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Stuck in the Story

Sometimes we are just going about our day, minding our own business when out of the blue we are “acted upon by an outside force.” A car cuts in front of us, we get bad news at work (or, more likely, vague news that we don’t know what to do with), Our spouse turns up the TV when we ask for help.

And now we are feeling something.

When emotions wake up, they first try to figure out what woke them and then look for fuel to get bigger. Luckily for them, the brain is there to fill them in. Less luckily for us is brains really like to make stuff up.

So our brain tells a story. When we decide it’s a true story we feed the emotion. The emotion gets bigger and wants a more involved story. The brain is happy to provide. And then we are off to the races. For even more “fun” a group of people can do this together and their brains can be “inspired” by the stories around them to “improve” their own. The stories and emotions get bigger and bigger until it’s a nearly unstoppable force.

But what if you don’t want that? What if at the very least you want to chose the stories you live in instead of just having to settle for whatever you brain randomly picks?

The good news is that’s possible. The bad news is it’s kind of a PITA.

Step 1: Know the dynamic exists

The only way to break the spell of a story is to question it, and you can’t do that if you don’t know you are under one, or worse, don’t know that spells exist.

Step 2: Get good at noticing and naming your emotions

The emotion wakes up before the story starts. Once you are in the story it’s harder to get out, but it takes a little bit of time for the story to come together and in the beginning you can see the plot holes if you look for them. Meditation is HUGELY helpful for this. It helps create space in your mind to maneuver between individual thoughts and feelings. As long as they are all knotted together it’s hard to even notice you are having an emotional reaction until it’s deeply embedded in the story.

Step 3: Don’t believe everything you think

It’s remarkably difficult for our bodies to tell the difference between things that are really happening to us and things that are happening in stories we are consuming. If you’ve ever cried during a movie, or woken up ready to fight because of something a loved one did to you in a dream, you know what I mean. The stories we tell ourselves to feed our emotions are similar.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Daydreaming about the great stuff you are going to do on your vacation (when we eventually get to go on vacations again) is the kind of story we tell ourselves for fun. These are harmless, even good for us.

Where it gets to be a problem is when we can’t differentiate between the story we are telling and what is really happening. Meditation helps here too. Another word for stories is “thoughts” and they come and go in the brain all day long. They aren’t good or bad or even really true or false on their own. They just are. So long as you don’t choose to trap a thought and ruminate on it you can observe it from the outside watch it rise and dissipate all by itself.

Warning: Catch it early

If you don’t catch the emotion and story right at the beginning they bond together and feed off each other. This makes the spell harder to break. The emotion happens in our body so the stronger it is the more real the situation seems because we can quite physically feel the effects. Because it feels more real, we are less likely to question the story so the story can grow. Once emotions are high the story doesn’t have to stay especially believable because the feelings will keep you from examining the details. The exaggerated details will feed the story and before you know it, you are yelling at your spouse about how they have never loved you because they left a fork in the sink.

So am I just stuck here forever?

Nope! Not if you know how to break the spell. Much like in fairy tales, if you know something’s name you can control it. This is 100% true of emotions.

Sometimes just naming the emotion is enough.

“Wow, I’m feeling defensive”

You’ll know that’s all you needed if the feeling deflates, and you start to feel more clear headed. It’s also possible that situation will go more like:

“Wow, I’m feeling defensive”

“Of course you are! We are under attack!!!!!”

In that case, the next step is to tell the story out loud Here’s the format I use:

I’m feeling {insert feeling}. The story I’m telling myself about that is {Insert story}.

Again, sometimes just saying it out loud is enough to realize it doesn’t hold up. The other benefit to saying it out loud is that you can get more clarification from the people around you. So when you say:

“I’m feeling defensive. The story I’m telling myself is that you are blaming me for 2nd quarter earnings being down.”

Your coworker has the chance to say:

“Oh that’s not what I meant at all! I just wanted to make sure you knew and to see if you had any ideas for what we could do in Q3 to make up for it. You always think so clearly about that”

This often, but not always, takes care of the problem.

The longer you have believed a particular story, the harder the spell is to break. If the people around you are in the same story, or if your story triggers their stories they might not be able to help. In those cases I highly recommend using a tool called The Work developed by Byron Katie.

Uh, this seems like a lot of effort

It is. In fact when I’m tired one of my favorite stories is about how unfair it is that I have to bend over backwards to discover that other people aren’t actually the problem. I have to fix my thinking and tend to my emotions. I have to meditate and be kind to myself and keep trying even when I fall down, while everyone else just gets to bitch about how unfair everything is and how much other people suck.

The flip side is when you start to look at how much of your experience you create and how much is a direct result of what happens to you, you start to see that while you have basically no control over what others do, you have total control over how you react to it and how it impacts your life.

Most days the extra work is totally worth it.

featured image credit: Comfreak from Pixabay

Categories: leadership work

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Maureen Carruthers

Smart. Kind. Funny. At least that's the goal. I care about encouraging girls to consider STEM careers, helping nonprofits be the best they can be, cats, and German-style boardgames.

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