As I prepared to write this blog post, I asked my daughter for input on a topic. Without skipping a beat, she suggested I share how I decided to buy her a red jeep. After I had a good laugh (she will be getting her brothers’ hand-me-down silver 2012 Honda Accord), it led me to the topic of today’s post… storytelling.
There are two common types of storytelling – the first is the kind I will refer to as “wishful thinking.” My daughter’s red jeep definitely falls into this category as does “when I win the lottery” and “when all my dreams come true.”
The second type- and the main focus of today’s post - are the unpleasant stories we tell ourselves when we jump to conclusions because we have incomplete information.
In her Netflix special, The Call to Courage, Brené Brown describes a common characteristic among her research participants who demonstrated the highest levels of resilience. They all used some variation of the following sentence: “the story I’m telling myself…”
And, in her book, Dare to Lead, she shares the universal truth that “in the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are wired.”
How often have you been irritated by a comment, lack of response, or tone of voice from a colleague, friend, or family member? If you are like most people, you jump to conclusions and make assumptions.
When you have incomplete information (which is more often than not), your brain kicks into action and completes the story.
Unfortunately, you rarely fill in the story with facts or the truth (because you don’t have them) and the results of your own creation can be damaging to you and your relationships.
You send an email in the morning to a colleague asking for her to support your proposal in an upcoming meeting. You get no response and have decided it must be one of two things (1) she hates your proposal, or (2) she hates you. The missing piece of information (and truth) is that her Mom fell and broke her hip, so she left the office early to take her Mom to the hospital. Her lack of response had nothing to do with you or the story you created.
Your son in college doesn’t respond to a text and you are convinced that the worst has happened, and he must be lying alone in a hospital. This happens in spite of your knowledge of a very consistent past history of his phone dying because he forgot to charge it.
You’ve planned a party to celebrate your anniversary and are expecting 50 friends and family to join you for dinner. At five minutes past the party’s start time, you look at the empty room and tell yourself that nobody is coming. You have convinced yourself that they don’t really like you or found a better restaurant and/or party down the street. We have all been there.
Not only do we tell ourselves stories, but we usually make our worst fears and insecurities the main storyline.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Taking a line from the resilient subjects of Brené Brown’s research, pause and recognize that you are telling yourself a story.
Ask yourself, “is this factual?” “is this true?” or “is this my brain filling in the missing pieces and creating fiction that may be harmful to both me and my relationships?”
“The story I’m telling myself….” is a great way to start an uncomfortable conversation and allow the other person to tell you the truth about why they behaved in a certain way and, most likely, dispel whatever story you have created in your head. Instead of heading into an all-out, kicking and screaming fight, this simple line might very well lead to enlightenment and closer relationships.
In both storytelling situations (wishful thinking and jumping to conclusions) we are making assumptions that are unlikely to be the truth. My daughter would like to believe that she will wake up on her 17th birthday to a shiny new red Jeep.
The truth? She will be receiving a key to the old silver Honda Accord sitting in the garage. But I will gladly put a red ribbon around the steering wheel to protect her from harm so that when she misses curfew, I won’t jump to the conclusion that she and her car are in a ditch.