“Nothing in this world is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -William Shakespeare
Just after we observe what others do and just before we feel some emotion about it, we tell ourselves a story. That is, we add meaning to the action we observe and to these simple behaviors, we add motive. From the sandbox “Johnny hit me because he does not like me;” to teenage years, “Billy does not like me because he asked Mary to the dance;” to the freeway, “That guy cut me off because he is in such a hurry.” The path to action is—we see and/or hear something, tell ourselves a story or clever stories, feel some emotion, and then we act.
Stories explain what’s going on. Exactly what are our stories? They are our interpretations of the facts. They help explain what we see and hear. They are the theories we use to explain why, how, and what.
A key to controlling our emotions, fears, conflicts, and ourselves, is to take control of our stories (so they will not control us). It is important to recognize that at first, we are in control of the stories we tell—after all, we do make them up of our own accord—but—once they are told, the stories control us. They control how we feel and how we act. They control the results we get from our interactions with people.
So what can we do? We can tell ourselves different stories and break the loop. In fact, until we tell different stories, we cannot break the loop. If we want to improve results from our interactions with people, change the stories we tell ourselves—even while we are in the middle of the fray.
When I think about my interactions with people, it seems that when all is well, I tell myself stories that are accurate and my stories propel interactions in a healthy direction. When all is not well, the stories I tell myself are inaccurate and serve to justify unproductive behavior. These are stories that make me feel good about myself.
Ken Embley is a senior research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.