Tell me, has something like this ever happened to you?
It was 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning. I walked into the office as normal, greeting people as I passed by. When I approached one co-worker’s desk, I said, “Good morning!”. Normally, she returns the greeting with a smile or a wave, but this day was different. Her eyes were glued to her computer screen and her expression was stoney. Without looking up, she returned my greeting with a simple “hi” in an uninterested tone. I continued past her as if everything was normal, but it wasn’t. Why didn’t she seem more upbeat? Was it something I said or did? Was it something I didn’t say or forgot to do? Is she mad at me? I must’ve done something wrong.
There were a million possible reasons for her reaction. Maybe she was having an off-day. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well, didn’t have a good night’s rest or was dealing with something in her personal life. Maybe it had nothing to do with her mood or outlook at all. Maybe she was reading a really complicated or confusing email, or had a pile of work dumped on her lap with an impossible-to-meet deadline. Maybe she was in the middle of a task and didn’t want to get side-tracked. Maybe it was absolutely nothing and it was all in my head.
In that moment, it didn’t matter what the reason really was – in my head it was something I had done and now she was annoyed with me. I had taken a simple “hi” and twisted it into meaning so much more than it likely did. For the rest of the day, I tried to brush it off but I kept looking for signs to confirm or deny my theory that she hated me and I was the worst person ever. At the end of the day, there was no “goodnight” or “see you tomorrow” which lead my obsessive brain to run through every interaction we had had from the previous day over and over again all night long. The story I told myself was that there was something inherently wrong with me and that impacted the way my co-worker was acting.
It turns out the real reason for the brush off had nothing to do with me at all. Once I found out, I felt silly for thinking it could possibly be about me which then lead to destructive thoughts like, “How could you be so self-involved?” and “Not everything is about you, Kelsey!”. It was a vicious circle – the more I obsessed, the bigger the story got and the bigger the story got, the more I obsessed. My thoughts started spiraling into a pool of negativity.
Can you relate to this? I’m willing to bet you can – we, as women, are prone to reading into situations much more deeply. This is not to say that men don’t do this as well, but when I told my husband this, he couldn’t understand why I was blaming myself for someone else’s mood, reassuring me that it was all in my head. Logically, I knew that, but the question was, why was I doing it?
I knew I was a storyteller, but it wasn’t until I started paying attention that I realized I tell myself stories about situations that have a way of distorting my reality (and I’m willing to bet you do as well). Whether it was the situation with my co-worker, training for a triathlon, or working on this very blog post, my mind tells myself a story that has the power to derail everything. The stories we tell ourselves are often a result of not having all the facts upfront, so we let our minds fill in the blanks. We let the negative self-talk take over our minds and run the internal conversation.
Another example of this is the story that continues to run through my brain whenever I sit down to write a new blog post. I’ve been writing this blog for just over one year now and have found it to be an incredibly joyful experience, but it has also been really challenging. I am constantly having to battle the story in my mind that I’m not good enough. Especially when talking about such big topics like personal growth and mental health, I am constantly dealing with imposter syndrome: the idea that I am not qualified enough, smart enough or experienced enough to talk about such topics. I often worry that I don’t have anything of value to say or that my struggles don’t even come close to the struggles of others. No matter how harsh some critics can be, there will never be anyone harder on me than myself. And that really sucks. I can choose to stop listening or reading negative feedback from others, but I can’t escape my own inner dialogue.
There’s a famous quote from Joan Didion that says “We are the stories we tell ourselves”. If we distort the story in our minds, eventually we will start to believe it. If we are going to tell ourselves a story, it might as well be a good one! So, what can we do about it? I wish I had all the answers, but the truth is, I’m still learning. That voice in my head continues to twist the facts and distort the picture into something that may or may not be true. The good news: I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with this which means I have a few suggestions to offer on how to change the stories we tell ourselves.
Pay attention to these stories – but don’t dwell on them
Notice when your mind is going into that zone. What circumstances cause your mind to go to that place? Are you angry? Scared? Upset? Tired? Can you identify the trigger? And how do these stories make you feel? Paying attention to these stories helps you to become aware of them, but don’t obsess.
Focus on the facts
When you notice a story playing out in your mind, or you start to get drawn in, acknowledge it and try to let it go. Your brain wants to fill in the gaps to put a complete picture together, so help it fill it in with realinformation. Focus on the facts of the situation and ignore anything else that you might be inferring.
Mindfulness is a big part of working through these stories. When a story starts to pop up, bring yourself back to the present. Focus on your senses – the tangible things in your environment. I find counting my breathes to be one easy way for me to bring it all back to the present – Inhale – 1, Exhale – 2, Inhale – 3, Exhale – 4, and so on. Once I get to ten, I start all over again until I start to feel myself coming back to the present moment.
Flip the script
The next time you find yourself forming a negative story about yourself, turn it around and focus on the positive. When you find out you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for and start spiralling, stop and think of 5 things you are grateful for in that moment. Be as specific as you can. It’s difficult to be negative when you remind yourself of how much you have to be thankful for.
How do you deal with the stories you tell yourself? I’d love to hear your experiences and suggestions! Share them in the comments below.