12/10/2014 11:21 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

3 Ways to Stop the Fictional Stories We Tell Ourselves

In my previous article, I discussed talking to people who don't exist. If you haven't read that article, I recommend you do so before reading this one. At the end, I promised to share three ways we can gauge our own stories so that we can live in what is true, rather than what is fantasy.

Because I like to use visuals to help my clients better imagine the strategies I provide to them, I suggest that they envision three "dials" on the dashboard of their minds. By becoming aware of these dials and knowing when they may start to go into the red zone, a person can learn -- over time and with practice -- when they may be making up stories about the other people in his or her life.

1. The Anxiety Gauge
Some people are all too familiar with the ways anxiety makes them feel. Others may only feel low-level anxiety from time to time, and may consequently have a more difficult time knowing whether they're feeling anxious about a particular situation or relationship. But it's helpful for both types of people to learn their particular signs of increasing anxiety. This won't be the same for all people, though similar signs may make themselves known. For instance, anxiety can be revealed by:

•An increased heart rate
•Nervous body movement, like a twitching leg
•A tightness of the chest
•A notable increase or decrease in talking

The most important thing here is knowing which sign or signs you exhibit when your anxiety rises. In other words, you need to learn to check your "anxiety gauge" and discover how your mind and body are telling you when your gauge is in the red. When anxiety increases, we should be on alert that our imagination may kick in as well. The more we can bring our anxiety level down, the less likely it is that we'll make up stories about other people.

2. The Fact Gauge
We tend to make up stories about other people because our minds often can't help but fill in the blanks, especially when presented with a troubling or anxiety-inducing situation. Because we don't feel as if we have a firm handle on what's happening, or because we feel like we have little to no control over a particular relationship, we tell ourselves stories to fill in the gaps of our limited knowledge. More often than not, there's a wide gap between what we know and what we think we know. Plus, the longer we tell ourselves fabrications about a person or situation, the more strongly we begin to believe ourselves. This is dangerous and is sure to lead to further relational conflict and/or increased stress.

The "fact gauge" may be the most difficult one to assess because we are master storytellers to ourselves. We tend to believe our own stories far too often, and those false stories can negatively affect our lives and relationships. To keep the fact gauge in check, we need to learn how to differentiate what we know from what we think we know. When your knowledge of actual facts drops below fifty percent, you should hear warning signs that your mind has entered the speculation zone.

3. The Presence Gauge
When someone else is talking to you, where's your mind? Are you thinking about tomorrow, or about your response, or about how that person who wronged you recently? We're all guilty of this -- of not offering our full presence to another person -- and especially if that other person causes us to feel anxiety. We do this because we want a more compelling story than what they're telling us. We want to live in the fantasy world of our minds rather than in the reality presented to us. But by not being fully present, we limit our ability to truly know the facts about a situation or person.

To check your presence gauge, consider these questions:

•Are you making persistent eye contact?
•Are you focused on what the other person is saying?
•Do you automatically jump to conclusions before hearing their story?
•Are you aware of the space around you, the time, other people, or further details surrounding the conversation?

By ensuring that your presence gauge stays in the green, you give yourself the best opportunity to truly engage with reality instead of with the fantasy in your mind.

By offering your presence, you increase your odds of learning the facts, thereby lessening your need to make up stories, and likely decreasing your anxiety level. The gauges can work in tandem, but it takes intentional practice to learn how to read and adapt to your particular levels.

Which of these gauges do you think you may need to pay more attention to?