I'm a great storyteller...but not in the best way, or even the way you would expect.
At any given time my mind is creating about 10 different alternate realities, complete with dialogue, real people (usually), some sort of plot, and a conclusion that I try my best to ignore because I have to take a second to remind myself that it's all fabricated.
My mind likes to torture me with worst-case scenarios on an endless basis, and it's been a hell of a struggle to tame it.
A lot of us do this. We put something out into the world, and in waiting for a response, we come up with a bunch of different stories. Then when we do receive a response, we react out of line with it because we've already grounded ourselves in a story that we believe to be true...but isn't.
Examples of Horrible Storytelling
Here's a common example: you go in for a job interview, think you did okay, and then you never hear back, even after following up. Or maybe you pitch a potential client, and silence.
Chances are good that the thoughts running through your head aren't filled with happiness. What did I say or do wrong? Was it the way I dressed? Do they hate my writing style? I must have pissed someone off. You know what, I'm probably just not good enough for them.
And on and on it goes, when the simple reality could be you weren't a good fit (in which case it's a lose-lose situation for everyone involved), they're busy, they had a budget cut, etc. The point is, there are many valid reasons that you didn't receive a response, but your mind will generally dwell on the negative possibilities.
Another common example is when you're vulnerable with someone, and they don't respond in the way you had hoped - if they respond at all. (As a side note, getting comfortable with silence can be incredibly difficult, so I guess our minds prefer to stay busy by writing these stories, eh?) This can easily lead to a fight because of mismatched expectations, when none were ever communicated (because they were all inside your head).
The best example I can give is from the book where I read about this technique in the first place - and don't worry, I'll get to that shortly, because it's something that's helped me a lot the past few months.
A couple goes for an early morning swim on a vacation, and the wife is generally feeling happy about shedding some responsibility for the week to come. She tries to convey this by letting her husband know how happy she is to be there with him, and from her perspective, he totally shrugs her off. Clipped answers, seems distracted by something. The wife gives him the benefit of the doubt and tries again. Same result.
At this point, she can't help but start to formulate stories as to why he's not giving her the warm responses she expected. Do I look horrible in this bathing suit? Is he not as in love with me as I thought? Am I being too touchy-feely with my words? All this self-doubt and shame crept in as she rattled off what could be going through his mind, and what's worse is she was already anticipating a fight brewing. She felt disrespected, and she wanted to pass the hurt along.
"The story I'm making up is..."
They eventually swim back to the dock, and she admits to him that she had been trying to connect with him the entire time, but felt as though he was blowing her off. "The story that I'm making up is either that you looked over at me while I was swimming and thought, man she's getting old, she can't even freestyle anymore. Or you saw me and thought, she sure as hell doesn't rock a Speedo like she did 25 years ago."
The husband recognizes that she's trying to be vulnerable, but says he doesn't want to talk. After some more prodding, he admits that his thoughts were completely preoccupied during the swim as he was trying to fight off a panic attack. Apparently, he had had a nightmare about their kids drowning in the same lake they were swimming in, and couldn't keep his mind off of it.
Needless to say, things got real and they were both in a very vulnerable state, but they made it through because saying "the story I'm making up is..." throws personal accusations out the window, and allows the focus to be on the facts at hand. But that conversation could have easily taken a wrong turn had either of them lashed out at the other.
The bigger point is that she was completely off-base, and the fight would have been a waste of valuable mental energy for both of them, while also having the potential to ruin a vacation.
And this happens all.the.time.
Another great example she shared was a work-related one. A meeting was running longer than expected, and she suggested they skip over a portion of it and come back to it at the next meeting. Everyone agreed, but the person who was working on that project spoke up and said, "The story that I'm making up is that because we're skipping over it, it's not very important, and makes me feel as though my work has been undervalued."
Just the mere act of saying that opened the floor for dialogue - the employee was assured that their project was so important that it warranted enough time to spend on it, and they didn't want to have to rush through it.
What if that employee hadn't spoken up? Resentment about their work and their job could have built up, easily. They don't appreciate me. I've been wasting all this time on this project that no one cares about. Why do I even bother?
How to Change the Narrative
While I don't say the phrase "the story I'm making up is" out loud, I do say it in my head. A lot.
I try to be as self-aware as I possibly can be at all times. The degree to which that is effective varies depending on how much chocolate is available. But I recognize that my mind has a horrible tendency to be completely irrational a majority of the time, so I don't even try to reason with it. I try to laugh at it instead. "Yeah, that's totally plausible, Erin. You have such great perspective on this right now! Not."
When that doesn't work, I turn to mulling over the story I'm creating. Sometimes I'll entertain myself and follow it through, other times I'll flip the switch in the middle and say "enough," and when all else fails, I journal about it.
In that journal is where I change the narrative. I ask myself where my assumptions are coming from, if they're grounded in anything at all (usually not), why I'm making the assumptions in the first place, what the worst-case scenario really is (and question if it's as horrific as my mind is making it out to be), allow myself to hope for whatever I believe is the best-case scenario, and generally try to discern between fact and fiction. There are also times I might try to approach the situation from a third-party view if I'm being really ridiculous.
"The story I'm making up" is a simple but powerful phrase. It helps to separate what's going on in our head with what's actually playing out in reality - something that can be incredibly difficult when we're knee-deep in a crazy tale we've concocted about god knows what.
Overall, it helps to simply recognize that our thoughts are pretty much a byproduct of what our minds create when left to their own devices. We can choose to believe them, question them, act on them, or change them.
All I know is that I try not to live my life based on a false narrative, and this helps facilitate that.