The Stories in Our Heads

Humans are storytelling beings.  The way we make meaning of the world is by telling stories.  We see this on the large cultural scale with things like religion, science, and philosophy.  But we do this on an individual scale as well.  We tell stories like “Bob is a mean jerk and is trying to stop me from helping the company improve.”  Or “my wife is working hard to make sure we can live the lives we want.”  Or “my children are rebelling against me and if I don’t make sure they have proper discipline they’re going to get into a lot of trouble in life.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with storytelling.  In fact, we need it in order to have meaning and purpose in our lives.  But there are two ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about the world, other people, and even ourselves can become problematic.  First, they can become a problem when we think they are objectively true.  That is, they become a problem when we forget that the story is something we have written in our own minds and it doesn’t actually exist in the outer world.

Now sometimes our stories are true.  But there is a big difference between making sure our stories are true and just assuming our stories are true.  For example, if I tell myself this story: “I cannot make any difference on national politics” and assume that is objectively true it’s going to create some problems for me.  When I believe that story as objectively true I feel powerless, I feel stuck, and ultimately I don’t put any effort towards trying to make a difference.  However, if I explore whether that story is true, rather than just assuming it is, I may discover a more nuanced story:  “As one person I cannot make any difference on national politics, but if I committed to helping organization Y then I can contribute to how that organization is influencing national policy.”  This more nuanced story can help me feel more empowered and gives me an option of something to do, rather than believing there is nothing I can do.  But I would never discover this more nuanced story if I just assume that my initial story (“I cannot make any difference”) is objectively true.  What allows me to discover the more nuanced story is an awareness that the initial story is just something I am thinking in my head; it’s not necessarily objectively true.

The second way our stories get us into trouble is when we don’t tell them to other people.  The stories we tell ourselves shape how we act in the world.  If I am telling myself this story about my co-worker: “he doesn’t care about getting this project done” then that is going to shape how I act in the world.  I’m probably going to work on the project alone, come into meetings with my co-worker and lay out my ideas without soliciting his feedback; I may even actively ignore his feedback labeling it as “unconstructive.”  And if I never tell my co-worker that I think he doesn’t really care about this project, he may be confused and hurt by my actions.  Again, my story might be true, but if I assume it is true without actually talking to my co-worker about it then I run the risk of behaving in a way that only further confirms my story.

So we need to be aware that our stores are just that…our stories.  We write them in our own brain, and we seek evidence that supports those stories and we discount evidence which undermines our story.  And if we can be aware that our stories are our own creation, we can be more willing to share them with others and work to figure out whether they are really true or not.

October 11, 2017Permalink
Free Practice Group

Twice a month I lead a free Compassionate Communication Practice Group. Open to those new and advanced students. We meet on the First and Third Monday of the month at 6 pm. We gather at 640 Hawthorn Lane in classroom 8. Classrooms are behind the church and to the left, next to the parking lot. Practice Group sessions usually run for 2 hours.

The next one will be on July 6th at 6 pm.