The Stories We Tell

A few months ago I took a training for Crucial Conversations at work.

We spent one third of the training learning how to set ourselves straight, one third on what to say to start the conversation, and one third learning to recognize insecure behaviors in others.

In the first third we did several exercises to help us recognize our emotions and break down where those emotions are coming from. This sections was called “Master My Stories.” And it’s stayed with me since that training.

To master our stories we were told to first separate fact from fiction, watch for the three common stories of victim, villain, and helplessness, and then challenge those stories.

Separating fact from fiction was the hardest part. It made me realize how quickly our brains formulate the stories we tell ourselves.

According to Merriam-Webster a fact is “an actual occurrence; a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”

A fact is: you were late to our meeting three times. A fact is rarely: you are always late to our meeting. A fact is not: you don’t care about our meeting.

The third statement above is a story, a story our brain crafts to simplify and explain someone else’s behavior. When unchecked, stories (like beliefs) can run our lives without our consent.

“Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories.”

That statement is what really blew it wide open for me.

The truth is, once our brain creates a story it will (through confirmation bias mainly) gather all the facts it needs to make that story true. It won’t discard others, but it’ll notice them less, focus on them less, it won’t store them nearly as readily.

That means that while we’re busy telling ourselves “He doesn’t care about this meeting.” The truth might be “He always has a meeting on the other side of the building before this one.”

What I’m saying is: if unchecked, your brain will pick one story and it’ll hold on to it for dear life, discarding the other infinite possibilities to the wayside, and proving to you how true the chosen story is.

There are stories we tell ourselves and quickly forget, but there are also stories we carry with us our entire lives, unchecked, hoarding decades worth of self-confirming data.

The trick then is to recognize the stories we tell ourselves and to learn to present them for confirmation. Instead of assuming “He doesn’t care about this meeting” and letting that paint our behavior, we can say “this is the third time you were late to this meeting, this makes me think you don’t care about this project, is that true or is something else going on?”

Notice, this is different from saying “you don’t care about this meeting.” That is accusing someone with no room for them to respond and no explanation of your assumption.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect, and people are complicated. I can’t promise that someone will respond with kind understanding when you explain your story. I can’t promise that people won’t get defensive. But that’s a whole other part of the training.

I highly recommend this training or reading the Difficult Conversations book.

Fearless Friday: Love

When I was in college, I had a crush on a friend of mine. (OK this happened several times in college, but whatever). When he told me it wasn’t gonna happen (again, several times, I’m really painting myself as a winner), a good friend told me that the easiest way to get over someone was to focus on all their annoying behaviors.

This worked like a charm.

Since Peter and I broke up, I’ve tried to do the same with him a few times.

This did not work like a charm.

Though this seems obvious now, there is a big difference between getting over a crush and getting over a partner.

This did not seem obvious then.

On days that I found myself doting on him, I tried to focus on all the things about Peter that annoyed me. I was left confused about why I ever “settled” for someone that had these qualities.

Then, to make sense of it all, I would overcompensate, focusing on all of his wonderful traits, the best of times, and be left wondering how I ever left someone that was so amazing.

You can see where none of this was productive.

A few weeks ago, I finally realized something big. Peter is both all those wonderful amazing things and those kind of annoying characteristics. And it’s not that I sat there when we started dating, creating a list of pros and cons, doing some weird math, and deciding that I could “settle” because the good outweighed the bad. And it’s not that I sat there when we broke up doing a similar thing and coming up with the opposite conclusion.

I just went with what I felt.

I fell in love with Peter, and that included both his amazing qualities and his not so great ones. And it dawned on me that the same was true in reverse. He fell in love with all of me, not just my great qualities.

Again, this seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t to me until a few weeks ago.

I was so sure he was putting up with the bad in me, I can’t tell you how many times I apologized to him for some of my behaviors (I’m so tempted to apologize for apologizing, but I won’t, I promise)! I’m realizing now that, just as he always said, there was nothing to apologize for. He loved me for all of me, for the good AND the bad. Not for the good despite the bad. Not for the bad thanks to the good. He loved the whole package.

So there was no “settling” (I really hate this word), there was just love.

Beautiful Words, pt. 8

This week’s quote is from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already know how I feel about this book. I loved it. I read it for my book club last month and was floored by my reactions to it. When discussing the book, at times I felt belittled. Some people talked about how cliché it was (true). There was a fascinating discussion about the representation of Mexican Americans in the book.

What all of this made me realize is what it was precisely about the book that I loved. It was the Aristotle’s observations about his and Dante’s families. It was the first time someone described a family, and I felt I could really truly relate.

Anyway, my favorite quote is about Dante’s father:

“Mr. Quintana was brave. He didn’t care if the whole world knew he was kind.”

I have played with the concept of bravery a lot this year, and I’m constantly reminded that bravery and courage doesn’t always mean things like jumping out of planes or going into war. They are, more often, little things like saying I love you first or telling a friend when you are upset.

As Brene Brown says in I Thought it Was Just Me:

“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.”

So remember, courage can be a big act, and it can also be a decision to remain soft and kind.