Maybe it’s nasty words that come out, but later you regret saying them. Perhaps you get physical when you’re feeling threatened, but you know you shouldn’t. Discovering “the story I’m telling myself” made a big difference in my work to stop violent and abusive behavior. If you’re working to stop hurting your partner, I think it will help you, too.

Discovering “the story I’m telling myself” can helps us to stop violent and abusive behavior.

People told me, “Just don’t say or do those things,” but that wasn’t helpful advice. I’d get upset and be flooded by my emotions; then those words or actions would boil out. Trying to change my behavior didn’t work. I needed to get to the source of what was causing my behavior.

The root of the problem

What did help was learning about this connection: thoughts create emotions, which drive actions. In order to stop bad reactions, I had to identify the thoughts that were going on in my mind. By changing my thoughts, I could change the emotion, and therefore, alter the reaction.

This concept was confusing to me at first. I wasn’t even aware that I was thinking anything, so the notion of changing my thoughts didn’t seem very helpful. The time between stimulus and reaction can be very quick, so often we’re not aware of how this happens. Replaying the incident in slow motion and asking, “What’s the story I’m telling myself?” gave me a lot of insight.

Slowing things down

Here’s what happens in our mind when we get upset. First the event occurs—someone says or does something. Our senses see or hear what they did or said and send a message to our brain. All of this is pretty factual and nothing that we can change.

Then (and this is the critical part), our brain interprets what we just saw or heard: it tells a story. If that story somehow threatens our sense of wellbeing, it creates very powerful emotions. These negative emotions generate a strong urge to change the situation and to stop whatever is causing that feeling.

By changing the story we tell ourselves, we change the emotion it creates.

Note, we react to the story as if it is real. But if the narrative our mind creates is not real, we’re likely to over-react. By changing the story we tell ourselves, we change the emotion it creates, and reduce the pressure we feel to stop the emotional flood.

Examples of the story I’m telling myself

Let me give you some examples. Last year when the weather started to warm and I turned on the air conditioner, it didn’t cool the house down. When the serviceman told me the problem was the dust buildup on the cooler fins, I got angry. Why? The story I was telling myself is that I was stupid for not knowing that I should clean them.

Here’s another one: a while back I called a friend to catch up, but I got his voicemail. When he didn’t call back, I told myself the story that he didn’t care about our friendship or me. I was pissed and almost called him up to tell him off.

Then there was the time when I was supposed to pick up my (now ex) wife after work, but she was late. When she did come out of the building, she was talking and laughing with a male co-worker. The story I told myself was that she was attracted to him and may be having an affair.

Letting the story I’m telling myself run wild is not good for my relationships or me. At the very least, I make myself miserable by berating myself for mistakes. Or, I take these uncomfortable feelings out on the people around me, which hurts those relationships. I don’t want to be the person who needlessly blasts the A/C serviceman, ruins a friendship, or damages my marriage because of my baseless imagination.

Problematic distortions

When these are someone else’s examples, it is easier to see the distorted thinking. I was not stupid for not cleaning my air conditioner fins, I just didn’t know this was something I was supposed to do. My friend had a project deadline that prevented him from calling me back; then he forgot. My ex-wife was tied up in a meeting and just happened to leave work at the same time as her co-worker. There was no hanky-panky going on.

The most problematic stories are founded in fear.

Notice that the most problematic “the story I’m telling myself” stories are founded in fear. We imagine the situation indicates something bad about us, and then we react as if we have to prove that it’s not true. Our worst fears are typically related to doubts about our value or lovability. Here are some common ones:

  • I’m a failure
  • I’m stupid
  • I’m incompetent
  • I don’t measure up
  • I’m not worthy of respect
  • I’m not important
  • I’m not likable
  • I’m not lovable

How to stop telling the crazy story

How do you stop telling yourself the crazy story, and instead respond to reality? The first step is to recognize it when it happens. Pay attention to how you feel or what you do when you get upset. Use that as a signal to get curious.

Use getting upset as a signal to get curious.

Once you realize you’ve been triggered, ask yourself, “What’s the story I’m telling myself?” It may take some time and thought to figure it out. Keep digging until you discover a story that explains your powerful emotions.

Now that you’ve identified the story, see if you can challenge it. Is your story the only possible story that you can create from what just happened? Knowing how I typically make up stories that are the worst-case scenario causes me to be skeptical about the story I’m telling myself. Often at this stage I see how absurd it really is.

If you can’t think of an alternative story, and if it’s possible, approach the other person to get clarity. Say, “Here’s the story I’m telling myself. Can you help me sort out what’s true?” This is a soft, non-threatening way to ask without making the other person defensive.

For more about this concept, check out this Oprah interview with Brene’ Brown.

Faith note

Challenging the story I’m telling myself is not about a bunch of positive self-talk. If the substitute story is not believable, we’ll subconsciously go back to the original, scary story. Our replacement story has to be rooted in something, which is why clarifying what happened with another person helps.

Our self-made stories that cast doubts about our value or lovability, however, are difficult to refute. There are no facts to check or ready-made scores of our worth and likability to measure. This is where a relationship with God makes a huge difference.

First, know that God loves you, and He created you because of this love. If an all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe loves you, then you are loveable. People and partner’s love can be fickle, but God’s love for you never waivers.

Second, know that he values you. One way to determine value is to measure how much someone is willing to give up to get that item. Well, God sent his son to die, just so he could have a relationship with you. That’s how much he values you!

You can trust these are true, but don’t just take my word for it. Check these claims out for yourself by exploring God’s promises and what it means to have a relationship with him. It will radically change the story you’re telling yourself.

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