The Stories We Tell Ourselves & How to Change Them

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Stories provide rationale for what’s going on; they are our interpretations of the facts and help explain what we see and hear….they are theories we use to explain why, how, and what.

At times when we come up with a story, our body responds with strong feelings or emotions which, are directly linked to our judgments of right/wrong, good/bad, kind/selfish, fair/unfair, etc..

Unfortunately, most people don’t change their stories often – they keep them even when incorrect perceptions and/or assumptions created them.

Here’s a depiction of the progression of our thinking:

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We see and hear what someone is saying, without knowing we fill in more information from a story we’ve created about that person, we attach a feeling/emotion, and then we respond or act.

So How Can We Come Up With Different Stories?

First, we need to slow way down to notice what our what our story is. Second we need to retrace the path of each story by back tracking as seen below:

  • [Act] Notice your behavior. Ask – Am I in some form of silence or violence?
  • [Feel] Get in touch with your feelings. What are they? Are they appropriate?
  • [Tell story] Analyze your story. What story is creating this emotion?
  • [See/hear] Get back to the facts. What evidence do I have to support this story?

Either our stories are completely accurate and propel us in healthy directions, or they’re inaccurate but justify our current behavior; making us feel good about ourselves and calling for no need to change. It’s this second kind of story that typically gets us in trouble.

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

When we feel a need to justify ineffective behavior or disconnect ourselves from our bad results, we tend to tell our stories in three predicable ways. Learn what the three are and how to counteract them and you can take better control of your emotional life.

  • Victim stories. These make us out to be innocent suffers. The other person is bad, wrong, or dumb and we’re good, right and smart. Other people are doing these “things” and we suffer as a result. We intentionally ignore the role we’ve played in the problem. We tell our story in a way that judiciously avoids whatever we’ve done.
  • Villain stories. We create nasty tales by turning normal human beings into villains. We believe they have bad motives and we tell others of their bad actions and behavior while exaggerating our own innocence. We automatically assume the worst possible motives while ignoring any possible good or neutral intentions. Villain stories blame others for our bad results.
  • Helpless stories. These stories often stem from villain stories. We make ourselves out to be powerless to do anything healthy or helpful. We convince ourselves that there are no healthy alternatives for dealing with our predicament, which justifies our actions and behaviors. They explain why we can’t do anything to change our situation. It’s easy to act helpless when we turn other’s actions and behavior into fixed and unchangeable traits.

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How Can You Master Your Stories?

When you learn to know when your stories are untrue or unproductive, you can switch the stories to useful ones; ones which will create emotions that lead to healthy action such as dialogue.

What do you need to transform a non-working story into a useful one? The rest of the story!

Our stories are incomplete; they omit crucial information about us, about others, about other options. Only by including all of these essential details can our stories be transformed into useful ones.

So, what’s the best way to fill in the missing details?

  • Turn victims into actors. If you notice that you are talking about yourself as an innocent victim ask yourself: Am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem? This question jars you into facing up to the fact that maybe, just maybe, you did something to help cause the problem. Instead of being a victim, think of yourself as an actor. This doesn’t necessarily mean you had malicious motives. Perhaps your contribution was merely a thoughtless omission. By asking what role you’ve played, you begin to realize how selective your perception has been. You become aware of how you’ve minimized your own mistakes while you’ve exaggerated the role of others.
  • Turn villains into humans. When you find yourself labeling or otherwise vilifying others, stop and ask: Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing? This question humanizes others. As we search for answers to the question, our emotions soften. Empathy often replaces judgment and personal accountability replaces self-justification. The question helps us to deal with our own stories and emotions. It provides a tool for working on us first by providing a variety of possible reasons for the other person’s actions and behaviors.
  • Turning the helpless into the able. When you catch yourself bemoaning your own helplessness, you can tell the complete story by returning to your original motive. To do so, stop and ask: What do I really want? For me? For others? For the relationship? What would I do right now if I really wanted these results? We need to openly, honestly, and effectively discus the problem. Not take potshots and then justify our actions and behaviors. When you refuse to make yourself helpless, you’re forced to hold yourself accountable for using your dialogue skills rather than bemoaning weaknesses.

With practice and experience you can learn to worry less about others’ intent and more about the effect others’ actions are having on you. When you reflect on alternative motives, not only do you soften your emotions but equally important, you relax your absolute certainty long enough to allow for dialogue – the only realizable way of discovering other’s genuine motives.

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