Claire Linton, MA, LPC" />

Nobody Likes Me and other Stories We Tell Ourselves

Humans are meaning-making beings, and we are wired to tell stories. This is a beautiful thing in so many ways, and sometimes this is how we get stuck: we mistake our interpreted meaning or “story” for reality. It happens often in work, in relationships, and in day-to-day encounters. It is inevitable. The problem arises when we are unaware of the difference between our stories and reality itself. Our suffering is intensified, or sometimes even caused by our attachment to the stories we create. Seeing them for what they are–stories that may or may not be true–can be the beginning of our freedom.

Taking the L in Chicago, we may see a stranger sitting across from us who gives us a look. We then tell ourselves an interpretive story: They are angry; I must have done something to warrant their anger. Or: Ugh, what’s their problem? They have no right to judge me, I have just as much right to be here as they do. They sure are a stuck up good-for-nothing! Or, in our smartphone world, I may text a friend hoping for a prompt, heartfelt response, but days pass and … nothing. Thoughts begin to spiral: She must be upset at me. She’s probably mad that I missed her party and now is icing me out… Or, in the same situation I may get angry and look to blame her: She is a horrible friend, why do I keep investing my time and energy into this friendship when clearly she doesn’t give me the decency of a timely response. Another situation that many can relate to is the boss, friend, or significant other who says, “Can we talk?” Mind racing: What did I do? I am going to get fired/dumped! We frantically try to interpret the situation without vital information. If you find yourself relating to any of these scenarios, know: 1. You are not alone, and 2. You don’t have to stay stuck in the story spirals.

One of my mentors taught this technique to use on stories that we already know to not be true when they pop up or trigger us: simply acknowledge what the story is and then say “that’s a cute story [I’m telling myself]”. Story: Everyone hates me. Response: That’s a cute story. That interruption in our thinking can take it from feeling so big, heavy, and true, to feeling pocket-sized and maybe even a little funny. It brings distance between ourselves and our stories. It acknowledges that even though they feel true, they may not be true.

In ACT therapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), this is called cognitive fusion and defusion. When we fuse with our thoughts, they block our perception of true reality. When we recognize what our thoughts are–stories that may or may not be true–we are able to step back from them and defuse from them. We can mindfully notice them, holding them lightly and compassionately.

Byron Katie, in Loving What Is, gives four questions that we can ask ourselves when we are stuck judging ourselves, others, or simply stuck in layers of interpretive stories. Here are her questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would you be without the thought?

And then she turns around the statement, making it opposite in various ways to see if that new statement is as true or truer than the original (e.g. I am worthless turns into I am valuable and I’m angry that Sam doesn’t respect me turns into I’m angry that I don’t respect myself). With the turnarounds, it’s important to approach them with curiosity. We are asking ourselves honestly if and how the opposite statement might be true. There can be resistance here when we are fused and attached to our stories.

In the context of gentle curiosity, however, these questions can be an opening to release us from the grip our stories hold over us. We can try it out on thoughts like: I am a loser; I am going to fail my exam; My partner never listens to me; My dad was a horrible father; or I am the one who has to do this – no one else will step up. These are just some examples of stories that might go through our minds. And without pausing and inquiring, we may believe them as facts. With gentle inquiry, we are able to get free from the grip of the story and see reality for what it is.

The distance between something that happens and our interpretations of the situation can be vast. When we notice and acknowledge the stories we’re telling, we are free to live with clarity, acceptance, and action. We can spend our lives blindly fighting with our interpretations of reality, or we can be present and aware of what is and dance with it. Which do you choose?

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