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I have what some might refer to as an overactive imagination.
As a kid, I would fill black and white marble composition books with made-up stories and scenarios that would dance through my head. Tales of faraway creatures and lands, and everyday characters living the kind of life I wished I was living. As a teenager, I would put pen to paper and fantasize about the life I might actually live as an adult: the places I would visit, the people I would meet, the conversations we would have.
This overactive imagination—this innate ability to create stories and explore endless possibilities—has served me well in life. Mostly.
Telling stories is my job. And while these days I tend to stick to honest, real-life, sometimes uncomfortable ones, both past and present, that hasn’t stopped my brain from continuing to create made-up stories in my mind.
Sometimes it’s simply my overactive imagination making an unexpected, innocent appearance. Other times, it’s my anxiety—my desperate, relentless need to control or explain or overthink a situation—finding a way to sabotage me.
And this is especially true when it comes to relationships.
In my daily life, at my job, with friends and family, I consider myself a grounded, rational person. I tend to be the voice of reason, the person people come to when they need a compassionate ear and sound advice.
But in romantic relationships? I can spin a tale so complex that a minor interaction becomes a triple-alarm fire, at least in my head. A small disagreement that should’ve been chalked up to the natural, occupational hazard of creating a life with someone turns into a 35-minute rant to my therapist.
My partner is quiet or withdrawn? He’s absolutely mad at me. My partner disagrees with my opinion? We’re obviously too different to be together. My partner doesn’t want to go with me to an event or activity? He is clearly planning on leaving me.
Down the overly animated rabbit hole I go…
Truthfully, I used to be a lot worse when it came to concocting these fatalistic stories and letting my overthinking nature impact my relationships. But years of therapy and practicing mindfulness have helped me recognize when my anxiety is taking over so I can talk myself off the mental ledge.
And these moments of recognition are crucial to minimizing conflict in our relationships.
Ivy Anne Miller, a mindset and relationship coach, recommends an exercise we can do to separate fact from fiction when dealing with those we love:
@ivyannemillerMost of the time, we aren’t reacting to what they said or did. We’re reacting to our INTERPRETATION of what they said or did.♬ original sound – Ivy Miller
“Here’s one exercise that’s gonna help you prevent a ton of arguments in your relationships before they even happen: it’s learning how to separate your observations from your interpretations.
Let me explain. Your observations are the facts about what happened, something objective and literal that you can observe with one of your fives senses that Sally down the street can also observe and agree is exactly what happened.
Let’s say, for example, that your partner leaves the house without saying goodbye. Let’s take a look at how we would break this down: so in this case, the most accurate observation you could make is that my partner left the house and I didn’t hear them say goodbye.
Then comes the interpretation, which is all the things that your mind accidentally made it mean. So in this case, maybe it’s that they must be mad at me, or maybe they don’t care about this relationship as much as I do. Or maybe they’re falling out of love with me, or even, they can be so cold and sh*tty.
Remember, most of the time we aren’t even reacting to what they said or did. We are reacting to our interpretation of what they said or did.”
As someone who’s spent her whole life writing stories, I love how she shows what our observations and interpretations look like on paper.
Having a visual for what is happening in real life versus what is happening in our mind can be so helpful when we’re in the middle of an overthinking episode. And that can be the difference between having a practical discussion about a real relationship issue and being trapped in a full-on argument about the made up stories we’ve created in our heads.