Stories

Someone here recommended Crucial Conversations and it recently became available from my library. It’s a really incredible book about how to best execute the important exchanges in your life, especially the ones that bet derailed because emotions run high.

In the sections about emotions the authors talk about where those emotions come from. Why do some people react to a situation one way (with calm introspection) while another person reacts differently (lashing out in anger)? The answer is obviously emotional response, but what causes the opposite responses?

The answer? Stories. It’s the stories we tell ourselves, almost instantaneously, that set us on a path toward righteous indignation or understand. These stories are integrated into our path to action so blindingly fast that we aren’t usually aware of them, or we’re not aware that they are stories–stories we fabricated–and take them as truth.

I have found this whole idea of stories really fascinating. I had never articulated the question of why I become so emotional so quickly, of where my negative reactions originate, but as soon as it was articulated for me I recognized its value. If I can start identifying my stories, even after I’ve told them, hopefully some day I can be more present in the spinning of them. This could totally change my life.

I read about “my stories,” as I’ve come to call them (yes I watched soap operas once), a few days after I wrote the post about hitting my daughter. I’ve been identifying my stories surrounding that incident, and our need for therapy, ever since. I’m getting better at recognizing that the way I’m narrating something in my head is not necessarily the truth. There are other ways one could think about all of this, more positive, empowering ways.

I’ve tried to tell myself those stories. I’ve thought about what others–mostly you all–would say to me if I wrote a post about it (like I did yesterday) and I imagined what you would say (all the things you said yesterday). I see those stories (the ones where I’m being proactive in supporting myself and my daughter) and recognize that they are valid, but I can’t seem to appropriate them. I can’t seem to wipe away my story (that I’m a failure) and insert the more positive stories in its place.

My story makes me feel hopeless and overwhelmed. It makes me feel isolated and alone. It’s not a good story. I don’t want this story determining my emotional reaction. I want the other story. The one where I’m being proactive and supportive of myself and my daughter. I want to embrace the story where going to therapy is not only de-stigmatized, but celebrated. I WANT THAT STORY. But I can’t seem to make it mine. The other story keeps seeping in, a corrosive poison that disintegrates the positive story and hardens into something negative.

It’s really starting to piss me off.

I’ve been watching for my stories in all the areas of my life, and what I’ve noticed as been truly enlightening.

Telling negative stories, it seems, is my forte. I’m good at it. Really, really good at it. Exceedingly good at it. I’m the many-times gold medal winner at telling negative stories. It’s pretty much all I do.

How did I get this way? How did I become a person who tells unnecessarily negative stories to herself so she can feel bad? When did I get sucked so deeply into a spiral of shame and guilt and anger that I can’t claw myself out, even when I’m aware of it spinning all around me?

I didn’t learn it from my parents. I didn’t get it from my friends. I want to say depression, I keep circling back to that origin story, but I’m not sure it’s accurate. Depression definitely warps your thinking, spins stories of worthlessness and despair. I wonder if depression went in and corrupted the mechanism of my story-making, damaging the foundations upon which all my stories are written.

It could be depression, it could just be who I am. I’ll never really know where one starts and the other ends, but I suppose that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Where these defeatist stories come from isn’t what’s important. What is important is figuring out how to rewrite them with a more positive slant.

My stories are a debilitating force in my life. My stories tell me that my husband would do x, y and z if he really loved me and so I feel resentment toward him, or that my daughter struggles because I fail her in some way and so I feel like a failure as a parent. I will be working really hard to change them. If I can manage that, it will improve every aspect of my life, especially my marriage and my attempts at parenting. So I keep working on it. Every day. And I have hope that over time, I will be able to change the stories I tell, and with them the emotional responses that follow.

Have you ever thought about the stories you tell? Are the generally positive or negative? Have you ever worked to change them?

10 Comments

  1. It takes practice. You have to keep reminding yourself, “What’s another possible explanation” and keep coming up with explanations, then choose to believe the good one (even if “good” means a person is incompetent rather than malicious, bless their hearts). Eventually finding a good explanation becomes automatic. But it takes a lot of practice and effort. Over the course of years I’ve become the kind of person who thinks the best of people and situations, but it was a deliberate change and didn’t come immediately. It’s a form of Cognitive Restructuring that you learn in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

    1. It’s interesting, but I think I give people I don’t know well a LOT more leeway than I give the people close to me. It’s my friends and family, and especially myself, that inspire my most negative stories. No wonder I sabotage so many relationships. Gah, I have a LOT of work to do.

  2. I think the roots go way back… Some tendencies are genetic. Some behaviors are related to chemicals experienced in utero (both chemicals taken in by our mothers and also those her body produces without her control). Some are based on family values and how the young child integrates them about self. (Family emphasizes being tidy but child experiences self as untidy and…) Some are ascribed and taught by family tags (the shy child, the pretty child, the smart one ~ all implying the tag does not apply to the other child). Sometimes the stories grow from events later in life, excluded from the in clique at school or bullied/harassed/hazed in a new setting.
    Recognizing and naming the name of the story helps counter its impact and slowly slowly decreases its frequency and power. Naming and applying a different story also helps. So instead of being ‘shy’ around new people one might be ‘courageous’ in going places where there are unknown people.
    We are ALL run by stories of varying objective truth all our lives … but we can work at limiting and naming the destructive ones. Improvements can be fast or slow or jump all at once or regress but practicing patience with our selves is a fabulous role model for our children.

    1. They probably do go way back. I have a lot of hardware to rewire. It’s going to take a long time.

  3. This idea of the stories we tell ourselves is really interesting. It’s all about perception. I remember working with someone who I said had a “negative filter.” Someone would say something, but by the time it got to her brain, it had been through her “negative filter” and was now an insult or accusation, when before it was an innocent statement.

    I think when we’re negative, it’s because we’re not exercising any self-compassion. You’ve identified this by saying you give other people and in particular strangers much more leeway than you do yourself, or those close to you. Don’t you, and those close to you, deserve better? Don’t you deserve to be kinder to yourself? (Hint. The answer is yes.)

    But you’ve taken the first step. You’ve recognised the negativity of the stories. Now you just have to learn how to banish them. Thinking of alternative possibilities is a good start. Or just saying/thinking, “that’s not true, and I know it.” Even if you don’t believe it – because eventually you will. (I’ve done a bit of this myself, and it does work.)

    1. I definitely struggle with self-compassion. I am hard on myself. I’m not sure why. My mom was definitely hard on herself, maybe I do it because I saw her doing it all those years.

      I have had people tell me that I have a “negative filter” but I was in the depths of a pretty depressive episode when it was said so I chalked it up to them not understanding what I was going through. I’m realizing now that even when I’m not dealing with depression, I still have a negative filter, and that is disheartening. But now that I know it’s there and working against me, I’m hoping to shut it down. We shall see.

  4. My therapist would probably ask this question of you: What have these stories you’ve told yourself GIVEN you over the years? What’s the good that comes from telling yourself these stories?

    I think we develop coping mechanisms over the years which serve us pretty well, until they stop, of course. 🙂 Perhaps you started telling yourself negative stories as a way of gaining control and/or motivating yourself? As in, telling yourself you suck at X actually gives you impetus to change your behavior. Which is good, when it’s behavior only.

    But it’s nearly impossible to keep it focused on behavior when there’s shame involved. Shame makes it goes deeper; you’re telling yourself that you are not good enough. All the time. And then, of course, you fall into the trap of “negative filter” as Mali mentions above.

    And I love the suggestions about recognizing when you’re telling yourself those stories and telling yourself, “that’s not true.” It really works – at least from my perspective. Because I didn’t realize how negative my thought patterns were about myself either.

    I’d also suggest that maybe you also start doing some more positive self-talk too, to come at it from another angle. Whenever you can, take up a mantra that focuses on the positive. (Like for me, I tell myself every day, “I am doing the very best I can. And it is enough.”)

    I also do that with the people close to me – my husband, for one. Whenever I feel critical of him, I remind myself that he’s doing the best he can, too.

    I’ve been doing this double-pronged approach to self (and spousal, LOL!) kindness now for 6 months now, I think? It’s helping. I have good days and bad days, for sure. But overall I can see change. Which is awesome.

    Hugs… and thank you for sharing yourself with us like this.

    xoxo

    1. You have a damn good therapist. I don’t think mine has been very good, especially when I hear about yours.

      I have been mulling over this question and I hope to get my thoughts well enough in order to write about it. The truth is in the first 24 hours I didn’t come up with much but I’m starting to see how they’ve helped me. I think if I can figure out what they have given me (and continue giving me), I will be better at recognizing my stories and better at overwriting them with more realistic ones.

      Thank you for sharing your experience and giving me hope. It’s really comforting to know I might be able to notice things getting better in as little as six months. That gives me the impetus to actually start doing this stuff.

  5. When I started changing the stories I told myself (especially about myself) to positive instead of negative, I stuck a note in my wallet that said “first thought wrong” to remind myself that my old, instinctive, negative reaction was probably wrong and that I needed to pause, reflect, and think of something more positive. It took almost a year looking at it for it to just be automatic to use positive explanations for things rather than negative ones. I think it’s been great though to have different gut reactions most of the time. Life is much more pleasant now. I hope you find success granting yourself some room to be human.

    1. I love that idea. I’m going to put that on my lock screen so that whenever I open my phone (which I almost always do when I’m upset) I’ll see that reminder. 😉

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *