3 stories we tell ourselves

Mar 19, 2021
Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

What happens in that imperceptibly fast moment between observation and emotional reaction? We tell ourselves a story. Here are the three most common ones.

In yesterday’s Daily Tip, we heard about Maria and Louis, who had prepared to give a presentation together, only to have Louis dominate the presentation in front of a group of male executives. Maria became upset, telling herself “He doesn’t trust my abilities. He thinks that because I’m a woman, the male executives won’t listen to me.”

It turned out that Louis didn’t think that and had taken over the presentation for a different reason entirely. He had been given last-minute information, didn’t have time to share it with Maria, and felt the need to steer the conversation in a different direction.

The point isn’t who is right or who is wrong. (This post is about how Maria can communicate in a way that gets her needs met.)

Maria had fallen hostage to a story that she told herself to explain what was happening. This story prevented her from observing the facts about Louis’s behavior and discussing her feelings and needs with him. She was under the false illusion that what she was feeling was the only right emotion for the circumstances.

As the authors of Crucial Conversations tell us, “feelings come from stories, and stories are our own invention.”

Stories allow us to feel good about getting terrible results

As humans, we are really good at coming up with explanations that serve us well. Sometimes our stories are accurate. Sometimes, they justify bad behavior, making us feel good about not having to change.

“Of course I yelled at him. Did you see what he did?”

“I had no choice.”

“That witch deserved it.”

The three most common stories we tell ourselves in that imperceptibly fast moment between observation and emotional reaction are victim, villain, and helpless stories.

Victim Stories

“It’s not my fault.”

We are just innocent sufferers, with no control over ourselves or our situation. The other person is bad, wrong, dumb, etc. We’re good, right, and brilliant.

A real innocent victim is someone who is held up at gunpoint. In conversations when you’re telling yourself the innocent victim story, you’re intentionally ignoring the role you played in the problem.

If your boss is a micromanager, and you’ve told everyone you know about it...except your boss....you’re playing the victim.

You can take this story a step further by blaming other people for not understanding.

“He just doesn’t appreciate my ideas!”

Congratulations, you’ve become the ultimate victim, a martyr. Bonus!

Villian stories

When we make mistakes, we tell victim stories. When someone else does things that hurt or inconvenience us, we tell villain stories.

“It’s all your fault!”

How often do we automatically assume the worst, while ignoring any possible good, turning normal, decent human beings into inconsiderate jerks, or worse?

Villain stories over-emphasize the other person’s guilt, stupidity, malice, etc.

“I can’t believe that bonehead gave me that crappy report.”

Villain stories reduce complex human beings with labels.

We can feel good about abusing a bonehead. Villian stories justify our bad behavior.

Helpless stories

“There’s nothing I could have done.”

To avoid the discomfort of difficult conversations, or our lack of communication skills, we often convince ourselves we are powerless to do anything healthy or helpful -- again justifying our own bad behavior or inability to do the right thing.

“If I didn’t yell at my son, he wouldn’t listen!”

“If I told my boss that he was a control freak, he’d get defensive. He doesn’t accept feedback, so I’m not going to say anything.”

Helpless stories often include our describing other people as fixed, unchangeable, or unaware.

Your choice

We all tell ourselves stories to match reality, get us off the hook, or keep us from acknowledging our own sellouts.

The authors of Crucial Conversations tell us that our stories offer nothing more than a “Fool’s Choice,” that our only options are to ruin the relationship or suffer in silence.

But, as human beings, we have agency. There is a way to recognize when we’re telling ourselves a story, break the Fools Choice, and focus on mutual objectives.

The next Daily Tip will look at rewriting our own stories.



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