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Story Time

Seeing Things Differently

Creative Commons LicensePhoto credit: Sugar Pond

Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.

— Ernest Hemingway

I love stories.

I’ve been making my way, very slowly, through Michael Yapko’s Hand-Me-Down Blues.  As with most good books on a specific topic, Yapko uses stories to illustrate his points.  The minute he starts telling about a person or a family, I’m hooked.  The thing is that these stories are carefully crafted to illustrate particular points and the people in them don’t actually exist.  And still, I get hooked.

We all tell stories that explain what’s gone on in the past or what’s going on in the present.  The thing that Yapko is emphasizing is they’re just stories.  They may or may not have any relation to the truth.  It’s not that our facts are wrong – though they may be.  It’s our explanations that may or may not be true.

Multiplying the Power of Optimism and Pessimism

This is what makes optimism so powerful.  We believe our stories.  If we tend to build positive, optimistic stories about what is happening around us, then we see positive, optimistic things going on.  If we build negative and pessimistic stories, then we see negative, pessimistic things going on.  Whether we are looking forward or backward, our viewpoint colors everything we think about.

The best example I can think of is what’s been going on with me for the last six months or so.  To me, the strangest thing about my outlook was that when things started to get better, I started getting more and more pessimistic.  No matter what caused it, I couldn’t convince my mood that things were better.  I’d worked so hard to keep a positive attitude to get through the really tough times that when times weren’t so tough, I couldn’t figure out why I was so depressed.

Despite the objective facts being better, I viewed them from a place of feeling worse.  And to make it worse, I knew that things were objectively better.  I just felt like crud.

When I’m feeling low, I see all the mistakes I make.  I think I deserve to be suffering because I’m such a flawed person.  It seems as if it’s all my own fault.  If I’d just listened to my mother, I would never have ended up in such a mess… and on and on. (See, your mother never does leave you.  She talks to you even after she’s gone – at least my mother does.)

Many days I felt as if things would never get better.  And then, after wresting with my demons for months, the darkness abated some.  I still have bad days.  Some days I wake up discouraged – for no good reason.  But, it is undeniably better.  Nothing in particular happened.  And, as if I’d been really sick, I have to baby myself somewhat so that I don’t sink into the mire again.  But, it’s definitely better.

The thing is, without the objective facts changing, my explanatory style has changed.  I still say that I hate my least favorite bank (the one that accidentally sold my father’s house over a year ago and still can’t figure out how to fix the paperwork) – but there’s no real emotion there.  It’s just an ongoing attitude of disbelief that any company could be that incompetent and still be in business.

Choose the Right Story to Feel Better

It is the way we explain our world, the stories that we tell ourselves, that determines how we feel.  In his book, Michael Yapko tells us that ambiguity is the pessimistic person’s biggest challenge.  We all face situations for which we don’t know the “whys” of what has happened.  When we create stories that leave us feeling powerless, we can sink into feeling helplessness.  And helplessness is a major contributor to feeling depressed.

When I first started my new job, one of the men who worked there took me aside and warned me that my personal style was similar to a person who had been fired.  He told me that nobody liked her and that people were having a very negative reaction to me because I reminded them of her.  For weeks, I attributed every look with special meaning.  I walked on eggshells.  I got very quiet, for me.  And when I responded naturally, I’d regret it and try to hide for hours.  Over time, either people got to know me or there never had been a problem.  I’ll probably never know for sure.  I told myself stories that made me feel worse and I believed them.

As Jill Bolte Taylor wrote in My Stroke of Insight, we are story telling machines.  Our brains are constructed to explain what’s happening to us.  And it does, constantly.  The problem is that sometimes it hasn’t a clue what’s really going on.  But it’s our closest source of information – and we tend to believe what it says.  After all, it’s been talking to us for years!

What should we do?  We should remember that just because we think or feel it, that doesn’t make it so.  Our feelings are not reality.  Our thoughts are not reality.  Which means we can fight for the reality we want.  We can wrestle our demons and we can put some of them back in their boxes.  We probably won’t get them all packed away – but getting rid of one or two can be a tremendous help.  And then, we can see things differently and maybe a little bit better.

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Cup o’ Inspiration

cup with steam swirl

Take a short break and consider the following:

“I would not know how I am supposed to feel about many stories if not for the fact that the TV news personalities make sad faces for sad stories and happy faces for happy stories.”

Dave Barry

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