Tell Yourself a Different Story
Tools for Coping with Anxiety, Stress, and Rumination Cycles
When I was a teen, I was obsessed with Claire Fisher on the HBO drama Six Feet Under, who lived out my art school dreams and seemed to also understand my experience of the world.
In one episode, she connects with her soon-to-be boyfriend over waking up in the middle of the night haunted by something embarrassing they did years before, and unable to escape the same anxious, shameful feelings they felt then.
It was the most I had ever related a TV character.
Even now that I’m well beyond my teens, I still think of that scene regularly. I often feel pangs of embarrassment, anxiety, anger, and rejection that take over my brain space seemingly out of nowhere.
Over the years, I’ve learned several cognitive techniques to help with what feels like mind-hijacking. I’ve noticed not a decrease in the experience of the feelings, but instead an increase in my ability to address them, destabilize them, and free myself from them in the moment.
I can’t always do this consistently, and it’s sometimes hard for me to tell when I’m coping versus suppressing.
But as part of my recent mindfulness immersion program, I was introduced to a very simple idea that’s made landing on a healthy response more accessible: tell yourself a different story.
How to Tell Yourself a Different Story
Telling yourself a different story does not mean lying to yourself. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s a way of acknowledging that our lived experience is plastic, elastic, and constantly in flux based on our physical state, environment, and the people around us.
In many ways, asking to “tell yourself a different story” is the equivalent of remembering that for others, it’s almost never about you. Your interpretation of the world is subjective, and so is the interpretation of others.
So, what if your thoughts weren’t true?
What if there was no one truth at all?
This opens tremendous opportunity to break out of a rumination cycle — the pattern of thinking we lock ourselves into when we turn the same unproductive thoughts over and over without being able to move forward.
I’ll give you an example.
Recently, while delivering a private workshop, one of my participants raised her hand to challenge a point I made. She had opened her computer and appeared to be fact-checking what I’d presented.
I was about 95% sure that I was said was accurate and appropriately captured the study it came from, but I started to panic. Outwardly, I acknowledged her point, shared my source, and encouraged her to continue asking questions.
Inwardly, I felt my heartrate skyrocket and my stomach tighten. When the workshop ended, a short line of question-askers formed at the front, including her. I noticed myself purposely taking longer with others in the line ahead of her, and I even thought of taking an extra-long bathroom break in between one-on-one’s so that I might avoid her entirely.
I took a breath and noticed that I was telling myself that she was there to catch me out, that she didn’t believe in any of the diversity, equity, and inclusion actions I was proposing, and that she personally disliked me. But how could I know all that?
I asked myself if this was true, and if I could absolutely know for sure. Then, I told myself a different story.
“I don’t know for sure what she’s thinking. But, she’s the most engaged participant here to be asking questions and fact-checking in the first place. She’s challenging me because she’s interested.”
With this new story in mind, I dropped my defenses and approached her with curiosity. And of course, I saw very clearly that my first impression was off. She realized during my presentation she’d been mishandling communication with one of her direct reports.
She wasn’t challenging me at all; she was trying to clarify my points so she could figure out what she could do differently. She ended up writing one of the kindest reviews I’ve ever gotten. And I had made her an enemy in the span of two minutes!
If I hadn’t told myself a different story, I would have been defensive and shut her down. I would have then taken the baggage of a “bad workshop” into the two others I had left to lead. Instead, I left feeling more connected to my participants and excited to get back to presenting.
Tools and Techniques
When I talk about telling yourself a different story, I am referring to the technique of cognitive reframing. It means identifying and then disputing negative thoughts. The technique was first developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s to treat depression, and since then has taken hold across psychology and counseling.
One practical technique I use is Byron Katie’s The Work. It breaks down into questions:
1. Name the anxiety-inducing thought in one sentence or less.
2. Is this thought true? If the answer is “Yes,” move to step 3. If “No,” move to 4.
3. Can you absolutely know it’s true?
4. What does it feel like in your body when you think this thought? (Make sure to label in terms like “tightness in the chest” or “prickly skin”)
5. Who would you be without this thought? What kind of person would you be?
6. Write the exact opposite of this statement.
7. Write three pieces of evidence to support the statement you just wrote.
Like cognitive reframing, reappraisal is a reality-based approach to getting yourself out of a spiral of negative thoughts. It’s merely asking:
“What are the positive consequences?”
It’s not about denying that negative consequences exist or may surface. Nor is it positive thinking for the sake of positive thinking. It’s about expanding your grasp of a situation.
If you’re sweating bullets because you’re going to be late to a networking event, instead of focusing on missing out on opportunities to meet important people, you might think that you’ll make less awkward small talk if you are late because guests will already have warmed up or that now you’ll be more motivated to step outside your shell because of the time pressure.
In virtually every situation, you can reappraise to find a benefit. You can tell yourself a different story.
Perspective setting is a very common practice in diversity, equity, and inclusion circles because it asks people to look at situations from a perspective different from their own.
For example, instead of thinking about how you feel about the stranger running past you on the sidewalk who knocked into you, think about how that stranger might feel.
You don’t have to choose a perspective from your current story; you can adopt a friend’s or family member’s when you’re in the midst of trying to see beyond your own ideas.
You can also engage in perspective setting through self-inquiry.
There are a few questions you can ask to help this process:
· What would change my mind?
· What information or evidence would I need?
· Can I identify any of that in this situation?
If these questions alone are not enough, add in:
· Who has successfully changed my mind before?
· What did that person say or do?
· How did my life change for the better?
Coping Versus Suppression
It’s important to understand that in all these scenarios, we’re focusing on developing strong coping mechanisms, not suppressing our thoughts and feelings.
Suppressing means ‘to prevent or restrain.’ When we are suppressing, we tend to experience no thoughts or emotions. But that doesn’t mean they are gone. In fact, now they’re more liable to come back when we least expect them because we’ve lost touch with them.
Coping means ‘to confront and even struggle with head on, usually with success.’ In each of these techniques, you’re doing exactly that. You’re acknowledging the bad thoughts or feelings and creating distance between them and yourself as a person. After all, experiencing anger is different from being angry. Experiences pass much more quickly than being.
Recently, I attended a wide-ranging mindfulness lecture led by Northwestern University neurology professor and neuromuscular physician Dr. Jinny Tavee. After talking about everything from Socrates and Chekhov to the effects of meditation on neurological disorders, she closed with a very simple idea.
“There are no do-overs, but you can do better.”
Rumination cycles stick us in a Sisyphean universe. We replay the same scenario in our minds thinking about what we might have said or done differently. We hold onto the panic or outrage or sense of injustice, and in that moment, we relive the experience and the emotions that came with it.
We’re replaying the experience because whether consciously or not, we’re trying to do it over again. Fix it. Change it.
Yet, no matter how many times we replay it, what was said can’t be unsaid and what was done can’t be undone.
If we understand that our consciousness creates everything around us and that we are not our thoughts, but are instead capable of confronting them, observing them, and changing them, we can break out of our cycles. We can reshape the stories we tell ourselves. And we can move from the traumatic inertia of the past into the ever-changing hopefulness of the present.