What’s beautiful about the phrase is how inoffensive it is. You get to be 100 percent honest without being accusatory.
I’m not the greatest at communication. Nine times out of ten, I prefer to sit on whatever is bothering me until my natural forgetfulness kicks in, or my husband sees the steam coming out of my ears and refuses to be satisfied with my increasingly curt repetitions of “I’m fine.”
He gets lots of time off purgatory, and I get spared the trouble of initiating uncomfortable conversations. Everyone wins!
Look, I’m working on it. Anyway, whenever I get the sense that I’m putting up emotional walls, I crack open any of Brene Brown’s books, and she always knocks some sense into me. She’s a shame researcher whose mission is to teach people how to be their messy, vulnerable, authentic selves and get knocked down, and get up again. It’s fantastic stuff. This week I’ve been devouring her newest work Rising Strong, and I came across an idea that is threatening to change my whole mode of communication, much for the better.
Brown recommends using the phrase “The story that I’m telling myself is …” to lead off, when you want to sit somebody down and tell them why you are angry, hurt, confused, insecure, or just can’t even name the emotion you’re feeling.
So the other day, my husband was being kind of quiet, and I couldn’t figure out why. I decided that probably the reason was that he hadn’t thought I had paid enough attention to him that day. And boy, did that make me indignant. Didn’t he know how much stuff I needed to get done? I needed to work, I needed to grade papers, and I deserved a little time to myself, too! Good grief, how could he need me to be paying attention to him every minute of the day, with everything else I had going on? I’m sure you can agree that his expectations for me were completely unfair.
Except, of course, those were never his expectations. And, thank God, I was able to head off a whole evening of sniffing and sulking, because I remembered to say to him, “Hey, the story that I’m telling myself is that you are upset with me for being distant. But am I reading you wrong?” Predictably, I was, but I needed to hear him say it. And he was grateful that I was able to show him my own insecurities, which in itself, is a gesture of trust.
What’s beautiful about the phrase is how inoffensive it is. You get to be 100 percent honest about what you are stewing in, without being the least bit accusatory. You are showing the other person that you trust them enough to bring the problem up, and you’re making it clear that you are opened to other possible interpretations of the event that rubbed you the wrong way. If the story you were telling yourself turns out to be false, you’ll be relieved, and if it turns out to be true, you’ve already started a conversation about it, so you’re half-way through to solving it. No sighing and sulking necessary.
You and I, and the rest of this struggling, imperfect human race, are storytellers. We’ve got to be. Our thoughts are limited by our perspective, which is as unique as we are. We can only see the world through our own eyes, so we tell ourselves stories, to fill in the holes in our own knowledge. We end up doing the best we can at guessing what other people’s motives and thoughts might be. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does make it all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that our own perspective is the only one. Whenever we can, why not just ask the other person to show us their own unique perspective, without putting words in their mouth?