One of the many lessons I apply to my day-to-day life is a question by Brené Brown: “What is the story I’m telling myself?”
She has many words of wisdom and practices, but this one applies multiple times a day.
It has a two-tier approach: one I apply to myself, and one to deepen my understanding of where others might be coming from.
We are each an individual audience of any experience—the challenge is that everyone sees a different version of that show. This gets tricky when trying to empathize with another person. Our own feelings and experiences are so strong that making room for another view, another story is hard.
We are at the start of the holiday season where we come together in social situations with family, friends, and co-workers. This can bring some of our happiest times, but it can also bring “grit your teeth” and “hold your tongue” moments. In some cases, these moments slowly build to blow-ups.
How do we stand it? What is the best coping tool?
For me, I look to Brené’s words. When my mom sighs at the dinner table, my mind immediately goes to, “She must be upset about something.” This is the story I tell myself. In reality, I know this is her busy season at work and she is just releasing a deep breath and maybe even relaxed and happy to have a day of family to recharge. Going with the latter keeps the options—for what’s really happening—open and allows the situation to play itself out.
Jumping to conclusions only brings conflict. If she is upset about something, she will either let it pass because it’s just a fleeting irritation, or she will verbally express it.
It’s good to remember these stories can take a wrong turn and lead us to isolation and misunderstanding. One way I test this is to really watch and listen to the reaction I get from others as I share my version of things. Silence is one of the biggest alerts. People usually offer silence in return for an opposing view. Another clue is someone inserting a positive comment in response to your negative one. If others often share silver linings with you, maybe they are trying to balance your half-empty way of looking at things.
Other people’s versions can be strongly embedded in their viewpoint and aren’t easily influenced by another. This usually comes from unhealed wounds. You know this person: they repeat the same things like a mantra, like their view that someone else’s actions are causing them pain or harm. They cycle deeper into their own story of how something happened, and they guess at other people’s intentions. This is the story they tell themselves.
Without spending too much of your own energy, try and get a glimpse of what version the other person is living within. Then maybe ask a leading question to engage them in conversation. It might be the connection they need to help reset whatever is stuck for them.
Listen to your own words. Do you use words like won’t, can’t, or don’t, more than their positive counterparts? Language and tone are powerful and create impressions that you may not be aware of. Are people drawn to you right now or are they more often polite but distant? These are clues that your story may not line up with what others are experiencing. That’s a good time to see what’s happening around you, look inward, make adjustments, heal yourself where you are tender, and invite others to rejoin you.
We all go through times of recognizing our hurts, but we are responsible for what we do with those hurts. Do we use them as excuses to live a life where we expected more from others and are disappointed, or do we expect more of ourselves and truly live in the stories as they are.