There are some smart people who have this interesting idea about humans and how they think. Here is the idea: we tend to see the world through the stories we tell ourselves about the world. We are story-tellers, and the stories we tell ourselves – about our experience, about what works and doesn’t work, about what’s real and isn’t real, and (maybe most important of all) what is and isn’t dangerous – those stories are the center of our thinking.

That’s a pretty interesting idea. It has a LOT of relevance in our work to changing our anxious thinking from crisis to problem in orientation. Today’s post is about identifying the kinds of stories we anxiety fighters tell ourselves, and what we can do to start and change those stories – take charge of that aspect of our thinking.

It’s the Story, Most of the Time

Story 2

We experience a LOT of stuff every day. We hear conversations, we practice behaviors, we have ups and downs, we experience a range of emotions, we take in information – it staggers the mind how much happens to us in a single day.

Here’s the thing: we don’t consciously remember all of that. A lot of it washes away not long after it happens, at least to our thinking. But some of it sticks – and becomes part of the story we tell ourselves about our lives and what is happening to us.

It’s kinda like playing the game Telephone. Remember Telephone? You sit in a circle of people and one of you whispers a quick story to a neighbor. They whisper that story to the next person, and it goes around the circle until the last person says what they heard out loud. It’s amazing (and often disturbing!) how much of the story changes or gets lost as it goes around the circle…

WHY does some of the story stick, some of the story change and some of the story get lost? Several reasons. One reason is that we don’t tend to remember things that don’t make sense to us. We often simply discard them in our thinking or conversation. Another reason is that we focus on the stuff that interests us or makes sense to us. Still another reason is that we decide what’s MOST important in any situation or story – and assign those important things priority status in our thinking.

Make sense? We are constantly editing and revising the information and experiences we take in as we go through our day. WAIT A MINUTE! This is GIANT. What this implies is that it isn’t nearly so much WHAT happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us…

Better read that last line again, and let it sink in: this self-story telling, this deciding what to focus on and what it is important, implies that it isn’t nearly so much what happens to us as what we THINK about what happens to us.

Story 1

We’re playing Telephone with ourselves as well. Yikes! That has some pretty big implications for what our thinking can DO to us.

Let’s Try an Example –

I was in a meeting with a business client a couple of months ago. We were talking about a project I was assisting with, and suddenly I could see this client’s face cloud up – she got angry. It was very clear to me. She stopped listening to what I was saying and began furiously typing on her smartphone. Everything had been fine, and now suddenly she was obviously pissed off…

I stopped talking and waited for her to finish her phone typing. She suddenly looked up and said curtly “I’m going to have to pause this meeting. Please wait here.” She got up and left the conference room we were in. I sat wondering what the heck had happened. I reviewed the conversation we’d been happening, looking for a clue as to why she might have become upset.

I decided, based on my experience with her and my own assumptions, that she didn’t like the direction the project would go with my current recommendations, and she was deciding to find someone else to do the work. Then I started getting upset. Why the hell did this person hire me if they couldn’t calmly listen to my suggestions for action? I started assuming that this work would come to an end pretty quickly, and worked to reassure myself that I had other clients and that things would be fine –

But of course I was now engaging Flight or Fight. I sat there, thinking about ways to graciously end the meeting when I could, when she walked back in. “My apologies Erik” she started, looking a little embarrassed. “Our conversation reminded me that I had asked for some information from one of my staff two weeks ago, and I was already irritated with that person for dragging their feet on some other work. I got worked up and realized I had to deal with the situation immediately. I’m sorry we had to stop. Where were we?”

I was caught completely off guard, and had to laugh. I had been playing telephone with myself in a very real way. I took some of the information I had from the interaction (her facial expressions, the way she abruptly paused our conversation, where we were in the conversation) and then interpreted that information in my own thinking, based on my assumptions about the situation.

STory 3

I WAS WRONG. I was telling myself the wrong story – but reacting to it just as if it was the truth. Let’s go back to Telephone. I didn’t understand why she was reacting the way she did, when she did, in our conversation. That didn’t make sense to me, so I started looking for an explanation. I found one based on my assumptions – what DID make sense to me. Some of that triggered some concerns about work and doing a good job, so I riffed off that thinking and built a story around what was happening…

That’s Quite a Story you have there…

Now take my experience and suppose I had started reacting before she had explained what had happened from her side? Suppose she had just come back and said “let’s keep going.” Now I’m worried, I’m a little cheesed off and I’m already planning how to wrap this work up… all based on my inaccurate story of the situation.

So how does all of this relate to anxiety? Well, we’re telling ourselves some pretty intense and powerful stories in our anxious thinking, yes?

Like, for instance, what a particular Flight or Fight sensation or feeling might mean, based on our experience (and our existing story) with that sensation or feeling. Most of us began to experience Flight or Fight (consciously) at the same time we started having panic attacks or some sort of severe anxiety response. We didn’t understanding what was happening, so we started crafting a story (again, unconsciously) about what was happening and what it meant.

When I first had vertigo/dizziness in the middle of my first panic attacks back in Junior High School I had no freakin’ idea what was happening. All I knew was a) I was scared stiff and b) I was having these scary sensations happen in my body. I developed two stories around this set of experiences: one story was that someday it would start and never, EVER stop – and that would be unendurable – and one story was that it indicated that I was going or would go insane, and THAT would be terrible beyond description.

Hey, I didn’t know the story, yes? So I “made up” a story. That’s what humans do – we try to make sense of the world, and we do that with greater or lesser success depending on what we know. I used those stories to scare myself for decades. I told those stories over and over to myself, feeding the anxiety in my thinking and body.

STory 4

Then, when someone (a therapist, a semi-organized toolkit for trying to address anxiety) suggested that my stories were wrong, well, that shook me up. I had been telling those stories for a LONG time – how could they NOT be true? They FELT so true, so accurate – I couldn’t be wrong, could I?

We Have to Start Questioning our Stories

Here’s the really big news in this blog post: we have the power to begin to write new stories for ourselves. I’m going to talk more about that in the next blog post, but in the meantime let me reference the post before this one – we have habits of thought, and those habits can be changed.

That’s a big aspect of the stories we tell ourselves. We don’t usually realize how deep and how steady our stories about our life are – and yet we keep telling the same story to ourselves, over and over again. Then we make ourselves crazy because our lives seem so terrible, or some things seem so hard, or we get so frustrated with how we act and react.

Take heart. We do not have to be the prisoners of our stories – about ANYTHING. It is possible to change our thinking, change the stories we tell ourselves. I know this from my own experience. My terrible stories about what being dizzy and being physically numb when I was anxious were just that – stories. I didn’t have to keep experiencing those sensations, and I wasn’t going to go crazy.

It was very, very hard to see that when I was in the middle of anxiety. But hard wasn’t impossible. Hard was learning to change the story, create new thinking habits. Hard – but I did it. And you can too.

Beliefs 4