The Wisdom of Separating Fact from Story

I know that a lot of people (including my divorce clients and me), have to be careful about the stories we tell ourselves.  These stories either supplement, or reduce, our own personal power.  They are the basis of our happiness or they scuttle it.

Let’s look at an example.  You and your three best friends have planned for a long time to get together for dinner, and tonight is the night: 7:00 p.m.  Your spouse agreed to be home at 6:00 p.m. to take your kids to soccer practice, but it’s now 6:20 p.m.  You’ve received no call, no text, and no spouse at the door!  You can’t both take the kids to soccer and make it to your dinner party.

How are you feeling right now?  You might feel a flush of anger.  Maybe you’re worried, especially if this isn’t like your spouse.  You might feel anxious – you want the kids to be on time to their commitment and you want to be on time to yours!  Or perhaps you just brush it off, and know that your spouse will get the kids to soccer, and if they’re late, well then, so be it.  Life happens!

So at this moment, we have some facts (your kids have soccer practice at 6:30 p.m., you have a dinner at 7:00 p.m., and your spouse is late).  And we have some feelings (possibly anger, worry, anxiety, calmness, etc.).

Where the train goes off the tracks for both married and divorcing (or divorced) parties alike is when we start to make up a story to explain the facts and justify our feelings.  Let’s continue with our example.

  • If you feel angry about the facts, the story you make up could go something like this: “Right.  The one time this month I get to see my friends and catch up, he’s late.  My life isn’t important to him.  He always places himself and his needs above me.  If this was his tee time, you better believe he would have been early.”
  • If you’re worried, the story could be different.  “He’s never late.  He always calls or texts when there’s a change in plans or something comes up.  Something must be terribly wrong.  Maybe I shouldn’t go out tonight.”
  • If you’re divorced, and frustrated with your ex-spouse, the story you tell yourself might go like this:  “That no good, ****!  He is always trying to control my life.  He doesn’t give a crap about my commitments.  Only what’s good for him.  He probably doesn’t want to leave happy hour and whomever he’s flirting with – he was such a player when we were married.”

Regardless of the story we tell ourselves (which is usually based on our underlying feelings), we have to ask ourselves a question.  Do we feel better or worse by telling ourselves the story?  In all three instances, above, the storyteller is either riling herself up or getting more anxious by the minute.  Do we want to be riled up or add to our own anxiety?  Is this a good way to start our long-awaited evening with friends?

Personally, I believe we have to be very careful to “stray” from the facts.  All we know, for sure, is that our spouse is twenty minutes late, and that there are two upcoming evening commitments (soccer practice and the dinner with friends).  That’s it.

And in this moment, we’re at a choice-point.  We can stick to the facts and make decisions based on what we know for sure, or we can start filling the unknown with stories that may or may not be true and, more importantly, may not serve us well.

Truthfully, our spouse (or ex) could be late for a whole host of reasons.  Traffic could be terrible.  Roads could be icy.  The cell phone could be dead or accidentally left at the office in the mad dash to get home.  The boss may have stepped into your spouse’s (ex’s) office for a late afternoon “chat” about work performance.  Who knows?

The point in all this is that we choose how we feel and we’re responsible for taking excellent care of ourselves.  We tend to feel better when we stick to the facts, and guard our thoughts and our willingness to embellish the facts (even if the story is based on past experience, because it may not be true this time).  Herein lies our personal empowerment.

There is strength and empowerment in taking inventory of a situation, making a decision, and acting upon it.

What is dis-empowering is becoming more and more reactive to events. This can easily happen when we stray from the facts, embellish them, or heap emotions upon a situation that is not yet fully understood. Power is relinquished when we choose this route. We are no longer moving forward with life, we are stopped – perhaps stalled with emotions – analyzing and creating stories rather than deciding and moving.

If we make up a story with the facts, continuously grow the story to something bigger or worse, or allow ourselves to languish in whatever emotion we may be feeling, we will activate the part of our brains that wants to fight or flee.  Doing this also deactivates the problem-solving part of our brain, making our options seem more narrow.  Suddenly it seems like the problem is larger, the solutions are fewer, and we feel like crap in the meantime (angry, frustrated, worried, etc.).

However, if we stick to the facts, we keep ourselves calm.  Calmness is the key to accessing the rational part of our brain (frontal lobe) and assessing our options.  We can see the facts, look at our options, and choose a direction to move.

Maybe we tell the kids that Dad is late that they’ll get to soccer practice whenever he picks them up and gets them there!  Maybe we leave a note for our spouse (ex), and say that we’re dropping the kids off at soccer, and then text our friends that we’ll be 10 minutes late for dinner.  Maybe we wait for our spouse to get home, to make sure he’s okay, and then head out to dinner with our friends.  Whichever option we choose, we are empowered by choice.

It’s your choice: fact or story.

Suzanne E. Grandchamp


UNTANGLE, UNPACK, & LIVE WISELY:

In your situation:

  1. What are the cut and dried facts?
  2. What are the emotions you bring to this situation?
  3. Looking at only the facts, what are your options?
  4. Choose an option and go from there.