Recently it came to light that a friend and I were both creating some vibrant stories about the disconnection that had been present in our relationship for a bit. These stories that we independently (and truly unintentionally) wrote to explain the dynamic that was at play guided how we interacted, impacted how we felt, and was set to have an effect on the long term trajectory of our friendship.
Bravely one evening my friend texted me her story. And I laughed, because there was no merit to what she had decided may be true – and I also laughed because my story was shockingly similar. And it also proved, after further conversation, to be equally false.
Left unchecked these stories could have really sabotaged a really beautiful friendship. Left unchecked, our inner narrator would have steered us in a direction that left us moving away rather than towards each other.
Our actions would have been based entirely in fictitious narratives.
I think this happens a lot. To a lot of us. Our brains take in data and it creates stories. When we lack data, we fill in the gaps. We, often without meaning to, create tales about what particular actions/inactions mean – and then instinctively act out of those narratives.
Friend forgot to wish you a happy birthday? Your brain may rewind, recalling that it was you that initiated the last 3 get togethers. And then it may write the story that she really doesn’t care that much about you or the friendship, and that she’s probably just hanging on so she doesn’t have officially end the relationship. In response, you may be icy or cold with her when she does send the birthday message – glossing over her apology for forgetting, or perhaps you ignore her text all together, because the hurt feelings caused by the story that she doesn’t really like you make it hard to engage. The real story may be that she was caught up studying for exams, truly just forgot, and honestly feels terrible about it.
Or maybe your boss let go a really deep sigh in front of your desk when he asked for he report that wasn’t ready, and walked away with slumped shoulders and his head down. The crafted story may suggest you are a bad employee, that you can’t get anything right, and that you shouldn’t even bother trying because it’s never good enough. You may respond by either working really, really hard to make up for your supposed lack of competency – or perhaps you become exasperated and disengage, handing in subpar work because you ‘know’ you’re not going to be good enough no matter what. The real story may be that he is feeling unwell, and the walk over to your desk took all the energy he had, and he’s lamenting having to walk back to your desk to check again later in the day.
Or perhaps your kid didn’t put the note you signed in his backpack, again. You tell yourself the story that nobody listens to you, and that everyone takes you for granted. You feel unimportant, lash out at your partner and start a fight, and end up angry and alone in bed. Maybe the real story is that your kid is a kid, and that they sometimes don’t listen when they’re engaged in another task, and maybe it has nothing to do with you being taken for granted or not appreciated.
Our story-seeking brain is super good at filling in the gaps. And for a lot of us there is a propensity to fill in the gaps with really terrible stories about ourselves and how other people perceive us. Let’s remember that our inner narrator writes a lot of fiction, and to slow down before we latch on to the first story our brain creates.
Let’s look at the stories we write with a more critical eye, and like my friend did, fact check before we declare them to be true. Next time you find yourself latching on to a narrative, ask yourself a few questions:
-Is this the only possible story?
-What other stories could be happening?
-How do I know it’s true? Is there evidence to support the story I’m telling myself?
-What else could be going on for the other person, to result in such an action/reaction/inaction on their part?
Our brains are incredibly amazing things. Let’s invite our critical thinking skills to the party to help evaluate if our inner narrator is on track, or is steering us in a direction that will lead to unnecessary pain and disconnection.