Have you ever noticed your Inner Troll? We all have one, constantly commenting on everything around us. Its chitter-chatter can define how we view ourselves and the world around us. More importantly, this invisible fiend is the main reason we so often confuse perception with reality.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
The Usual Suspects
You know when you’re so used to something, you forget it’s there?
Well, as humans, we easily forget that we live in a combination of reality and our interpretation of reality. Everything we experience is coloured by our history, our values and often, our bias. It’s like wearing a distorting lens through which we view our world.
This lens manifests itself as our internal dialogue, with its constant live commentary of what’s going on and what it all means. Our internal dialogue is so automatic, we tend to forget that what it tells us is not necessarily what is. Our perception and reality are so jumbled together, it becomes difficult to tell them apart.
It’s all because of our Inner Troll.
Your Inner Troll
We all have an Inner Troll keeping us company. Here’s a true story about mine:
Ok, so maybe your Inner Troll is less of a douche than mine. But still, is any of this familiar? That process where something happens, your internal dialogue kicks in, dissects the event, and suddenly, it all means something very bad?
That internal dialogue, with all its shitty little distortions, is your Inner Troll. His party trick is to comment on everything that happens to, or around you. He’s always giving his opinion on what’s what and he never shuts up. He’s probably talking to you right now:
The Zen guys are all over this Inner Troll phenomenon – the practice of mushin no shin (mind without mind) is all about recognising your Inner Troll and distinguishing it from your Self, in order to diminish its influence. (You can read about how Zen’s concepts help control negative emotions here.)
In many ways, your Inner Troll is responsible for shaping the way you experience and relate to the world. Yet, like breathing, you’ve gotten so used to him, you can often forget he’s even there.
That’s not a good thing. Noticing your Inner Troll as a distinct voice is actually really important. If you don’t, he muddies the waters to the point where it’s easy to mistake his chatter for actual reality, leading to all sorts of misunderstanding, misery and mayhem. When you lose track of the difference between what happened and your Inner Troll’s story about what happened, that’s when a polite no thanks gets turned into I’ll die alone.
What if he’s right?
Of course, sometimes your Inner Troll is bang on the money. But that’s not really the point. Because whether he’s right or not, your Inner Troll is still just a lens through which you experience the world. If you wear a pair of blue sunglasses, you’ll see everyone’s shirt as blue. A couple of those shirts will actually be blue, but you’re still looking through a coloured lens. No matter how far our interpretation may be a fair reflection of reality, it’s still just an interpretation. A true story is still a story.
And with seven billion different Inner Trolls roaming the world, each convinced of his own accuracy, it’s good to keep that firmly in mind.
What Happened v Your Story
To your Inner Troll, everything means something. And usually, it’s about you: a teacher shouting at you means she hates you. A friend not telling you about his plans means he’s dishonest. A stranger’s glance on the street means you’re either superhot, or hideously ugly, depending on how you’re feeling. These are the mental shortcuts your Inner Troll loves.
Right or wrong, your Inner Troll puts those different meanings in there, and out of certain events he concocts a story about what happened. Not to be confused with What Happened.
What Happened and your story about what happened can be tricky to tell apart. Take my example from up top – my story was I always get rejected. Pretty tragic huh? But what actually happened?
Nope. That’s a story. We don’t know anything about what she likes or not. We lack the data to take that as fact.
No, that’s just what I would have done. Pretty self-righteous to assume others will behave the same as me in any given situation. I actually have no idea what she would do. Whatever I may think, I’m not a mind-reader.
So, what happened?
Wrong again – still a story.
What actually happened is: I asked someone out, and she said no thanks.
That’s all. That’s the facts. Everything else – the she doesn’t like me, the I’m unlikeable, the I’ll die alone – are just meanings that my Inner Troll added. True or false, it’s just a story.
By the way, your Inner Troll doesn’t always give everything a negative twist. He can also be your biggest cheerleader at times. It might feel better, but it’s really no more useful. Either way, by accepting our Inner Troll’s musings as reality, we’re departing from the facts and assessing situations through conjecture.
Confirmation Bias and the Vicious Cycle
Here’s a question: what made my Inner Troll choose that specific story? Why didn’t he run with she needed the toilet real bad?
Well obviously, he did the only thing he could: he picked the one that confirmed my own views.
That’s his favourite trick of all: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias, in the immortal words of Wikipedia, is:
the tendency to search for, interpret, favor [sic], and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
So, let’s say something happened in your past: you broke your mum’s favourite vase.
Your mum got pissed off and yelled at you. So your frightened Inner Troll interpreted What Happened and decided it meant I’m clumsy. Next thing you know, you got yourself a good old story: not I was clumsy that time, but I am clumsy. Now, you’re always on the look-out for further evidence of your clumsiness. Every time you spill or break something, it’ll just reinforce your Story.
No you don’t. You do not spill stuff all the time. You aren’t spilling stuff now. In fact, I’ll bet 99% of the time when you could be spilling something, you aren’t spilling anything at all.
I’m clumsy is your story. What Happened is you spilled stuff some other times (and how could you not, if I’m clumsy is what you’re thinking every time you pick up a glass). And to confirm your story, your Inner Troll made those times seem more significant than they were, linking them all into a neat little narrative. Deep down, we all want to be right. Even if it’s just about how much we suck.
We make up so many silly stories. And we end up buying them. And suddenly, those stories are how we interpret our reality. This is true for all our stories: from I’m a failure to all my relationships are doomed to I’m never wrong.
The Vicious Cycle – Putting Our Past Into Our Future
So, we often live in the overlap between our experience and our interpretation of that experience.
If we forget the Inner Troll exists, confirmation bias can slowly solidify that overlap, reinforcing our story about What Happened. Our belief that this is the way things are (I am clumsy, I always get rejected) grows stronger and starts to guide our actions. Which, in turn… well, you get it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leaves little space for personal change.
In other words, if your Inner Troll is guiding your actions, it can also shape your future. That might seem ok, until you realise that some of our least helpful stories were made up in our most traumatic moments, often when we were infants.
To me, it seems sub-optimal to be building a future based on past impressions, concocted by the most irrational and insecure side of my psyche. Travelling through life with my Inner Troll in the driving seat looks like a recipe for disaster.
There’s no silencing our Inner Troll. He’s a part of who we are.
But that doesn’t mean we have to act out his stories. Here’s a couple of realisations that helped me diminish my Inner Troll’s influence on my life:
1. Start with the facts.
Recognising my Inner Troll is perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned. In every thought and interaction, it’s about doing my absolute best to distinguish What Happened from my story about what happened. My big brother Enzo taught me this early on: parti sempre dai fatti – always start with the facts. Whenever I’d argue that dad was unreasonable, he’d always gently correct me – that’s not a fact, but a value judgment. I’m learning to see the difference. Of course, it’s fine to consider why something happened and to then form an opinion. But it’s fundamental to recognise which part is our story (interpretation), and which part actually happened (facts).
2. The past does not dictate the future.
We’re not puppets, acting out predetermined narratives. Seeing the vicious cycle of no change helps realise that things we think are set in stone don’t have to be. We begin to understand that change is more possible than we think. There is space to make a conscious choice to change – to experience life as the stage for new possibilities – if we follow our choice with action (and a little Inner Troll Control).
Ultimately, if we take a critical view of how we interpret the world, we begin to see the mechanisms that lead us to conflate reality with perception – or What Happened with our story about what happened. We find that many of the beliefs we hold are based on unsound data; that our view of ourselves, good or bad, is only partially accurate; that our stories are self-fabricated and self-imposed.
Recognising the Inner Troll is a crucial step in taking back our capacity for self-determination. Distinguishing What Happened from our story is the best way of ensuring our assessments and life choices are based on what we really know and who we aim to be instead of what we pretend to know and who we think we already are.
In that realisation lies the freedom to engage with the world and ourselves in a new way – a way that more easily allows for change.