, information or even good evidence coming from others that we have done a good job is likely to be ignored or disregarded because it does not agree with our view of ourselves. On the other hand, if we think we’re doing a fantastic job, that we are the best, then we hear information or evidence indicating that perhaps we are not as great as we think we are, it is highly likely we will ignore and disregard that information because it does not agree with our current view of yourselves.

Survival and safety

The stories we hold together with resolving cognitive dissonance are just two examples of the ways we construct a world as we imagine it to be. We do that because our “safety” or even “survival” is at stake. For this process to have evolved in human beings it must have some survival value. Its main value is being able to predict the future. Those individuals best able to rapidly assess and react to incoming sensory information in a way that maximises predictions about what’s going to happen next are more likely to survive than those who are not able to do that, or who do it more slowly. In many ways this story making capacity is just an extension of the much older process of categorising incoming sensory data into meaningful patterns. With language we add much richer patterns of meaning, including abstractions. Of course, in our typical current environments our physical survival is not generally in question. Yet our brains have not had long enough to evolve to a more nuanced version of this important survival response – it takes conscious effort to weave in the strands of abstraction and social behaviour.


Another way to think about these stories is that they are metaphors. The visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and gustatory representations of sensory data stored within our brain are just that – internal representations of matter and energy we detect in our environment. This process of having one thing “stand in” for another is exactly what a metaphor is. The word originates in ancient Greek: “metapherein” meaning “to transfer”. Our experience of consciousness itself is a metaphor simply because it is our internally constructed interpretation of the world “out there”. What we see, hear, think, taste, feel, etc, are all just interpretive symbols we make that “stand in for” some sensory data that is combined with previously created metaphors / stories. This is a different version of “the tangled web we weave” than Shakespeare was referring to and our weaver is generally hidden away in the background, out of sight.

Our constructions are unique

At the very least we can say that our internal construction of the world will never be identical to that of another person. It will sometimes be close (e.g. in-group bias) but can never be exactly the same in all regards since each person’s brain will represent the information in subtly different ways. I discuss the implications of this further here.

Hidden assumptions

A key feature of our work involves the process developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey called “Overcoming Immunity To Change “. That process is one whereby a person is coached to uncover the hidden assumption that is driving some behaviour that they would like to change. A hidden assumption is another type of story, one formulated as “If {some event occurs} then I must {behave in a certain way}” in order to maintain a level of psychological safety. That story or hidden assumption is generally created early in life and reinforced as the person grows. It probably had good survival value in their early life in terms of fitting into family and has now probably outlived its usefulness. The problem is people are unaware of the content of that assumption and so they are subject to the behaviour that is keeping them safe without understanding the motivation for that behaviour.


Choose Your Stories, John Sautelle, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Speaker (and my friend and colleague : )

Neuroscience and the experience of the self, Robert Burton, Neuroscientist

On Being Certain, even when You’re Wrong – Robert Burton, Neuroscientist
(Skip to 1 min 35 seconds)

Idea Framing, Metaphors, and Your Brain – George Lakoff

The Art of Changing Metaphors | Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer | TEDxPaonia

Symbolic Modelling and Clean Language demonstration. Coaching directly with metaphor. Listen to the young woman’s verbal metaphors and watch her body language as she describes them. Notice the facilitators only ask questions and only use the woman’s descriptors.