Our “Stories” Aren’t Real.

The stories we make up about other people (and ourselves) are just that. Stories.

And when we are in storyland, we are necessarily not dealing with reality. I guess that has a place at times, but sometimes we stay there.

A colleague tells me a story about how a certain junior worker always gets better assignments because she’s hot and people ignore frumpy older women. That cutesy woman gets better work.

A friend rants about how the rich people in his neighborhood don’t like the little people. Those Republicans like other rich folks like themselves. At his neighborhood party, I ask where his rich neighbors are. He says they wouldn’t fit in.

Someone I’m sadly no longer friendly with made frequent remarks about those folks. At my house. In front of those folks. I whispered to her: A large and diverse group of people are not that uniformly crazy. Here’s a terrific article that discusses this exact subject.

These occurrences are common. Why can’t we see what is right in front of ourselves?

What Do We See?

We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are (Anaïs Nin, author). Meaning our preconceptions dramatically alter how we observe things.

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

When we make up a “story,” it is of necessity our own interpretation of reality. And it’s likely to be somewhat to largely wrong because stories are made up.

Reality, for each of us, is a mixture of our current knowledge (less than complete), perception, and insight (unique to each person), filtered through our individual past experiences, biases, beliefs, and more.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test, developed by psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach in 1921, consist of 10 different cards with an ambiguous inkblot. The respondent is asked to describe what he or she sees in the image. The inkblots have no inherent meaning so what the respondent sees and says has only to do with their knowledge, perception, insights, past experiences, biases, beliefs, and more.

One of the Rorschach Inkblot Test Cards. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inkblot.svg

What do you see in the Rorschach Inkblot Test card to the left? I see a small part of the spine, splayed open, like when you spatchcock a chicken.

Two things that may influence what I see in the inkblot.

  1. I know more than some others about human anatomy because of what I’ve studied and where I have worked.
  2. I do a lot of cooking and spatchcocking allows you to cook a whole chicken (or turkey) faster, and often with more even results.

The Problem with Stories

Stories can be great. That’s why we have television and movies. If you’re building instruction or trying to get people interested in what you have to say, stories can get and keep people interested. Why do you think people love gossip? Why does The Voice provide backstory on the singers?

Stories can suck people in and keep them there. But often (too often), they keep us from dealing with our own issues and allow us to shine the spotlight on others. This feels good. But it doesn’t help the situation and often hurts it.

If you’re trying to solve problems and move forward, creating stories can divert what is real. And the degree to which your version of reality differs from real reality influences your success. How could it not?

Some say there is no objective reality. My response: That’s a good story. I’m still fairly certain that you’ll get hurt if you jump off a cliff. Please don’t jump.

Catching yourself making up stories is simply a habit. The more you catch yourself the better you get at it. Watch yourself adding details you couldn’t possibly know, making yourself look better, making others look worse. Stories.

Simply notice what your mind is doing, especially when someone upsets you or when things don’t go your way.

When you feel a story coming on, see if you can’t stop. Just stop.

Some Reasons Why We Make Up Stories

There is a considerable gap between what we know about ourselves and others. Emily Pronin explains in a significant research article the differences between what we know about ourselves and others. She says, “…we are immersed in our own sensations, emotions, and cognitions” but tend to judge others by surface features, such as what they say and how they behave.

Research shows that our minds need to fill in blanks. I believe because of the shortage of information we have on why people do what they do, we fill in the gaps with stories. But the stories are filled with our own biases and beliefs. It’s almost as if we are looking at Rorschach Inkblot Tests but with a lot of self-interest. And from what I see on Facebook, it has nothing to do with how educated we are. It’s just human nature.

As Pronin brilliantly explains, we see ourselves through “introspection,” from the point of view of our own thoughts and intentions and others through “extrospection,” from the point of view of surface features. And this way of viewing ourselves tends to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt because we attempt to understand where we are coming from, but we don’t often give this depth of understanding to others.

We see ourselves through “introspection” and others through “extrospection.”

Social psychologists also call this an attribution error. We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by the impact of their actions upon us. Or I do what I do because of my situation. Others do what they do because they are [insert disparaging adjective(s)].

These stories are not real. They are not good for relationships. Or communities. Not good for solving problems. At a minimum, we could give others the breaks we give ourselves.

Resources cited:

The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb
How We See Ourselves and How We See Others

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