Is This Your Story?
You have a story – so do I.
I remember being disappointed over an incident with a friend and decided to talk with him about it. Before I got even two paragraphs out of my mouth, he jumped in telling me how he saw things from a different angle. Rather quickly I found myself frustrated and shutting down. It is often what I do at first when angry.
In my head I found myself thinking things like:
“Why did he interrupt me? He must be getting tired of me being negative in life at times. He just interrupted to stop me from whining. Maybe he is just getting tired of me, period. I’m a mess.”
That was the story in my head that day.
On another day it might have been something like:
“There he goes interrupting me again. He always does that. Sometimes he can be such a pain. What I think and feel doesn’t matter to him at all! He just wants to say what matters to him so he can get on with his day.”
Yes, I actually have thoughts like those that go through my head. Oh, not always–sometimes not at all, and sometimes even worse! My guess is you do too.
When there is conflict in a relationship, we develop a story in our head in an attempt to make sense out of what happened.
It is an effort on our parts, albeit often unconscious, to regain a sense of control in what otherwise feels like an unsafe moment.
We have all been hurt in relationships to one degree or another. We are well acquainted with the pain and wish to do all we can to avoid it in the future. Almost instinctively, we begin to think in a defensive manner, and the story in our head begins…
Sometimes the story takes on the form of self-abasement.
In this case, the story in our head is one in which we berate ourselves for what happened. As in my first example above, we are the one that caused the conflict. It is our fault. Blaming ourselves is often a form of self-protection. It gives us cause to back down or away from the other person–to keep from being hurt again.
We may apologize, even profusely. While this may feel and even look noble, it is rarely more than a means to stop the attacker and retreat into safety. This form of engagement will rarely if ever lead to a healthy resolve.
Other times the story involves blaming the other person for the conflict.
The story in our head, in this case, is that they are the cause of the problem. Our thinking revolves around everything the other person did wrong, why they did what they did, and how much we were hurt by their actions. How dare they do or say what they did? They obviously don’t care about anyone but themselves! When we take this response, we feel righteous and may even get others on our side. This too is a form of self-protection as it tends to cause the other to back down and away. Neither does this response lead to a healthy resolve.
If neither blaming oneself for a conflict nor blaming the other is helpful, then what is? And what do we do with the story in our head?
First, we must take note of the story’s existence, admitting to our self that it may or may not be true.
Author and researcher Brene Brown says it this way:
“When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
If we deny the existence of the story in our head, it will skew how we live and relate to those around us. I stood a good chance of viewing my friend inaccurately if I had not recognized I was telling myself a questionable story. I might have come to see him as someone who is no longer on my side–no longer my friend but an enemy.
Second, we must check out the truth of the story in our head. By doing so, we pave the way for making a new and better ending to the story.
After pausing to let our emotions dial down, we come to our friend and say: “Hey what took place a little bit ago was uncomfortable for me and probably you as well. I am not sure what happened, but there was a story that developed in my head to try to explain it. I don’t know if any or all of it is true. Can I tell you what went through my head and talk with you about it?”
Third, if your friend agrees to listen, tell the story that took place in your head.
State what you saw happen and how it affected you (the story in your head.) Take great care to respect your friend in what you say and how you say it. Be as calm as possible. Don’t berate yourself or blame the other. Ask if you can tell the story in your head. Then be sure to do so in a respectful manner. This is a helpful way to start discussions. You can do this in your marriage, friendship, or even with a co-worker when tension or conflict takes place. So in the case I am referring to, I might say to my friend:
“Ok, so I was telling you something I was frustrated about earlier, and before I got very far I was interrupted, and you began telling me your angle on what happened. That’s when I shut down. I started thinking maybe you are tired of me being negative in life at times and so you just interrupted to stop me from whining. I even thought maybe you are just getting tired of me, period. Is that what happened? Is that why you interrupted me?”
Fourthly, when it is your turn to listen in response, or if you are the listener to a story, here is what to do:
- Listen quietly and patiently. He or she is explaining what happened in their mind and soul – and it feels to them like they are taking a great risk in doing so.
- Do your best to not react defensively to the story. Remember the storyteller is simply telling the story to learn whether it is true or not. Ultimately the hope is to create or strengthen the connection in the relationship.
- Thank them for taking such a risk and telling their story.
- THEN you can begin to share if any of their story is correct or not and why. This is also when you might share the story you had created in your mind over the same incident.
Keep this in mind, respect is a value everyone desires, whether you are the one sharing your story, or the one listening. Choose your words carefully when speaking. Listen to fully understand. Relationships are far more important than who is right or wrong. This isn’t easy stuff, but it is well worth it.
One final note: I fully understand that not everyone you know will be willing to engage in healthy conversations as I suggest. This is unfortunate but true.
At the very least, learn to recognize the stories in your head, and do your best at determining their truth so they will not dictate how you live and love.
FOR NOW, consider this:
What is your typical style in handling conflict? Blaming yourself or pointing the finger at the other?
In either case, what one thing might you do differently this week that could make at least a 50% difference in the outcome?