What the Pit in Your Stomach Is Trying to Tell You
03.20.18

T

he other night, lost between steps two and five of my shamefully long skin routine, I was struck by a thought: When Nora Ephron touted, “Everything is copy” and Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” were they speaking to a similar point or a contradictory one?

Since I got the letters “EIC” tattooed on the inside of my right elbow, I’ve been asked to interpret Nora’s words (or, more accurately, Nora’s mother’s words) a lot, and I recently stumbled into a new way of explaining it: As words to work by, “everything is copy” is a way of saying: “Don’t worry if your interviewee coughs so much you can’t hear what she’s saying — the coughs are the story too.” As words to live by, “everything is copy” is a way of saying: “Life is the coughs.”

This is where I paused, step three of my skincare routine dripping off my fingers: If Nora was saying life is inherently a story and Joan was saying we create narrative in order to make sense of the inherent senselessness of life, where did they disagree, if at all? It sounds like intellectual masturbation, but I became convinced in that moment, as I stared at my shiny forehead in the mirror, that the secret to life was hidden in that answer.

The idea of “story” has been on my mind a lot lately — particularly the role it plays when I’m faced with a big decision. What do I really want? Which part of me is wrapping myself in the comfort of a story instead of reality? The internal observation required to make a grounded decision can sometimes feel much harder than making the decision itself. I’ve spent years resenting the idea of a “gut instinct” for that very reason. How the hell am I supposed to listen to something that’s nearly indistinguishable from my fear instinct or my impulsive instinct?


Somewhere around step five, I forgot which step I was on and got in bed. As I stared at the ceiling, a memory floated to the top of my consciousness: a road trip taken down the coast of California a few years ago with my ex. On our way back, we had stopped at a middle-of-nowhere pet store, not quite ready to go home yet. As we wandered around the aisles looking for a toy for our cat, Bug, we discovered a rescue pet adoption room nestled in the back. We wandered in. Rolling around the door of her cage, unrecognizably social and friendly compared to our own cat, was the cutest brown tabby we’d ever seen. We oohed and ahhed for longer than we could casually justify. And then the air between us shifted.

You know that stomach-dropping rush you get when a wild idea, which you produced almost as a joke, scales the fence of your imagination and peeks over to the other side, presenting itself as a possibility? The idea that maybe we should adopt this cat started as a flutter of eye contact and evolved into a look of excited alarm between us. We left the store to talk immediately.

Perched on a parking lot curb, baking under the hot sun, we agonized over what to do. We ticked off the reasons it was a bad idea on our fingers and then countered them one-by-one with whatever bullshit we could muster. Our stomachs were in knots, but the spontaneity of it all was so appealing that we gulped it down like Pepto. We were sick of being responsible! Other people made thoughtless decisions all the time and their lives were more interesting for it! Couldn’t that be us just this once? We stomped back in and signed the papers, almost out of spite for the versions of ourselves that would never have done the same.

One late night a couple of weeks in, we admitted to each other, almost in whispers, that something wasn’t right.

As we drove that final hour home, a new purring cat in my lap, we couldn’t believe what we’d done. But even if we felt our devil-may-care grip loosen, we busied ourselves with the distraction of a new creature. We methodically introduced her to Bug over the course of a few days. The idea that she would take him in as her baby, as the store clerk said she might, was quickly and comically abandoned. She wanted nothing to do with Bug, and he was so obsessed and nervous around her he hadn’t relaxed in days.

One late night a couple of weeks in, we admitted to each other, almost in whispers, that something wasn’t right. Under the cool of our comforter, away from that blood-pumping moment in that sizzling parking lot, we saw the decision for what it was: a big, hot mistake. Horrified by our uncharacteristic carelessness, we started brainstorming what to do. We would keep her and give her a good home if we had to — that was on us — but if we knew someone who wanted a cat, maybe we could tie this up in a shoddy bow.

The solution came to us the next day, as if a gift from heaven. My partner’s dad had just moved out of a house with tons of pets and into a new apartment by himself, and he told us he would welcome the company of a new furry companion. We knew we didn’t deserve this quick solve, and the intoxicating mixture of guilt and relief that washed over us as we handed over that little tabby cat was almost blinding. In the ensuing years, aside from the occasional, “Remember when we had another cat?!” we scarcely spoke of her again.


As I lay in bed the other night, recalling this whole saga as if I were watching a play of my own life, the moral shifted into stark relief. That pit in my stomach, the one that sank to the depths of my soul in that pet store parking lot, wasn’t some mysterious “gut instinct” — it was my profound disappointment that I knew better than to do what I was doing. It was my distinct sadness at the realization that the fun, romantic, spontaneous decision wasn’t the right one. You could call it my gut, but you could also call it my body fighting with reality for the sake of the story.

Until that night, I’d logged my three-week tango with an unwanted cat as a misguided attempt at ushering novelty into a situation that needed a different kind of tending. But now I see it as something else, too: a perfectly contained example of what it looks like to ignore your gut. As I’ve retro-applied it to other big decisions I’ve belabored, the details change a bit — instead of the allure of spontaneity, I’ve fallen for the allure of comfort, or of novelty, or of fantasy — but the basic rule remains the same: When some part of me knows that I’m more wrapped up in an idea than in what I know is true, I start to feel sick.

As Joan Didion pointed out when she said we use them as a means of survival, stories are powerful tools. But when we lose sight of our ability to write our own, as Nora Ephron reminded us we can, we become victims of our decisions instead of agents of them. It’s a subtle difference, but as I drifted off to sleep that night, my routine lost to the whims of my own story, I began to think that parsing it is the most important challenge of all.

Collage via Getty Images. 

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  • Haley your writing is just SO GOOD. I’ve been going through a life/career shift myself and I love this perspective.

    • Lil

      Haley’s articles always leave me hanging

      – but in a good way

      like she should make a coffee table book of all her essays

      • Hannah

        or Haley should just write a book

    • Haley Nahman

      Thanks so much for this <3 Good luck!

  • erika br

    God, it’s so so hard to know when it is your gut and when your irrational fear speaking, especcialy when you’re dealing with anxiety. I have panic attacks just from trying to distinguish whether it’s one or the other. There are some fields in my life (career for example) where my gut speaks loud and I listen. But for things like relationships, every doubt tears me apart for not being able to say if that doubt is perfectly normal and natural or is it my gut whispering. And then it creates a whole taifoon of thoughts: I had some doubt, so I guess something isnt right and I’m just trying to trick myself it is. I analyze that doubt to pieces until it becomes the size of an elephant. Something small becomes something huge and overpowers everything else. And at exactly that moment I need to ask myself is it my gut or is it my anxiety. They both seem equally painful.

    • Emily

      i am exactly the same! it is so debilitating!

    • Haley Nahman

      I have so been there. I’m not saying my experience is the rule, but for me, in hindsight, my maddening frustration with “not knowing what my gut was saying” was actually me not wanting my gut to be saying what it was saying. And me not wanting that so badly that I was willing to jump through the craziest intellectual hoops to deny it. That’s a large part of what I was trying to say above: Upon reflection, my gut wasn’t so mysterious after all; I just didn’t want to hear it. That won’t be true for everyone — we all work in mysterious ways — but it’s proven continually true for me.

  • Adrianna

    Man, no wonder NYC shelters require 2-3 references and a home visit before you adopt a cat

    • Lil

      LOOL

    • Haley Nahman

      Ughhhhhhhhhh I know (tail between legs)

  • What if stories really are all we have? As in: the winning story told you to get the cat, but afterwards, the opposite story was gaining ground and delivering reasons the first story must have been wrong? You know, because we tend to see and thus find support for what we believe in a given moment? I sometimes really wonder whether we are not simply alternating between stories that seem the strongest to us then and there and I am a simple person, not really fickle. Actively feeding them with our doubts and wishes and helping them grow till a change is caused and the pit of our stomach reacts …

    • Haley Nahman

      I love this view! I actually have a pitch for April that touches on the illusion of right and wrong. So thank you for this food for thought!

      To your point though, while I think we retro-justify things all the time, I think there are moments when we truly know we’re lying to ourselves — to the extent that how it works out it almost irrelevant. You know?

      • I am always very curious about what you have to say and I love thinking about your writing, which is when questions may pop up… Looking forward to it all!

    • Emily Crittenden

      Wow this is brilliant. Love the way you said this.

  • Lil

    “That pit in my stomach, the one that sank to the depths of my soul in that pet store parking lot, wasn’t some mysterious “gut instinct” — it was my profound disappointment that I knew better than to do what I was doing. It was my distinct sadness at the realization that the fun, romantic, spontaneous decision wasn’t the right one. You could call it my gut, but you could also call it my body fighting with reality for the sake of the story.”

    I’m pretty good at my job. And for the longest time, I thought being good at my job was a solid indicator of my life going well; so thus I should be happy right??
    To be fair, I am extremely thankful for my current job because it’s allowed me to move to my dream city and have so much fun out here. But I’ve been forcing myself to fit into my current job industry so much, that I’ve literally been getting mentally&physically ill over it. Even when I made the decision to move to a new city for my job, I felt that something seemed a little off. I ignored that gut instinct because the pros at the time seemed to outweigh the cons. And it is easy to live for the “story” and we
    Also I used to weigh major life decisions based on the “fun” they’d probably bring to my life. But now, kind of as Haley said: comfort over everything, even over fun!

    • Mariana Rodrigues

      I wish all the best for you, even more because I’m the phase to try to achieve the same you have: moving out to my dream city which hopefully will help me begin my career. Sometimes I get petrified and question my efforts with fear of reaching the same conclusion as you – that not even that will make my peak of happiness.
      But maybe life is an ongoing pursuit of new desires and passions even if you already have established yourself? Or maybe we should be content every now and then? Maybe we all buy too many ilusions? I don’t know really! But I hope you find peace of mind

      • Lil

        Thank you!! And I completely agree, life is a roller coaster of ups and downs, twists and turns. What I was really struggling with is that I’d let myself get buckled up in the wrong roller coaster. I’m trying to be more mindful of what ‘rides; i go on

        Best of luck and peace of mind to you as well <3

  • amy

    TBH you and a cat is half the adults I know who got married, had kids and now hate their lives. So the cat isnt that bad in hindsight. Be easier on yourself!

    • Haley Nahman

      Lol/OOF

    • Mariana Rodrigues

      Ahah you got me laughing! Yes any cat related story can’t have a truely bad ending! meow 😀

  • Mariana Rodrigues

    We all get caught in the desire of acting spontaneously just to prove ourselves we are as raw as the fantasies of others make it seem – modern FOMO increased by social media adds to the equation in my belief. Nobody wants to be vulgar, right?
    As far as I’ve learned, we all have these moments in which we wish to be wild, the more the action seems like something we normally wouldn’t do = the better it’s meant to be. But what’s the point of contradicting yourself just for the trill of the rush? We want so bad to make our lives a story that we forget to actually live it. I think we own more to our gut than to our need to paint a self-portrait.
    Maybe I’m suspicious because I’m an overthinker, but at least I’ve come to know what’s right to me and I don’t need to play cool for anyone, not even myself (note to self: sometimes you’re a bore and that’s ok!). Of course, I’m not bulletproof and If I were you in that road trip, I think I’d have the same thoughts as you!
    Anyway Haley, your article is wonderful and proves how many wars one can have inside it’s mind – it’s really never ending!

    • Haley Nahman

      “I think we owe more to our gut than to our need to paint a self-portrait.” I love this!

      • Mariana Rodrigues

        (* fangirling all over the place)
        Thank you for your reply and your kindness!

  • Ana

    On interpreting the quote: I always thought ‘everything is copy’ means ‘everything that happens in your life is part of your story’. When you find yourself stuck in an unfulfilling job, for example, don’t stress about not being where you want to be but just see it as part of your life’s story. Or if you’re writer, every difficult/unfortunate/weird chapter in your life can be an interesting anecdote when observed objectively. In that sense I guess Didion was saying the same; look at your life as an unfolding narrative as opposed to a finished product.

    • Becky

      Never thought of it in terms of a “life story.” But, I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason. When I was younger (in college and earlier), I’d always regret not taking a chance or not doing something I thought I wanted. Then, when I was just finishing college and applying for a million jobs and going to interviews but not getting anything, I ended up with a job that I loved making more than any of the other jobs I had applied for (actually several times more money). It was around then that I knew I had gone thru crappy interviews and the roller coaster of emotions for a reason and to be fully able to appreciate how lucky I am. I’ve realized that my life is far from perfect but it’s created my narrative that I’m really proud of – and one that I really enjoy living.

    • I think my favorite part of literature is the variety of interpretations.

    • Haley Nahman

      I see it the same way! By “life is the coughs” I meant the shitty parts are the story too, not just the good parts. I explored it in more detail here (https://www.manrepeller.com/2017/08/how-to-feel-better.html) but I think we’re on a similar wavelength!

      • I read an interview with Greta Gerwig recently where she said “Challenges in making a film is what making a film is. It’s not a deviation from the road, that’s the road”. I thought it was a brilliant way to understand any creative endeavor… and life too. Similar analogy to “life is the coughs”.

        • Ciccollina

          So good, I love Greta.

      • Modupe Oloruntoba

        I think the only caveat is that as much as the crappy bits are part of the story, the length of that chapter is still at least partially in your hands. Maybe it’s just the way I’m wired, but accepting/embracing my lot often leads to checking out and letting life happen to me, and that’s something I decided not to do anymore.

  • Rosemary

    I don’t know quite how to explain it, but today this article helped me find the “peace that passes understanding” that I’m always seeking. God sent me your words at just the right time and in just the right frame of mind! Thank you for always writing so honestly and with such wise perspective, Haley!

    • Rosemary

      Also, I love Bug

      • Haley Nahman

        <3

  • This is so beautifully written. I was just talking to a friend about this idea over the weekend. I do this so much with relationships that I’ve had to get very real with myself about whether I’m choosing a partner or choosing some imaginary future I’ve created with them whilst listening to Spotify. This sounds silly, but it’s real – especially for creatives! You’ve nailed it with your words here. Amazing writing. Incredible brain!

    • This doesn’t sound silly in the slightest! My entire life of relationships has involved battling my brain as to whether I’m actuallu assessing my life with a person, or the idea of what that person could be, or who I could be with that person. To be honest, I still have no idea! And I think, perhaps, that’s the whole point.

      • Haley Nahman

        “To be honest, I still have no idea! And I think, perhaps, that’s the whole point.” life mantra

    • Mariana Rodrigues

      It’s all part of it and we all do it but nobody confesses it, that’s why we go so harsh on our romance partners! So rest assure, it’s not silly of all! 😉
      I think if you make a conscious effort to see the person you love without the love aura just once in a while for the mere sake of the exercise you’ll find some answers (not all of them of course)
      Maybe I’m not expressing myself right, but if you are curious The School of Life channel has some cool videos about love and I think they explored doubts like yours once or twice

    • Jolie

      LOL the spotify “soundtrack to our future” dilemma is so real.

      • I didn’t miss him until I listened to Pitchfork’s Best New Music playlist. WHAT DOES IT MEAN!?

        Truly though. It’s real. Quite real. Nothing like a Discover Weekly playlist and the train in the morning to send you into mode: maybe i should respond to that last text.

  • Kubla

    How boring to have no challenges mixups or mistakes. Isn’t life just a series of things that happen because you willed them and then you simply stare in wonder as it unfolds before your eyes, even tho you weren’t quite sure it was just a fancy thought. Nevertheless. Change is lovely.

    • Áine Hegarty

      Yes! Yes! I totally agree with this! Life can be a series of events that unfold because of relentless wishing and will. And then when things don’t turn out as we hoped, when what we willed actually doesn’t suit us well, we’re shocked as to how the whole thing happened in the first place. This has happened to me often to the point when the whole mess is unravelling, I forget that I was the one who wanted it in the first place I started the chain reaction with my strong arm on fate.

      • Anna Tokareva

        Ah, you have described what I am going through, for the third time in 2 years, so well. I guess it is time to have a big think about the things we blindly push towards and how we deal with excessive expectations that are then unmet. (And by “we” I mean “I”). (And by “dealing” I mean running away to hide in a hole).

        • Kiks

          I’m so feeling this right now. Two years ago I was so excited to move to Vancouver Island, a place I had dreamed of forever. It’s such a beautiful place and most people who live here just go on and on about how they could never live anywhere else.

          But I’ve finally been able to admit that I really don’t like my life here. It’s expensive and crowded and it rains too much. And all the adventures and weekend getaways I dreamed of? Well, it turns out most weekends I would prefer to relax at home with my cats. And that’s just fine. I’m not a person who can be constantly on the move. I need a lot of downtime. That’s who I am.

          And for a long time I felt like I was defective or a loser for not being absolutely in love with living in this fantastical place. I will come back frequently on holidays, when I can enjoy the lovely magical parts, but it’s not the right place for my daily life. At least, not right now. It’s very freeing to admit that, rather than keep trying to force myself into this lifestyle that I thought I wanted.

  • sam

    Haley. Girl. You have OUT DONE YO’SELF. This is some next level writing.
    This came at a perfect time for me. Thank you.

  • Áine Hegarty

    This is all such good food for thought. I was particularly struck by this sentence:

    “We stomped back in and signed the papers, almost out of spite for the versions of ourselves that would never have done the same.”

    I read that and was happy for you. I felt relieved to hear someone stretch the boundaries of who they could be through their actions. In the past I’ve made decisions because I really wanted to even though I knew they weren’t right for me. To me it felt freeing to give myself permission to make a mistake, take what I wanted in the face of consequences and in some cases live without regrets. I think listening to my deeper instinct has always lead to a more satisfying, usually less-stressful outcome, but living is a balance of the desire and emotions, logic and instinct and sometimes it feels good to let logic or emotion win. Rebelling against yourself can make you feel like a completely different person.

  • Mlichelle

    This is beautifully written thank you. I really enjoyed it.

  • Sophia

    Please write a book of short stories, Haley. Your writing is so beautiful.

  • Katya Edwards

    I LOVED THIS SO MUCH.
    I have the similar, if slightly more bitchy, Anne Lamott ‘story’ quote taped above my bed:
    “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

    • Haley Nahman

      love this

  • Chanaeva

    Haley have you ever read David Loy’s The World is Made of Stories? If not check it out, sounds like you’d find it interesting.
    https://www.amazon.com/World-Made-Stories-David-Loy/dp/0861716159

    • Haley Nahman

      Noted thank you!!

  • Ally H

    HALEY YOU ARE SO SPECIAL

  • rebecca

    really needed this and to know that other people experience this as well and wonder what that feeling really is. i ignore my gut quite often, so that i can do the fun novelty thing, surprise! it never works out

  • Jolie

    Haley, your writing is so great and always makes me analyze things I’ve never really been able to pin down. “Everything is copy” is one of my favorite quotes (as a writer and marketer), and the idea of becoming “victims of our decisions” is such an interesting thing to ponder. Always look forward to your articles!

  • Silvi

    The way I see it, stories can inspire you into acting, and becoming an “agent of change,” like you said, or on some occasions, they can soothe you, enabling you to derail yourself from the reality of a situation. That same ability/proclivity to move your own needle (by rationalizing, telling yourself “stories”) in a positive way can just as easily permit you to come up short or make the wrong decision. In this way, everything IS copy; that’s what makes it so difficult. You have to know which stories are worthy of telling, and which ones are like eating a bag of potato chips (feels good at the time, only to regret later.) Knowing where to draw the line is finicky stuff and probably has a lot do with listening to your “gut instinct”, i.e. life experience. Thanks for this article, Haley!

  • “We become victims of our decisions instead of agents of them” — wow. I’m writing this down and saving it forever. Haley you are amazing

  • Jill

    Always can tell when a title will be written by you lol! Love your writing and I know I might come off like a crazy person but maybe that cat was meant for the one who actually ended up with it. Maybe the fact that it was so easy to find it a new home was the universe! tehehehhe I know I know but MAYBE

  • This is literally the only instance in which I’ve heard someone other than myself use the phrase “intellectual masturbation”. I thought it was just a weird thing I said, and I’m so glad it’s not 😂