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Here’s the scene.
You have just been on an amazing date: great person, loads of chemistry, signs are right.
You get home, send a text…okay, so no immediate reply, that’s okay. An hour later…maybe he’s just busy. Three hours later…it’s me, I’m so unlovable, he’s fooled me, he must of thought I was disgusting, maybe I was too much, why am I so stupid.
Four hours later and your pity party is in full swing—you and your anxieties are a bottle of wine down, halfway through the Maltesers and about to switch on “Eat, Pray, Love”—when he replies. It turns out he nipped to his moms on route home and ended up spending two hours sorting out her new laptop. Plausible right? Highly probable, a likely event, and so much more realistic than the story you told yourself.
So why, oh why, does our brain always take us to the worst-case scenarios? Why are we conjuring up stories in our heads and comforted to believe our rampant imaginations, over more rational and conventional likelihoods?
Because we are hardwired to do so.
Our brains are designed to protect us, and the greatest safety net is our ability to think we are right. The reward system in our brain plays out a scenario, which we recognise as true. This emits dopamine in the process, giving us a false sense of security—the aha moment. The familiarity of our conclusion whilst painful is at least a conclusion, the protective acknowledgement that we have sussed this out. That feeling overrides anything else and convinces us that the story we have created is the right one.
It usually is not.
In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown identifies this as our “sh*tty first draft.” She explains that when something happens that triggers strong emotions in the absence of any data, we make up stories because having complete information is a self-protective survival skill.
It makes a lot of sense.
In the absence of understanding somebody else’s side of the story, their perspective, or their rationale, it is often the case that we will develop a new truth to suit our own agenda. It makes us feel better, it provides reasons and tangible explanations for where we have none and it comforts us to complete the jigsaw and have a clear beginning, middle, and end to a situation. Where we have no information, data, or insight, we make it up. And this is often not to our advantage.
Good old brain eh!
It is also much easier to reach for a self-deprecating explanation. We steady ourselves with a worst-case scenario because it’s our brain’s way of saying, “Anything that isn’t that is better than what we had feared, so let’s believe this version and it can’t get any worse.”
This can often translate to us blaming the easiest person we can—ourselves. I’m not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. “I am not enough” is the default position for most humans. Laying the blame at our feet and engorging our vulnerability in victimhood is a damaging but firm conclusion that we instinctively reach for.
It’s usually bullsh*t!
The more I personally read and learn about this pre-programmed neurological behavior, the more I can relate it to so many of my own experiences in relationships and friendships. I think if we are all honest, the story we have told ourselves has caused many an imagined situation to turn into a reality because of the reaction we have and what it then causes in reaction to this narrative.
If I had understood this more in many of the situations I have found myself in, I would have avoided many an argument and heartache!
The fact is, we don’t and can’t know what someone else is thinking and feeling. We jump to familiar conclusions instead of acknowledging there are multiple and variable explanations.
That person at work who never makes eye contact and avoids talking to you at all costs may not be your biggest hater and think your ideas are worthless. They may actually be riddled with anxiety and battling their own insecurities and unable to communicate that. But you’ve already constructed that narrative. You are already paranoid in their company, alienated by their avoidance, and now harboring your own self-doubts because in your mind they have decided you are stupid, pointless, and not worthy of their attention. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
With the guy your dating who’s suddenly backed off, the story you’ve told yourself is that he thinks you are worthless and disgusting. Or maybe you’ve decided he is a game player and concluded he is trying to date every girl in town—when the truth could be that he is reeling from a past heartbreak, riddled with fear from a failed relationship, or laden with work anxiety, which you have no clue about.
Your mother-in-law, who has come round and instantly started tidying up and restocking your shelves, may not (as you’re telling yourself) think you are a failure whose house is disgusting and isn’t up to the job of looking after her grandchildren. She may be remembering how tiring motherhood is, acknowledging how hard you work, and trying to keep herself busy to ward off a deep loneliness she is currently battling with. Cleaning your house may be giving her the comfort of still being useful that she so desperately needs.
The story we tell ourselves is usually fiction. It’s often dramatized and is likely to be causing us more pain than we recognise; the dopamine we generate from these stories is giving us a false sense of security—its deriving order from the chaos of the unknown.
So, what can we do?
Well in my own experience, acknowledging that we do tell ourselves these stories and recognising when we are doing this is a great first step. I have found that using the line “the story I am telling myself” when communicating has helped.
So, for instance, in an argument or confrontation, start by saying “this is the story I am telling myself” instead of telling someone as fact what they are thinking or feeling makes a significant difference to the way that conversation progresses. It acknowledges that this is your version of events and gives the other party a chance to give you their version without feeling defensive or being on the offensive. The fact is, you don’t know what another person thinks or feels—you only know what you are telling yourself. This is a false narrative.
Writing our version of events down is also helpful and something Brené Brown recommends as a necessary step in her Rising Strong book; she calls it the Rumbling. Writing down our story, or our sh*tty first draft, can show us where there are gaps in information; it can encourage us to seek out the actual facts or highlight areas where we have really used our creative license.
I will often use writing as a platform to express how I feel and what I am experiencing, and I usually come out of that feeling calmer, more rational, and having identified a few home truths.
Doing so can certainly help us retrieve the facts from our own stories.