The Stories We Make
In her book, “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown makes a fascinating observation about story. She cites research that claims that the desire to create a story is in our DNA, that when we connect the dots to create a discernible beginning, middle and end progression, our brain rewards us with dopamine. We naturally seek to assign meaning, and a reason behind the things that are happening around us and when we do we feel the rush that comes with an “a ha” moment.
And this is a good, beautiful, and unique part of our humanity. This desire to see connection and pattern is a huge part of how we function and even survive. However, Brene goes on to describe how this natural pattern, when unchecked and when attempted in the midst of moments of emotional upheavel, hurt, conflict or shame, can cause us to create stories that support our own assumptions or perception of the situation. We can be so desperate to figure out the meaning, and the pattern behind someones words, glances, or interactions, that often we arrive at the wrong story. Brown wrote that:
“Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.” He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, “we earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”
Even when the explanation is incomplete or wrong, we experience the same reward as when the story we come up with when the story is accurate. It doesn’t matter that we fill the holes in the story with fabrications or incorrect assumption.
This way of coping with conflict and emotions, struck me, perhaps because I know how often I am guilty of this. Guilty of reading into an email, a conversation, a text, or conflict, and filling the holes in the story with my own baggage, uncertainty and insecurities.
What are the stories that I tell myself that keep me from appropriately communicating, that allow me to assign blame, and how do those stories come to be what I default to in those moments of frightening insecurity and uncertainty?
I’m not enough.
This is a story I’ve rehearsed many times and when I suspect that someone is coming close to realizing it, the story I make up is that I am not enough.
I’m not smart enough.
I’m not creative enough.
I’m not talented enough.
I’m not beautiful enough.
Honestly, there have been many moments where I have looked at some of the amazing and best people in my life and thought, “When’s the other shoe going to drop, when will this person get tired of me/annoyed with me/find that one thing that lets them know that I am not enough for them to stick around.”
This is not a unique story. But a story that I assume many of us provide in those spaces of tension and insecurity. And I suppose I am not the only one who will mull over a flippant comment, or innocent instruction and wonder if this person is picking up on that horrible, haunting truth that we are not enough.
And I imagine what happens next is not unique to me either.
The anxiety, the worry, the wondering, the hours, maybe even days or weeks of being cold, withdrawn, or insecure. That feeling building in the pit of your stomach as you feel connection, communication and intimacy being eroded by that story. In those moments I feel this deep and terrible tension in my heart, as I crave that connection but I cling to that story, and either wait until enough time has passed until I let it go, or it just builds and builds into a moment of emotional upheavel, either in the privacy of my own heart or in a conversation that is more filled with tears on my part then actual conversation with the person who I feel hurt by.
In her book, Brown shares a time when she was telling herself one of these stories after feeling blown off by her husband after opening up to him. She began her internal struggle of trying to figure out what was wrong, what was happening, and filling the holes in the story. She explains how usually this would lead to a “cold war” of withheld affection. But instead she decided to be brave. And she opened up again, and told her husband, “This is the story that I am telling myself in my head…”
And there are so many times when I begin assuming and assigning motivation and meaning in my head when I know that this would be so much easier if I just said what I was thinking, shared the story that I was telling myself, and ask for what I needed, how much hurt, and worry and anxiety would be resolved.
If I trusted the people that I know love me with the truth of the story I was telling myself, how much easier would it be to resolve that instinct to jump to the story I have made up to explain the intentions and actions of others.
But it’s hard.
The stories are safer, because we are in control of those. Because, if those stories ARE true, if our worst beliefs about why a person is acting a certain way is right, then we don’t have to go through the painful work of trusting someone to care for our hearts and our insecurities, the painfully vulnerable process of sharing what we need with another human being.
And that is scary. We want to be cool, and unbothered. We fear being perceived as needy or high maintenance or weak. So we protect ourselves with those stories.
So what do we do?
First, there’s the importance of knowing what are the biggest stories you have created to explain why people act the way they do. What stories have you learned either through past interactions, biases and wounds. This is the first and most important step, being able to identify the difference in true and well-informed insights, and what are the stories that you have created to protect yourself.
And what are the emotions that trigger that story?
For me it, it is the feeling of not being loved. When I feel insecure in my worth in the eyes of someone I love, when my love language is not being spoken to me consistently, it causes that story of not being enough begin to surface.
And I am learning to battle it; to discern the difference in accurate observations and judgements, and stories stemming from that feeling from fear and insecurity.
I’m learning to recognize those moments that I know will lead to that story rearing its head. And continuing to practice living bravely, and looking someone in the eye and saying, “Here is the story I am telling myself… I need you to tell me something different, and fill the holes that I am missing, because this is what I am seeing.”
Because that really is the solution to battling the stories that we have made up, that prey on our deepest insecurities, to bypass those anxieties and hurt feelings.
Like with most things, vulnerability and trust, can change the story all together.