Last week, I introduced you to The Stories We Tell Ourselves and eight ways to help curb anxiety. In that blog, I asked if "any of your relationships suffer from false assumptions and unnecessary guessing games." It's my belief, which has been solidified through 15 years of my work as a therapist and counselor, that we bring stress upon ourselves and invite anxiety into our relationships when we begin talking to someone who doesn't exist.
What do I mean by that?
Talking to an Invisible Person
Imagine yourself in the following example. The details may be different for your personal story, but I'm willing to bet you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Steve and Lauren have been married for a few decades. Their only child Emma is in high school. For the most part, theirs is a functional family, yet Lauren has noticed that Steve's been spending more time at the office than normal. When Lauren's well-meaning friend Jamie begins to wonder out loud to Lauren as to whether or not Steve's really been working late, Lauren's mind shifts into overdrive.
Every Lifetime movie she's ever seen floods her mind.
Every negative story her divorced mom has ever told her about her dad fills her thoughts.
Every vague response from her husband over the last few months resounds in her ears.
Consequently, when Steve comes home that night -- late, of course -- Lauren's silent stares cause Steve to ask, "What's wrong?"
She replies, "You're having an affair, aren't you?"
Steve feels like he's just received an unexpected uppercut. He's so dizzied by her accusation that he doesn't know what to say.
"I knew it!" Lauren shouts, before angrily walking away and slamming the bedroom door behind her.
Steve, weary from a long day at work, wonders what in the world just happened.
Imagination is a Compelling Author
In this example, Lauren was accusing someone who didn't exist. She had allowed the stories she told herself to construct a fictional Steve in her mind, someone who was a cheat and a liar, despite what she knew about him as a whole prior to her conversation with Jamie. Because of the many cheating-spouse narratives that had filtered into her life -- from movies, culture, and friends and family -- it didn't take much encouragement for her to jump to a wild and unfounded conclusion about her husband. Because of the simple yet vague fact that Steve had been working long hours, Lauren allowed her mind to run wild in order to fill in the gaps of her scant information.
In my new book The Stories We Tell Ourselves, I explain why we tend to do this far too often: Anxiety and ignorance is a vacuum, and our imagination rushes in to fill it. We construct explanations. And, because it's part of human nature to organize information into narratives, our imagination writes these stories, oftentimes without our notice. Stories are powerful organizing principles in the human mind. Generally, we don't think in terms of logical or scientific propositions. More often, we squeeze our facts and guesses into a narrative rather than constructing the story around actual data. We recognize when others cram facts into their stories, but seldom do we catch ourselves in the same act.
Our imagination is so quick to tell us these stories that they happen in real time. Consequently, we talk past each other. We don't really listen to each other, we don't really understand each other, and we don't react to the actual situation at hand. Our responses are not always appropriate. We miss opportunities for engagement and growth, and we fail to solve the actual problems in front of us because we're working on imaginary problems from our inner script.
When we talk to someone who doesn't exist, we alienate the person right in front of us. The relationship suffers, and our anxiety about that relationship increases, especially when we're not even aware of the stories we're telling ourselves about that other person.
So what's the answer? How can we become more aware of when we're telling ourselves these fantastical stories that have little to do with reality? How can we learn to quell our fears and assumptions so that we know we're talking to someone who actually exists?
Next week, I'll share three ways we can gauge our own stories so that we can tell when we may be lying to ourselves.