What if you knew that the way you see the world isn’t the same as reality?
If you were to train as an NLP Practitioner like me, one of the very first things you’d learn is that your thoughts aren’t reality. It turns out that we respond to our own internal representation of the world -a model we’ve created in our minds- not what is actually happening. Let that sink in before we unpack it together…
As a qualified NLP Practitioner who spent many years experiencing social anxiety; avoiding and defending myself against all the people who I believed didn’t like me or were out to hurt me, I can tell you that this is a shocker to discover! Finding out that for years you’ve been acting on made-up stories in your mind that are based on a ton of missing information; therefore, your feelings of self-righteousness and defensiveness, and your proceeding actions perhaps weren’t justified… well, that’s a punch in the gut and, quite frankly, it’s a truth that’s hard to swallow when we look back at how we have behaved towards other people in our lives.
Isn’t it kind of reassuring to think we have all the answers and know what’s going on? As if we could have this amazing ability to mind-read and make accurate assumptions about other people’s intentions without the need to check. We crave that certainty. So much so that it can be easy to ignore evidence to the contrary, including disbelieving the research that this is what we actually do. But lo and behold… along comes researchers Brené Brown, Will Storr, and more talking about the exact same thing; the stories we make up. When you get the same information from credible sources who started in very different places, it’s hard to refute it, isn’t it?
So, let’s break it down and make it easy for you to digest…
We’re wired to make up stories
Brené tells us that in the absence of data, we will always make up stories. We’re wired to try to make sense of what’s happening by filling in the blanks and coming up with a story. This gives us information on how best to self-protect. When we feel like we have connected the dots and reached that ‘a-ha!’ moment, our brain rewards us by releasing the feel-good hormone, dopamine. The stories we tell ourselves don’t have to be accurate, they just have to feel complete.
NLP teaches us about the filtering process, from which these stories evolve. We know that we can only pay attention to limited information. Research shows that our senses pick up around 2 million pieces of information every second, yet our conscious minds can only handle approximately 134 of these. So, to keep us sane and able to function, our brains have to create shortcuts to help us figure out that which is relevant and important. Anything else bypasses our awareness and sneaks into our subconscious.
We use filtering to quickly sort information and decide what’s relevant for us by deleting, distorting and generalising information;
- Deleting means we’re ignoring information or selectively focusing only on certain parts of our experience;
- Distorting means we’re misinterpreting information we receive;
- Generalising means we’re grouping things into categories and making conclusions based on things we deem to be similar.
As a result, we’re constantly coming up with theories and assumptions based on our own previous experiences and beliefs -which set our filters- so that we can function. Will explains in The Science of Storytelling that, in seeking explanations for the causes of events and justifying our moral convictions, the facts don’t matter to our brains; the first explanation that makes sense of it all will do.
So, we all tell stories that are fictional while genuinely believing they are true. We confabulate and rarely question the reality that our brains are conjuring for us. We don’t notice it happening. Instead, we feel that the stories we’ve made up are right, and we see evidence for it everywhere. Why? Because the way our filters work mean that we’re looking for evidence that fits with what we already believe to be true.
When we act on stories that aren’t true
In Dare to Lead, Brené explains that the stories that we make up has the effect of shutting down the uncertainty and vulnerability that are necessary for reaching the truth. Our brains have evolved to be more concerned with quickly marking good guys and bad guys; danger and safety, and less keen on exploring the grey areas and the “what if’s?”
Consider for a moment the consequences of believing a story that isn’t true…
I could easily give you a number of examples from my own life of being both the person making up the story; casting myself as a victim and behaving as if this is true, walking away from friendships perhaps totally unnecessarily. And I could also tell you about the painful experience of being on the receiving end of someone else’s confabulations. Being portrayed as the villain in their story, and how this escalated into unfounded accusations and unkind judgements and behaviours towards me –their behaving as if their made-up story were true. In both cases, the ‘storytellers’ were unwilling to explore what else could be true. Minds made up that thought was fact. And in both cases, those stories saw the end of relationships.
But I know that you have those stories too. You know how this plays out. Think about the stories that you’ve made up and left unchecked. The resulting emotions left festering under the surface, or seeing you responding to another person as if they’re one of the ‘bad guys’.
Think about the damage that confabulations and acting as if your thoughts are true can do to your relationships with family, friends, colleagues, etc. When in reality, what do you really know to be true?
So, what can you do to bring this storytelling into your awareness and make a change? Here’s the secret…
Curiosity, Courage and Connection
Brené’s research has shown that we need to reality-check our stories, just like the happy, connected, wholehearted people in her research. And not only that –she’s dug into the data to figure out how.*
The answer is in our ‘shitty first drafts’ or ‘stormy first drafts’ if you prefer (SFD). Our SFD is the first story that we make up; full of our fears and insecurities and based on limited real information and lots of imagination, like we have described. Brené explains that we need to capture this SFD before our storytelling gets out of control. So, your SFD is a messy, unfiltered note of ‘the story I’m making up…’ and ‘what I’m thinking, feeling, believing, and how I’m behaving’.
This is a chance for you to slow down, step back, pick it apart and see if your story makes sense in reality. And yes, it’s likely to feel pretty uncomfortable for you; you’re challenging your automatic thoughts, designed to keep you safe here; you’re getting curious about the validity of things that you believe. It takes a lot of courage to stay open to the fact that there might be other explanations out there. It’s courageous to accept that you don’t have all the answers and might be wrong about a situation or person. You need courage to maintain vulnerability, sit with the unknown, and connect with curiosity to seek the truth when your first impulse might be to respond from anger or defensiveness.
Moving forward, Brené lists a series of questions that we need to ask ourselves in order to get to the truth:
1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?
Consider what you know objectively –what are the undisputable facts? And what are the assumptions that you’re making in this situation?
2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in this story?
Think about the information you might be missing here. What further information or clarifications do you need? What questions can you ask that might help?
3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself?
Here’s where you get to dig deep and get a sense of what’s underneath your response –what is it that you are really feeling? And in honesty, what part are you playing?
‘The Rumble’ as Brené calls it, reveals the space between the story we’ve made up and the truth. From here, we have the ability to fact-check our stories with those involved. To ask ‘what else could be true?’ To have a conversation from a place of curiosity, not defensiveness; creating opportunities for connecting and trust-building and growth.
“When we deny a story and pretend we don’t make up stories, the story owns us. It drives our behaviour, cognition and emotions” – Brené Brown
What’s more, opening our minds to the fact that everyone has their own ‘realities’ –and that many people don’t even realise that their model of the world isn’t accurate- gives us more flexibility in how we might choose to think and respond to other people. Remember, you have choices even if someone’s acting like you’re the ‘villian’ in their story… check out this blog post on criticism.
* You can find this tool explained in greater detail in Brené Brown’s books; Rising Strong and Dare to Lead –and we highly recommend you read one of them.