Daughter. Sister. Runner. Baker. Leggings Enthusiast. Adventurer. Storyteller.
When I think about who I am as a person and what makes me “me,” these are some of the nouns I come up with to describe myself. I’ve been a daughter and a sister by nature since birth. Running and baking are things I’ve always enjoyed. Leggings are my clothing option of choice, and I like to travel. When I look beyond circumstance and hobbies, I feel at my core that I am a storyteller.
I honestly believe that the root of my creativity and ability to tell stories comes from my days of playing with my Barbies. My siblings are five and four years older than me, and when you’re 6 or 7, the age gap feels pretty extreme. I spent plenty of time on my own with my toys, making up elaborate situations and storylines for each family of dolls. In middle school, my absolute favorite class was creative writing, and I was always first to volunteer to read my stories aloud to the class (ah, the glory days when children could feel confident about their art). In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper where I developed my voice and had an internship at the tiny local city newspaper to hone my copy-editing skills. I read books constantly throughout my childhood, spending hours in the sun in the summers surrounded by a stack of fiction novels. When I started applying to colleges, I wanted to major in English or creative writing, and I ended up picking a school with a writing, literature and publishing program (shout out to you, Emerson College).
This is a story for another time, BUT, I lost all of my creativity by going to one of the most creative colleges in the country. Surrounded by so many other creatives, I quickly lost faith that I had any ounce of talent or individuality as a writer. I made it through exactly one semester of a fiction writing workshop before I threw in the towel and changed my major to television. The singular line that runs through my college and post-graduation career is the art of storytelling. I got my wires crossed in college and changed mediums from writing to TV, but the essence of why I loved them was the same. I love stories. I love telling and hearing stories, whether they are about real people or fictional people.
Last week, I realized how my tendency to tell stories causes some trouble. I’m not talking about exaggerations or little white lies. I’m talking about the stories I make up in my mind about myself, my life, my circumstances, etc. When I went to my therapist last week, she gave me a list of distorted thinking patterns that she thought I would find helpful. We were going over the patterns to see which of them I find most prevalent in my internal dialogue when I got to “Jumping to Conclusions.” This pattern is described as concluding that things are bad without any definite evidence.
The next day, I was reading Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong,” when I got to chapter five, called The Rumble. The chapter starts with this quote: “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” When we jump to conclusions, we are making up the ending of a story. When we jump to conclusions, it’s usually not a jump to a positive outcome.
We ALL do this all the time. Waiting for a text or call from someone you just started seeing? Forget it, they’ve already lost interest, he/she probably hates you, doesn’t find you attractive, you messed it up somehow. One of your friends is having an off day and you immediately think he/she is mad at you, that you must have said something to piss them off, that they don’t want to be your friend any more because you’re a horrible person and they’ve finally realized the truth. You don’t want to submit your work to a festival or a contest because no one is going to like it and they’re all going to think you’re an amateur loser who doesn’t know what they are doing.
Jumping to conclusions is just one of the many ways we create stories in our minds. I, personally, do this about 50 times a day. It’s my absolute worst thinking pattern and it’s obviously something I’m working through with my therapist. Because I’m recovering from my eating disorder and I’m not totally comfortable with the way I look right now, I’m constantly jumping to conclusions that other people that work with me in the fitness space think I’m too fat to be a trainer, that my opinions aren’t valid because I don’t look the part, that class participants aren’t going to like my classes because I’m not buff AF. I have literally no evidence that any of this is true. No one has ever said these things to me. I have never received poor feedback on my performance as a trainer because of my physical appearance. But if I don’t get a training job that I auditioned for, this is the narrative that I adopt every time.
In Rising Strong, Brown talks about the scientific side of this type of storytelling: “Meaning making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how to best self-protect.” Our brains understand story structure. They like knowing the beginning, middle and end of a scenario. If you’re anything like me and patience is not a virtue you possess, then you REALLY want to know the endings to stories. For instance, I go out for an audition to be an instructor at a spin studio. I do the best I can and now I wait for their decision in peace, right? Of course not! Now, I go back home, I think of all the reasons why this studio would never in a million years hire me. I interpret every piece of body language from that room in a negative fashion. I may even start to misremember things in addition to misinterpreting things. All of a sudden I’m absolutely 100% convinced that they aren’t going to hire me. I’ve finished the narrative all on my own based on a conclusion with NO evidence to support it. As Brown writes, “what do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.”
We are all conspiracy theorists. Whether you want to call it jumping to conclusions, keeping our expectations in check or “overanalyzing,” we all have the capability to be dangerous storytellers. We take the negative thoughts in our minds and we validate them and make sense of them by weaving them into a narrative that the brain can understand. Usually the narrative is a familiar one (ie: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I am in some way lacking). We do this in an effort to protect ourselves from disappointment we’ve experienced in the past. We can’t get hurt if we already know the ending to the story, right?
The thing that’s so frustrating about this train of thought when you take a step back from it is this: 9 out of 10 times, there is no evidence to back up the fictional ending to your story. Why aren’t all of us still walking around thinking that the earth is flat? Because we have evidence that the Earth is round. We wouldn’t believe someone who told us that the Sun revolves around the Earth because there’s no evidence that THAT is the truth. So why are we so quick to believe ourselves when our brain just makes up stories?
For some of us, this is how we best know how to handle rejection. Instead of accepting at face value the reasons we are given for being passed over for a job or not being asked on a second date, we create storylines that better fit into our narrative because we understand that particular pattern of thought. For me, everything always circles back to my appearance. If someone straight up tells me that I didn’t get the job because my schedule and their needs don’t line up, I wouldn’t believe them. I would choose to believe that it’s because of my appearance, because that’s a pattern of thought that my brain understands and can accept.
So what do we do about this? How do we stop telling ourselves these harmful stories? The annoying answer would be, “Hey, stop being so negative!” But that’s not really the issue here. The issue is to recognize fact from fiction when your brain starts weaving your experiences into a story. I obviously don’t have all the answers here because this is something I’m working through myself, but the first step I’m taking is to identify when I’m making up a story. Once I can recognize that my brain has taken a circumstance and has started to run with it, I start to look for the evidence behind why I’m CERTAIN this outcome is the truth. Most of the time, the evidence simply isn’t there. It’s not true. It’s a conspiracy theory. Obviously this isn’t an easy thing to do, but it’s a start.
When I think about my past and present as a storyteller, I often only think of the physical stories I have told: TV shows I have worked on, things I have written, art I have created. I’m pretty proud of those stories. It’s about time I start weaving a mental narrative that I can be proud of, too.
PS: I’m going to conclude on a related note about conspiracy theories and mental narratives and just say that I’ve had multiple conversations about the Mandela Effect this week and I SWEAR I’m still right about Shazam/Sinbad. So that’s one mental narrative I can be proud of, because that was real. Have no idea what I’m talking about? Let Buzzfeed explain (be warned that some of these are VERY dumb but SHAZAM WAS REAL).