Spinning Stories

I’ve recently returned to the psychologist who helped me maintain my ground during my divorce. Life’s challenges were mounting up, and my feet were leaving terra firma more often than was comfortable. Seeking the objectivity and advice of an emotionally neutral person with a plenty of wisdom and a view beyond the confines of my head seemed the best course of action. After a few visits, I was feeling the Earth a bit more firmly, but life being what it is, shifted abruptly, and I found my newly regained balance broken.

At my last visit, I told my story of angst and the latest tremble. I’m fairly adept at finding my flaws and naming my demons, but when only seeing life from the inside of one’s head, it’s easy to miss stuff. After a longer recounting of my condition and concern, I paused. “That’s quite a story you’ve told yourself there,” she noted. “Perhaps you could spin a different one, one that would make your life more comfortable.”

She was right. I’d taken a set of happenings and situations, mixed them with my feelings, insecurities, and prejudices, and written a fine story that connected all the dots while both creating and justifying my angst. Of course, none of us ever knows exactly what is going on in the mind and hearts of others. We guess all the time. We take a bit of data (or even just second-hand hearsay) and mix it with our bias and out pops a story. Not the truth. Just a version of a possible truth. From there, the story spinning takes off. Every piece of data surrounding the event can then be added to the story, strengthening it in our minds. Never mind that the story makes us miserable and does nothing to build better relationships or improve anything. We spin the story and watch the person or world through that lens. Thus a drama is born.

A practical example is in order, and since I’d rather not incriminate myself or anyone else in the process, it is purely fictional. Let’s say you’ve had a conversation with a friend and shared something difficult and close to your heart. Rather than shoring you up or reassuring you, your tale is met with distance and even a bit of possibly condescending scorn. Confused about this behavior, which was unexpected and, to your mind, unwarranted, you start to spin a story. You start with a guess about the motivation of this behavior. Perhaps you decide this friend thinks you’ve made huge errors and that she’s a judgmental person with no compassion. From that point on, it will be easy to find evidence that she’s just that. With the story spun, every encounter will be woven into your tale about her, and that tale will grow so large it’s hard to see your friend behind it. The story colors your encounters with her, and your mind continues to add to the evidence that your spin is truth not fiction.

Let’s say you decide this story isn’t serving you well. Perhaps you miss the friendship. Perhaps you see that the data you’re seeing doesn’t fit the story you’ve woven, and all that jamming the data to fit the story is wearing you out. Perhaps others encounters with you challenge your story. Or perhaps you just told your story to a fine therapist. Whatever the case, let’s say you revisit the original event (which can be very hard to find after story creation — our memories of events change as we retell them aloud or in our minds). You decide to tell a different story with the same data, hopefully a more charitable story. This time, you decide that perhaps your initial sharing hit her in a personal way, so personally that she had to fend it off with defensive action. Or perhaps decide the event was an anomaly, more characteristic of a bad day or a slip of the tongue and temper than a sign of her true personality. Whatever the new story, it likely could be one that changes the color of the situation and allows you to open yourself to her friendship again or at least keep the first tale from renting so much space in your head. Either way, you’re at greater peace. You’re a bit more grounded.

So back to the therapist’s office. After hearing some options for respinning the story that was unpleasantly taking up so much space in my head, I picked one that worked better for me and that took some of the blame and responsibility off of the antagonist of my story. Rather than just shifting it to another character, I pictured my previous mental antagonist as like the weather, variable, and largely unpredictable. With that image, I could change my story and allow her whims no more power over me than the weather. Simple sounding, but profoundly effective. I was shocked at how that lightened my mood and altered the way I saw my struggle. I consider myself a fairly astute observer of my own mind, but this mental faux pas had escaped my mind’s eye.

What other stories was I spinning up there? What other situations did I see as intractable that were truly quite manageable and bearable if I only shifted my view of them? I found stories about my ex-husband, friends, acquaintances, and even my kids that definitely could benefit from a critical look and plot change. Some are hard to change. It’s not easy to look at an event or series of events, sometimes years past, and decide to reinterpret them in a way that causes you, the spinner, less angst and anger. Not that I’m full of angry tales of those in my life. I have very few of those, thank goodness. But I can see where my stories about situations have clouded my ability to find solutions to problems. It’s been worth taking the time and effort to look back and rewrite.

I’m not advising rewriting the facts themselves or tampering with the truth. Objectively observing the events in our lives is difficult but essential work, and our minds are wired to fill in the gaps, turning a few data points into a narrative. I’m advocating being aware that the story we spin around a fact can serve us well on our journey or serve us poorly. When a story takes our minds and hearts down roads that cause us more pain than the actual event, it’s worth taking another look at testing the veracity of the story.

Perhaps the best part of that recent session was the effect it had on how I started to meet uncomfortable situations. I watched my thinking and emotions more carefully. I observed the stories start and was more able to stop them before they spoke louder to me than the truth my senses had taken in. Most of these stories indicted me, for the stories I tell me about myself are by far the darkest in my collection. Self-doubt, worries about the future, misgivings about things said populate these tales. And as I watched  my mind this week, I found that my stories about myself and what I’d failed to do correctly popped into my head at a startling pace.

I’d like to say I promptly hit the delete button each time those terrible tales found their way to the surface, but that’s not an easy task. It is a worthwhile task, whether the story be in formation or years old. So go ahead. Try respinning a story or mindfully creating the next one that starts. Make it a charitable yet honest tale, limited by the truth but bound in love, inclusivity, and patience for all the characters it contains. Make it one worthy of the space it occupies in your head.



8 thoughts on “Spinning Stories

  1. Your writing has hit a chord with me, as I am going through very much the same angst in my head right now. We really do make our own reality.

  2. So, so true! I’ve often wondered if there are others who tell themselves similar stories, yet ones that spin in a positive direction, rather than the negative stories I tell myself. If so, what are they like? What are their lives like? At any rate, I relish those moments of clarity when I can ask myself, ‘is this anyone else’s reality, or is it just yours?’

  3. MacLeod, thanks for a fine post. I couldn’t help when reading this to think how most of what you said about spinning different stories could be applied to what people think about God. You say, “Objectively observing the events in our lives is difficult but essential work, and our minds are wired to fill in the gaps, turning a few data points into a narrative. I’m advocating being aware that the story we spin around a fact can serve us well on our journey or serve us poorly.” A great example of such a narrative that fills in the gaps is one’s religion, which can serve one well or poorly. Thanks again!

  4. I loved this! Story spinning is certainly something I have recognized in myself through many life changes. And I often spin a story that, as you mentioned, isn’t always helpful! I also imagine the stories others are spinning about me and I find that to be even more destructive. Anyways, thanks again for writing! I really enjoy your blogs!

  5. I too am going through divorce and seeing a psychologist. The recurrent film reel of the same stories going through your mind can drag you down. I think reworking them and changing the emphasis might be a way to cope. Good luck for the future.

  6. Pingback: Lean In | Finding My Ground

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