In The Stories We Tell Ourselves, I argue that we’re all guilty of fabricating stories about the other people in our lives when we don’t have enough information about a given situation.
For example, how many different stories have you devised after receiving a short but vague text message? If your friend suddenly texted you, “Call me ASAP,” what would you automatically think? Devoid of context—which includes your friend’s perspective, thoughts, and emotions—your options are nearly limitless. In fact, I believe we’re so adept at telling ourselves stories about other people that we don’t even notice how often we do it.
So how can you become aware of when the false stories you tell yourself about others begin to invade, intrude, and interrupt your relationships?
For the past 15 years, as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), I’ve found it helpful to offer my clients particular visuals so they can better understand certain strategies for self-improvement. When it comes to assessing whether or not you’re effectively lying to yourself about the people in your life, consider these three gauges.
1. The Anxiety Gauge
If you are a frequent visitor to Pick The Brain, you may have noticed the countless articles about stress and anxiety. These dominating issues of our time occur for a host of reasons, but I’m convinced that a major determinant of anxiety is situational ignorance. When we don’t know enough about a situation and how it might affect our lives (whether for good or ill), our anxiety increases. Furthermore, the more important a relationship or possibility is to us, the higher our stress levels will climb when we have scant information.
When you begin to feel your anxiety increase (rapid breathing, faster heart rate, sweating, etc.), this should alert you that your imagination will be working in overdrive in order to fill in the gaps of your knowledge. You must become adept at reading your own anxiety gauge so you can know when you might be more prone to making up false stories about others.
2. The Fact Gauge
There’s a difference between what you think you know and what you actually know, and there’s a fine line between the two. We can tell ourselves false stories about other people for so long that we start to believe those stories as truth, then those stories begin to dictate how we interact with those people instead of naturally allowing the real person to dictate how the relationship works.
The fact gauge isn’t a thermometer. It’s a barometer that varies based on context, and you have to learn how to read your own fact gauge based on the context of the situation. Does your boss berate you too often, or is she under an immense amount of stress? Does your significant other want out of the relationship, or has he or she withdrawn from you for a different reason? You’ll approach your boss much differently than you will your significant other, and you’ll also have vastly different stories in your mind about those people in your life. That’s why the fact gauge is highly contextual.
Learning to read your own fact gauge means honestly answering this question: As far as I can know, do I really know the truth about this situation? If you feel as if your assured knowledge about the situation is less than 50 percent of what it could be, you’re more prone to wrong-headed speculation that will increase your anxiety and could place undue stress on that relationship.
3. The Presence Gauge
Certainly, all three of these “gauges” should be checked on a routine basis, but I’m a major proponent of the presence gauge. Simply put, when you’re talking with someone else, are you actually present? Do you listen without simultaneously thinking about your reply? Do you make eye contact? Does your mind try to automatically fill in the blanks of what they’re saying before they’ve had a chance to fully explain themselves?
When you fail to offer your presence to another person, your mind seeks to fill that void with a story that’s more compelling than the truth you’re being presented. When you learn how to become aware of your level of presence, you help to mitigate the number of stories you tell yourself about that person. You start to interact with the person in front of you and not the person you’re conjuring in your mind.
Learning the art of being present takes time, and that’s something I go into detail about in my book. For the time being, practice presence in your next conversation by being attentive, questioning, and clear-headed.
If you make consistent attempts to read and calibrate your anxiety, fact, and presence gauges, the number of false stories you tell yourself about other people will decrease, resulting in both a decrease in your own stress levels and an increase in the overall health of your relationships.
And who couldn’t benefit from that?