The other day, while taking a walk in the park, I started thinking about a sometimes contentious issue between my husband and me. I thought about it, and then I started having an imaginary conversation about it with him. I supplied both sides of the conversation, of course. And — the nerve of imaginary him! — every one of my imaginary husband’s responses was all wrong. He really pissed me off!
That’s what therapist R. Scott Gornto means by the title of his book, The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
Many of us have a not-useful tendency to live in a world of our own invention, populated with invented versions of the real people in our lives. We invent scenarios with those imaginary versions of people. And then, back in the real world, we operate as if our stories are reality.
As Gornto writes, “We script movies for other people, then we’re shocked when they don’t read the right lines or act the way we imagined.”
In addition, when we make up stories, we often enter real conversations with real people pre-worked up: already angry or anxious about what we imagined them saying or doing before we’ve heard what they really have to say.
And we don’t do this kind of thing only in personal relationships. The illustration on the cover of the book, of a post-note with the words “Call me asap” written on it, will probably trigger anxiety for many people who have worked in an office. How often do we imagine those words portending praise, a raise, or a promotion? Not much of the time. I see a note like that and immediately start hyperventilating, imagining all the ways I probably screwed something up.
Gornto has seen people indulging in this kind of storytelling again and again in his therapy practice.
“When their relationships were on shaky ground — whether it was their marriage, dating lives, parenting, friendships, or business relationships — the stories they told about other people increased their own anxiety and severely lessened their chances at truly connecting with that person,” he writes. “Before assessing the situation, they had already determined how to approach that person based on the stories they had made up, rather than based on reality.”
We make up a story, we develop an opinion about the other person, the opinion calcifies into a belief, and we act accordingly. Clearly not a formula for stress-free relationships.
Gornto’s solution, which he calls the “Auxano Approach” (auxano means growth), is a sort of mash-up of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy, with the goal of getting so adept at the approach, we can use even in the midst of an uncomfortable discussion or event.
The mindfulness includes noticing when you’re drifting into a story, then bringing yourself back to the here and now with external awareness. Gornto encourages us to look around, plant our feet on the ground, and put our mind where our body is. “The body can only live in the present, but the mind has a tendency to live in the past, the present or the future,” he writes.
Once you’re externally aware, you can work on becoming internally aware of your thoughts and emotions, and then dealing with the matter at hand. Gornto offers a four-step, simple-but-not-easy process (which he modifies for business situations, where it’s best not to get too personal):
- Notice when you’re telling yourself a story. (It helps if you’ve also done the work to recognize where that story comes from — is it something you learned as a child?)
- Take the risk of telling the other person what the story is. (“When you don’t call, I start telling myself you’ve probably run off like my dad did.”)
- Explain the feelings the story churns up in you. (“And then I feel like abandoned and unlovable.”)
- Seek more information. (“So why didn’t you call to let me know you would be late?”) Let the other person speak and listen with full attention so you really hear what they are saying. Here, Gornto emphasizes the power of eye contact.
This process, he says, will not only help ease your own anxiety and keep any relationship on the right track, but the honestly and vulnerability it requires will also help deepen intimacy with loved ones.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves is written in an accessible, straightforward style with lots of specific suggestions and supporting case studies, such that even people who have never ventured into a therapist’s office or read any self-help should have no trouble grasping the concepts.
Considered in one light, what Gornto suggests is hardly groundbreaking: Don’t have relationships with imaginary people, don’t put words into other people’s mouths, know your own backstory and understand how it affects your present relationships, listen and pay attention to what the people are saying to you. Stripped to the basics concepts, this is nothing I didn’t already know.
However, I find the idea of storytelling useful. It’s a concrete image I can use to stop myself when I start careening off into my own invented world. It’s like a mental rubber band I can snap in my brain: “You’re telling yourself a story.”
Which is what I did during my walk the other day. Stopped that imaginary conversation cold.
Then I thought about how my husband, who tends to be a worrier, might also find this book useful — and perhaps I should suggest he read it. But I can just imagine what he would say about that. Or can I?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Stop Jumping to Conclusions. Free Yourself from Anxiety. Transform Your Relationships
Auxano Publishing, October 2014
Paperback, 304 pages