Welcome back! I've got a question for you...Where is your level of emotional exhaustion today?
Emotions are such a rollercoaster ride, aren't they? Just when you think everything's nice and easy, the bottom drops out, and you're plummeting again. So many of my clients are identifying this struggle that I thought it worthy of a blog series. If you need to catch up, just use this link.
Humans are natural storytellers. And it turns out that storytelling doesn't require an audience. We are continuously telling stories in our own heads. It's our way of processing and making sense of the world around us. And this is especially true when we experience negative feelings like fear, anxiety, defensiveness, and uncertainty.
What's more, the story we tell ourselves can quickly become the story we tell others. You know what I'm talking about—lunch conversations that sound something like this, "Cathy couldn't stand that everyone else was interested in my idea, so she had to jump in and start telling everyone why my idea was never going to work. She always has to prove that she's the smartest person in the room, and she doesn't care who she steps on to do it."
Our default as humans is self-preservation, and that includes protecting our self-esteem. We love to be right and seek affirmation of our conclusions and beliefs. Often this takes the form of coalition building (a.k.a, dragging other people into our drama). Not only do we proclaim the story to our friends and colleagues, but as in the example above, we serve it with a side of character assassination.
We believe that we are good people who seek to do good in the world. When we negatively impact others, we tend to look outside of ourselves for cause and effect. For example, when I almost hit the car in my blind spot, and they honk their horn and wave at me furiously, I feel bad about my error and am thankful for their quick action, but the story I tell myself is "I didn't see them in my blind spot. If I had, I wouldn't have changed lanes."
On the other hand, when I'm the person being cut off, the story changes completely. Beyond the adrenaline-fueled expletive, I make a lot of assumptions about the other driver, "Get off your phone" or "Is it so important that you stay one car length ahead of me that you are willing to cause an accident" or "Pay attention @$$hole." Come on, admit it; you do this too.
It turns out that this is so common, social psychology named it—Fundamental Attribution Error. Succinctly, this is our tendency to ascribe our actions to external factors while ascribing the actions of others to their character or personality. Voila! The magic cocktail of resentment and snarkiness is born.
In her book, Rising Strong (2015), vulnerability expert Brené Brown encourages readers to share "the story I'm making up." She counsels that this act can be a relationship-saving move. Not only does it invite the other person to correct how you are reading the situation, it also opens you to how your story may not be accurate.
So beyond snarky, under your breath utterances, how do you get better at recognizing the story you're making up? Look for three words--could, would, and should.
"She could see that I was running around like crazy trying to get everything done, but she didn't offer any help."
"If he would have asked for my opinion, this wouldn't be such a cluster."
"She shouldn't make plans in front of me and not invite me—how rude!"
We keep ourselves stuck in a heightened emotional state when we continually set ourselves up to be triggered. Could, would, and should mask expectations that we project onto others, mostly without their agreement. We obligate others to our standards of behavior or expect them to read our minds. We're the architect of our own mousetrap of negativity.
When I catch myself in woulda, coulda, shoulda thought bubbles, I now recognize that I need something from the other person, and I have the option to ask for it.
Feeling rushed to prepare dinner, my thought bubble, "Why is he just sitting there reading instead of offering to help me?" becomes my spoken question, "Hey, Dave. Do you mind helping me by cutting the vegetables?"
So the next time you are trying to present an idea, and the other person is paying attention to their screen instead of looking at you, choose not to walk away in resentment, be a victim, or stay stuck in your story that is getting you nowhere. Who knows what you'll learn when you dare to say, "The story I'm making up is that you are not interested in discussing this with me, and so I'm wondering if I should talk with you about this at a later time." Perhaps there is a legitimate distraction, and perhaps there is zero interest in discussing your idea. Either way, you walk away with clarity and honesty in the relationship and take control of the dips and turns of your emotional rollercoaster.