The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Lately I’ve realized some interesting patterns in my thoughts. Through a lot of self-reflection, I’ve learned that I deeply want to be good and do the right thing.  This is commonly called perfectionism, but actually “being good” is most important for me.  It’s not that I need to be perfect or have others view me as such, but I strive to always do the right thing which then provides a sense of being good. 

The thought pattern I’ve witnessed on several occasions goes something like this:

First, someone communicates a situation to me wherein I perceive they think I did something wrong. And, due to my hyper sense of responsibility, this potential error can be something incredibly small and insignificant!

Next, my mind starts spinning stories in an attempt to regain my sense of “being good”.  My thoughts reframe the situation to retain my sense of rightness. In other words, self-justification kicks into overdrive!

Often, this story involves discrediting the person who communicated the situation or mistake to me.  As in, if they’re wrong then I can be right. There’s a very unhealthy black/white, right/wrong dynamic at play when this is happening. Then, in a vicious cycle, I then start feeling badly about myself for thinking uncharitable thoughts about this person.   

Recognizing this has been very powerful!  I can now step back and observe this thought pattern instead of getting all fused with the stories my mind is telling me. 

As I’ve talked to several friends and family members about this thought pattern, I’ve learned that most people have routine stories they spin.  For some, whenever they perceive a need they deeply feel that they must meet it for other people.  Others routinely confront injustices and feel called to right the wrongs they encounter. 

We all tell ourselves stories in an attempt to make sense of the world around us.  Reframing has become a popular idea and is defined as a technique used in therapy to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning.  Our reality is partially shaped by these stories that we craft and then believe.   

I successfully reframed a situation last week.  Sienna’s class is going to Williamsburg next March and she desperately wanted me to go as a chaperone.  I’d applied, along with several other parents.  Due to the ratio of girls and boys they ended up selecting two moms from her class to chaperone (along with a few dads).  I worried about the situation quite a bit. I was concerned Sienna wouldn’t want to go on the trip if I wasn’t selected to chaperone.  When I learned that I would not be going on the trip, it took the better part of the day to reframe the situation. 

All along I’d been praying that God would work all things for good, so I started looking for hidden blessings in the situation.  Since the trip occurs during the spring busy season for my company, I felt relief that I wouldn’t have to manage trying to take a vacation during this stressful time of year.  Fortunately, Sienna is now open to going on the trip without me, which will be a great experience of growth for her. 

The stories we tell ourselves are not innately good or bad.  They can be helpful and useful or destructive and painful.  I think the real trick is being able to step back and observe our thoughts for what they are: stories that run through our minds.  When they help us live according to our values, we should certainly embrace the story.  But, when they cause anxiety and frustration while we attempt to control the world around us or justify ourselves, it brings great peace to let go of the story.