Notes and Mentions
Becoming Aware of the Stories We Tell Ourselves from Zenhabits.net
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Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.
Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.
Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.
Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.
Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.
Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.
Tina: Periodically, Serena and I get to do presentations or facilitated trainings with families, school staff and people in the community. We think of these sessions as opportunities, we sometimes call them invitations, for human capacity building and personal growth. One of my favorites is about what we and others call the walking story or, as Brene Brown says, the stories we tell ourselves. And what we will talk about today is the challenges we all face when we tell ourselves a story. And most importantly, this story telling directly affects our ability to be compassionate to ourselves and others.
Serena: Right and it can really affect our mood, our relationship and our overall wellness.
Tina: And just to be clear, we all do this. Our brains tell ourselves stories and we tell them about those around us and we also tell ourselves stories about us. We draw conclusions with literally just a glance. And just as we’re in the midst of facilitating our Community Compassion Resilience Course, it seems that when we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and others, it is hard to stay compassionate.
Serena: So let’s start with ourselves and how the stories we tell ourselves about, well, ourselves affect our ability to practice self-compassion. We’ve touched on this topic a bit in the past, but let’s take a moment to think about the impact of our words and stories.
Tina: Yes. So, the brain, as I said, is incredibly powerful and many of our stories have been there for a very long time and are challenging to rewire. Particularly I think it’s about our perceptions of things. For example, if I go to take a big drink of what I believe is milk and then it turns out to be orange juice...ugh. OK, that’s not good. There’s nothing wrong with the orange juice but, you know, I was expecting milk so I don’t like the taste.
Serena: Right. That’s a really great example. What about roller coasters? Do you like roller coasters?
Tina: Uh, that is a hard no. I have been on them and, well being afraid of heights...yeah, not a good combo there.
Serena: OK, so is there something that makes you feel really, really excited?
Tina: Santa!!! Santa makes me feel very excited.
Serena: So let’s take that. If you think about that feeling of excitement, around Santa, compare that to a moment of anxiety or nervousness. What do you notice?
Tina: Hmmm. In some ways those feelings feel similar in my body...increased heart rate, butterflies in my stomach. Yeah.
Serena: Mmhm. So, the question is, what’s the difference here between that feeling of excitement and the feeling of anxiety?
Tina: Yeah and there we go. Perception! And the story we tell ourselves!
Serena: Right, exactly. So, all of this to say that, as you said at the beginning, we tell ourselves stories all the time that may or may not be true. So let’s think about this in terms of the stories we tell ourselves about other people now. Based on our own values, beliefs and experiences and sometimes even how we’re feeling in the moment, we write the story. So Tina, I remember a story that you tell about a moment that really illustrates this point. Could you share that with our listeners?
Tina: Sure. So once I was doing a staff training and it was about this very topic and I clearly remember a staff member who was frustrated about not being able to help a student and “I called and called and called the family” and the place that this person ended up was in the place of “they just don’t care.” We talked about, you know, we talked at the time about the distance between “I don’t pick up the phone” and “I just don’t care”. The story that staff member was telling himself was that the parent had no interest in their child’s success. Knowing the parents we know well, this is just one story but I think it was likely that there was another story, right Serena? Can you kind of relate to this?
Serena: Absolutely. There are. I could think of so many different stories between the “they just don’t care” and “they don’t pick up the phone when I call”. I could say that having been that parent who doesn’t answer the phone there are a few things between that might be true for me like, I’m in the midst of getting kids to bed, having battles over homework, I might be working or just not in the right frame of mind to answer the phone at that moment. Or maybe the parent prefers to communicate in a different way.
Tina: Right. Like we know a lot of our parents like to text or email or even be in person. You know Serena, I remember a story you wrote, as you all know we write a little bit and that really illustrates this point well. Would you share a little bit of that?
Serena: Sure. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we don’t know the real story, right, and make one up. So, this is part of a longer story called, “Struggle”.
Let’s use our curiosity in thinking about another family who we perhaps don’t know very well. You’ve seen this family at your child’s school and your kids know each other. The kids have been bugging you to invite this friend over and you’ve tried. Multiple times. The parents always offer some sort of excuse for why their child can’t come over. They seem friendly enough, yet they continue to reject the idea of a playdate. There are several conclusions that you might come to at this point. I think of these as stories we tell ourselves. The first story might be about your child or family. Maybe they don’t actually like or trust you. My first impulse is generally to blame myself. Maybe I said something that offended them or they don’t like the looks of me, my house...or my dog. Maybe they’ve heard stories about my family and they don’t want to be associated with us. OK, stop. There’s probably another story.
It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we don’t know the real story and to make one up. If this were a story about me refusing playdates when my kids were little, the real story might go something like this: I’m not comfortable with having a playdate because of my child’s behaviors. I’m completely overwhelmed by her needs and sometimes feel like just making it through the day is all I can do. She tends to get over excited very easily and when that happens, she vomits. The last thing I want is for her to throw up on your white carpet. It would be mortifying for all of us and I spend so much time cleaning our carpets that I would feel compelled to clean yours as well. You would probably refuse and say it was no big deal, but it is a big deal and I have the stained carpet to prove it. If she manages to not get too wound up during the play date, we will likely face the same consequences later. Often, this happens in the middle of the night and I’m changing sheets and washing hair at 2am after an already exhausting day. If you had some sense of what was going on with my child, you might offer to have a playdate at a park. I might consider this if I knew for sure that you’re not grossed out too easily and that it’s a fairly empty playground. I can’t take one more look of judgment from another parent who thinks I’ve brought my child to play while sick. Even if you can handle all of this, your child may not be able to. My kid who works so hard to fit in doesn’t need to feel any more different than she already does. But I won’t share all of this with you. I probably won’t share any of this with you. Likely, my response to a play date would be, “Yes, that sounds like fun! Life is really busy right now for my family, but perhaps some time in the future?”.
Tina: Mmm. Serena, that is a beautiful illustration of all those stories we might hold onto and it’s a lot for you to hold on to. So what we know is that remaining curious allows us to stay out of judgement of others.
Serena: Yes. When we approach a situation with curiosity, we are stopping our brain from going to that place of making up the story we don’t know. Curiosity allows us to stop and take in the situation as it is unfolding. Perhaps provide someone some compassionate support or ask a compassionate question.
Tina: Absolutely. So in an article on zenhabits.com (again we will provide a link in the notes), the author assures us that the stories we tell ourselves, it’s a normal brain process. The author invites us to think about these stories we tell and starts with this invitation: “Start to notice what you’re telling yourself about everything. It’s important to be aware of what those stories are, and how they’re affecting your happiness. If a story is making you happy, and you’re aware of that, then great! If you’re not aware of it, it’s not such a big problem if it’s making you happy, but what happens if the story starts to make you unhappy with your life? Then if you’re not aware, you have difficulties. Notice when you’re getting stuck in the story, spinning it around and around in your head. So and so shouldn’t have done this, and on and on, making you frustrated and unhappy with the person. When we get hooked on a story, it’s hard to break away from it.”
Serena: So let’s talk about are some ways we can stay curious about the stories we tell ourselves.
Tina: How about mindfulness as a strategy? If we are in the moment and just noticing, it is hard for that story to emerge.
Serena: Yes, absolutely. And how about the idea of curiosity? Let’s go back there for a moment. When we’re thinking about being curious, this is not nosey-neighbor, gossip-seeking kind of curiosity.
Tina: Right. It’s important to keep our intentions in mind. Are we approaching the situation with curiosity because we are seeking information for ourselves or because we are wanting to be more open minded? What motivates the curiosity?
Serena: Yes. When approached with the right mindset, it is not possible for curiosity and judgement to co-exist. They can’t happen at the same time.
Tina: Another way we can stay out of judgement of one another is by approaching one another in a strength-based way. Many of our stories come with negative labels.
Serena: Mmm, yeah. That’s really true. So, when we see a child having a melt-down in a store we might immediately jump to negative thoughts about the parent or the child or both. Something like, “that child is out of control” or “that parent needs to do a better job controlling their child”.
Tina: Ugh. When a much more compassionate response might be, “oh goodness, they’re having a rough day” or “I can imagine that parent is feeling overwhelmed in this moment”. And what about my least-favorites...the “frequent-flyer”?
Serena: Mmm. Yeah. So for anybody listening who doesn’t know, “frequent-flyer” is a term that is used by medical professionals to indicate that a person comes in repeatedly for treatment to an emergency department and often has mental health concerns in addition to physical complaints. This term is harmful to everyone and in fact studies have shown that using this term can interfere with receiving appropriate and unbiased treatment. So, let’s get rid of that term and if we need to refer to someone as anything other than a patient we could use, how about, an individual that utilizes supports and services when needed.
Tina: I totally agree and isn’t seeking help a major strength? I see that it is.
Serena: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. Knowing that judging and storytelling are normal and that we all do it, do you have any other thoughts on how we might stay out of judgment of others?
Tina: Sometimes I think just by acknowledging the judgment is giving it a little less power. So if I immediately have a story in my head, I might think, OK, that’s one story. What other stories could there be?
Serena: Mmm, yeah. So that makes me think of the meditation technique where you label a thought or a feeling and let it go. Like, “That’s a thought. That’s a feeling. That’s a story. That’s a judgment”. I also think that asking questions of, you know, the other person, can help shift our perspective too.
Tina: Yes. If we are open to learning by asking questions, it can help us to learn the real story or the parts of the story that people want us to know, right?
Serena: Mmhm. Exactly. And there’s that curiosity piece again! And what about having, what you might call a “truth” buddy?
Tina: You mean someone who you can call that will help you see things in a different way? Like maybe a friend who might question my idiot comment.
Serena: Exactly. Mmhm. Exactly. Somebody who will tell you the truth, right? Or, you know, perhaps kindly help you re-examine your own stories.
Tina: Here are a few takeaways from today.
Serena: We all tell ourselves stories about people we interact with and we tell ourselves stories about ourselves too.
Tina: Mmhm. We don’t have to accept the first story that comes to mind as the real story.
Serena: Remaining curious about ourselves and others allows us to consider a different story and stay out of judgment.
Tina: Yeah and using that strength-based approach allows us the opportunity to shift the story.
Serena: And finally, we know this is not easy and it takes practice. So finding that “truth” buddy might help you practice it.
Tina: Absolutely. And so podcast friends, we are, as always grateful to all of you for listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leave a review, and subscribe. Please also share with others. You will find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com.
Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.
Tina: Thanks so much for listening!