Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Each Other

"I have experienced tremendous tragedies in my life, ninety percent of which never happened." ~ Mark Twain

I am thinking a lot about the stories we tell ourselves about each other - the assumptions we make about the other person's words, actions and behaviors - whether our lover, our friend, or the stranger in the grocery store.

More often than not, it seems like we tell ourselves the worst possible fear stories, rather than look for the best possible love stories.

For instance, we might tell ourselves Susie is quiet because she's snobby and judgmental, when really she's just shy and has trouble with small talk (a story people have told themselves about me). Or maybe our boyfriend knows we have a trigger around him talking to that one woman, so he must be hurting us on purpose by talking to her (and she's trying to steal him), when really he's helping her out with a genuine problem. If someone's not answering a text, email or phone call, they must be ignoring us or have a problem with us, when really they're just very busy and maybe haven't even seen what we've sent yet.

We especially tell stories about the misunderstandings and conflicts we have with each other. That's where misunderstandings come from, we tell ourselves a different story than what the other person intended instead of getting clarity from them. When someone lashes out to hurt us, we tell ourselves they are intentionally hurtful, when actually they are acting out of their own pain.

We make these fear-full assumptions about each other all the time, and then we make an emotional investment in the stories we tell, creating our own suffering in the process.

This is important to me because my last broken relationship fell victim to this all too human tendency in irreparable ways. I was heartbroken because someone told themselves the worst possible stories about things I said or did - even accused me of intentional cruelty - and invested so much energy in those stories that the truth couldn't discharge the negative emotion and bring understanding. I will own that I also told myself stories about them that kept intimacy from deepening. When misunderstandings or conflicts arise, everyone involved starts telling themselves blaming and shaming stories about each other, most or all of which are untrue.

This is also important to me because I'm noticing how I'm doing it in some of my new relationships, although I'm mostly catching myself in the process and shifting the story, rather than taking my false stories and suffering to the other person. Sometimes this takes minutes, sometimes it takes hours. But I strive to come back to the love story unfolding between me and the other, rather than let the fear stories take hold and trigger emotional reactions.

The craziest thing about this kind of story-telling is that we do it the most with the people who love us most deeply -- the very people we should be trusting are always acting with the best intention towards us, even when they make a mistake that hurts us. Over the last couple months I've caught myself telling fearful stories about my business partners, now that I've stepped down as hostess and am trying to figure out my role as a founder-but-no-longer-hostess. I even had a nightmare about it. I've feared that they will think I'm acting entitled in an inappropriate way when I tell them how I still desire to be involved. The truth is that they are as confused as I am about my place and they are certainly open to exploring what's comfortable for all of us regarding my new roles. I also tell myself fearful stories about my friends, assuming that if someone doesn't ask me for time that they don't want to connect with me, when really they've got incredibly busy lives but would make time if I asked for it, or maybe even have their own stories that hold them back from reaching out to me.

I also notice that while we know that we are here for each other in any possible way, we still don't always ask for support, a listening ear, a hug or touch, or whatever we might need that would make our struggles a little easier to bear. We call each other family and yet we don't fully trust each other's deep, deep desire to connect. We all desire to experience love as much as we possibly can. And yet we hold ourselves back all the time. And tell ourselves stories to justify keeping our distance.

I am striving to notice my fear stories and stop them before they gain emotional momentum. I am also focusing on the love stories unfolding in my life with deeper awareness than ever before.

I am sure this will be an on-going work for me. What about you? What fear stories can you change into love stories?


Calleaghn said...

Right on! I can relate SO much to this. Still working on becoming aware of and dealing proactively with my stories. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. I can't even tell you how wonderful it is to have read this today. These fear-stories are the root of almost every 'problem' I have and totally able to be overcome although not easily. Thank you so much for sharing this. Is it okay to share this post on FB? I think it is something everyone should read. <3