Oh, The Stories We Tell!

“The beginning of personal transformation is absurdly easy. We have only to pay attention to the flow of attention itself.” (Marilyn Ferguson) 

Attribution: Donna CameronWe learned in drivers’ training that everyone has a blind spot, or scotoma. Because of the way the eye is constructed, every human being has one. It is a location with no photoreceptor cells, where the retinal ganglion cell axons that compose the optic nerve exit the retina (the biology lesson ends here, I promise).

We may never be aware of our blind spots, though, because we’re really good at compensating—our brains are able to fill in the gap so the surrounding picture appears absolutely complete.

Beyond the physical level, we have blind spots on a psychological level, too, and our brains also attempt to explain the unknown data—with mixed results. We’ve all been there: when we lack information our brains make up stories to fill in the gaps—often the stories are both erroneous and damaging.

Perhaps two co-workers whom you often lunch with head out at noon without asking if you’d like to join them. Bewildered, you make up a story: You offended Carrie when you said you didn’t have time to check the figures on the budget she was working on, or you ticked Erika off by not stopping to chat when you came in this morning. They probably think you’re mad at them, and now they’re mad at you. They’re at lunch talking about you and saying nasty things about you.

By the time they return from lunch 30 minutes later, you’ve woven such a tale of perfidy that you’ve convinced yourself they no longer want to be your friend and nobody else in the office wants to be either. Why should they, after all, you’re a terrible, horrible, very bad person…?

When Carrie and Erika walk in, carrying fast-food take-out bags, you learn that Erika dropped her car off for servicing and Carrie followed to pick her up and drive her back to the office. As they’d feared, it took so long that they only had time to stop for some mediocre take-out, which they’ll now have to eat at their desks.

The story you constructed was entirely false—nobody was mad, nobody was offended, nobody was saying terrible things about you behind your back, and you are not a terrible, worthless person.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we do it all the time. We don’t know the reason someone acted the way they did and we make up a motive that has no basis in reality. It might suit our mood, or our current level of insecurity, or maybe our flair for the dramatic.

How many times has your spouse or significant other seemed a bit distant and you’ve attributed it to anger, lack of interest, or smoldering resentment because you failed to wash your lunch dishes? When the truth is that he is just trying to remember the name of his 8th grade math teacher—and it’s driving him crazy that he can’t.

Many, many years ago, I learned that the board of directors of an organization I served as executive director for held a board meeting without telling me. I stewed for 24 hours. Why would they meet without me? Did I do something terrible they needed to talk about without me present? Are they going to fire me? Finally, I picked up the phone and called the board president. I explained that association boards should never meet without the knowledge and presence of their executive director. It was my job to make sure they never violated any antitrust regulations or nonprofit laws. What, I asked, could possibly have motivated them to hold a meeting without me? There was a long pause at the other end of the line. A very long pause. Finally Doug said, “We do know that, Donna, and ordinarily we’d never meet without telling you, but our conference is coming up and we wanted to honor you for great job you are doing for us. We were talking about the best time to have a special ceremony and what we could buy you for a thank-you gift.”

I felt like bug spit.

Ever since that embarrassing moment, I’ve tried to imagine positive reasons for inexplicable actions rather than—or at least in addition to—negative ones. My positive stories are generally just as erroneous as my negative ones, but while I’m in that suspended limbo of not-knowing, why not enjoy my imaginings rather than agonize and fret over them?

Kindness Lessons

There are some great kindness lessons for us if we take time to think about how we feel and what we do when we have gaps in our knowledge:

Lesson #1: It’s not always about us … in fact, it’s usually not about us. Just because we’re the center of our own universe, it’s very unlikely we hold that exalted position in many other minds. I find this reminder immensely freeing: “Forget what everyone else thinks of you; chances are, they aren’t thinking about you at all.”

Lesson #2: Yield to the curiosity triggered by not-knowing. As we talked about in an earlier post, “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.” Employ curiosity to seek kind and compassionate answers to gaps in our knowledge.

Lesson #3: We can assume one another’s good intent. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can just as easily say to ourselves, “That didn’t come out the way she meant it to … I know her intention was positive.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst?

Lesson #4: We always have a choice about the stories we make up. Even if we are drama queens and kings, we can make up stories based on positive assumptions. All it takes is some awareness on our part.

Lesson #5: We can always choose peace. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

The stories we tell ourselves have power—power to change the world. When was the last time you made up a story to fill a gap in your knowledge? Was it a positive story or a negative one? What are you going to do next time?

“We do not actually know other people; we only know our judgments.” (Bryant McGill)