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The human brain goes to extraordinary lengths to protect us from pain, but it also tends to be a short-term strategist.
It wants to feel better right now, and if that messes up things in the future, so be it.
One of its common tactics is to write self-serving stories. It takes a look at reality and extrapolates what it thinks best, leaving the rest behind and helping us to feel safer in the moment, but also with an incomplete or distorted understanding of the truth. That’s the bad news.
The good news is if we understand this is happening, we can ask our brain politely for the pen and start spinning better, more honest, and more empowering yarns.
In “A Call to Courage,” Brené Brown urges us to ask: “What story am I telling myself?” From “If don’t count every calorie, I’ll lose control and become so big that everyone will reject me,” to “I’m not talented enough to succeed at what I really want to do, so I better settle for something less,” these stories torment, paralyze, and isolate us.
(The story I am telling myself right now is that I’m not quite skilled enough to tell a story about telling stories, and if I don’t do it well I’ll lose all professional credibility.)
Sometimes we are cognizant of these stories, and even though we know they’re ridiculous they remain lodged in place digging away at our psyche like an ingrown toenail, and other times we’re totally oblivious, accepting them as “truth.” Ironically, they tend to be negative. You’d think, given the fact that they are there to protect us from hurting, they’d be the opposite: “I’m the best writer in the whole wide world! My mom said so!” or “I’m invincible and everyone loves me! No one can stand in my way!” And while there are people whose stories sound like that, they generally have some sort of personality disorder—certain world leaders come to mind.
So why do us regular folk tend to write crappy stories for ourselves? Because stories that are familiar are preferable to those that are unknown. We know how to manage the stories we know (or we think we do) even if they end up hurting us. “Wait a minute,” you say, “I thought you said this stuff happens to prevent pain?” It does, but the brain rates pain, and the things that get the highest rating are those that haven’t happened yet—in other words, we dread anticipatory pain most of all. In that way, we stay stuck.
But as much as staying stuck in our stories is a place we all find ourselves at one point or another, we also each have the power to compose a new narrative. Let’s break down how.
We’ll start with Terrence (not his real name), a client who was a compulsive scorekeeper. This dude could hold a grudge like no other. He and his wife Eve (not her real name) showed up in my office one bleak January afternoon to see if they could save their marriage. Eve explained that during every argument they had, Terrence reached back into the archives of their relationship and dug up all the ways he had been wronged over the years in an attempt to “win” the fight.
His memory was like a steel trap, and he could even report, word for word, a vaguely inconsiderate text Eve had sent him when they were still engaged. She eventually learned that the simplest disagreement would turn into a relentless airing of past grievances, so she began to withdraw, refusing to have sex, go out with him on the weekends, talk except via text, or do most of the other things that constitute a marriage. The only reason she’d stayed as long as she had was because of their infant son.
After months of working together, I began to see that until we got to the root of Terrence’s scorekeeping behavior, nothing else was going to change. In session one day, he began complaining that Eve had “never even called his parents” when his father was in the hospital for a minor injury, while he “had gone to the hospital several times” when Eve’s sister battled cancer. I asked him to stop.
“What are you trying to achieve here?” I said. He looked at me blankly. “What are you afraid might happen if you stop keeping score?”
It took many false starts for Terrence to release the behavior long enough to consider it from another angle, but when he finally did, he said, “I just don’t want to be taken advantage of.” We then managed to uncover his core belief that he was somehow lacking, so to keep people from seeing his true self, he beat them to the punch by making them feel bad about themselves. Scorekeeping was his way of staying in control.
So why did he always feel so out of control and desperate? He wasn’t allowing himself to write a bigger story.
Together, we broke down the narrative he was stuck in by trying what I’ll call the “but, maybe” method. “But, maybe” is a simple, connecting statement we can use to edit our stories. I asked him to summarize and write down his belief about scorekeeping, which was this: “If I don’t keep score, people will walk all over me.”
Then I asked him to add as many “but, maybes” as he could. Here are some of his answers:
If I don’t keep score, people will walk all over me, but maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe I could try to stop and see what happens.
If I don’t keep score, people will walk all over me, but maybe I am strong enough to deal with it.
If I don’t keep score, people will walk all over me, but maybe I need to consider why I think they are walking all over me in the first place.
Using “but, maybe” allows us to open up our story, even if it’s just a little bit, so we can safely play with the possibilities.
Here are some other examples from clients (all names changed) who took this challenge:
Brandon: I batted out of my league when I got my wife to marry me, so I better just put up with her abusive treatment of me. But maybe she isn’t out of my league and I deserve to be treated better.
Linda: I lash out at my husband in ways that are hurtful and compromise our marriage because he cheated on me and I can never forgive him. But maybe instead of lashing out, I need to leave the marriage, because he has cheated on me so many times that I can never trust him.
Gillian: My adult daughter won’t talk to me because I did not protect her from her abusive father when she was young. It’s better not to hurt her any more by trying to reach out. Reaching out is selfish. But maybe she is just waiting for me to say something, and if I did, we might find ways to heal.
These “but, maybes” are just beginnings. We write stories sentence by grueling sentence, and we can’t skip too far ahead or we start veering off into unhelpful abstractions. But if we put one word after another, and refuse to stop writing the story just because we are scared, eventually it becomes much more dynamic and empowering.
If you would like to try this exercise yourself, here’s how:
1. Find a quiet place where no one will disturb you. Bring a pen and paper. (Do not write on your cell phone or computer. You may be too tempted to avoid the exercise by distracting yourself.)
2. Close your eyes and take a few breaths. Relax your face, your shoulders, and your belly.
3. Allow your mind to start wandering. Ask yourself what is the tape that runs constantly in my head. There may be many. Try to settle on the one that seems the loudest. It is an old tape, so it will sound familiar.
4. Once you can hear the tape clearly, open your eyes and write it down. It may concern a big issue or a smaller one. It doesn’t matter. You can do this as many times for as many tapes as you like.
5. Look at what you have written and consider it objectively. Are there any flaws in your logic? Have you made assumptions without proof? Are there holes in it that you can see, even if they are tiny? What would a caring friend point out might be wrong with your written statement?
6. Add “but, maybe” after your statement and see what happens. Write down anything that comes to mind no matter how far-fetched or absurd. If your first “but, maybe” sparks other ideas, write them down as well.
7. Take a look at all your “but, maybes” and see what gives you the greatest feeling of possibility, hopefulness, or the sense that you are onto something.
8. Take another few breaths and allow yourself to imagine—just imagine—-what it would be like to move forward in your story with this new insight.
9. Repeat as necessary.
The stories we tell ourselves can either be a trap or a way forward. If you feel stuck, you likely are—in a story that is too small to accommodate growth. It’s up to you to pick up the pen and start creating the life you want.
Once we learn that it’s possible to break free of the small, safe places our brains have created for us to live in, challenging the validity of those places becomes a habit. We can learn to bring the unconscious forward, see what injured part of ourselves it is trying so adamantly to shield, and wonder if whatever it is doing is working or not. If it isn’t, we can begin to ask why not, and maybe find a better solution.
Even if we don’t find the solution straight away (or ever), the process of trying to, of bravely taking a look at the primeval muck inside our humble heads, teaches us that we are stronger than we knew. There is nothing in there that will actually kill us—unless, perhaps, we let it.