What's real?

In working with challenging beliefs or patterns, I’ve found it very helpful to separate two parts of my experience.
One part is things that are uncontroversially true. This means the things that everyone can agree on: she closed the door. He said “thank you for the cake.” Because I have no sense of humor when I’m in my stuff, I sometimes use overblown descriptions to remind me to take myself a little less seriously. When I’m in that mood, I call this things aliens watching a videotape could agree on.

The other part is the interpretations we add to the things that have uncontroversially happened. The clearest way we do this is when we attribute motivations to words or actions: she closed the door because my music was too loud. Sometimes we take it several steps further and make up a whole tale about what is happening: she closed the door because my music was too loud and she hates it when I do that so she is definitely completely pissed at me and will probably move out and never speak to me again.
Another especially sneaky way of interpreting is using emotionally laden or judgmental language: she slammed the door says something about my perception of her intention that she closed the door doesn’t. We all have our own vocabularies of emotionally laden words — mine include yelled and ignored — and these words often feel so obviously true that they’re hard to pick out.

I call all of these interpretations stories, and we all have them. Some of the stories are beautiful, helpful, interesting, or useful, and there is nothing wrong with keeping these so long as they are helping us. But some of them are painful or cause conflict, and these ones are worth another look.

The tricky part about stories is that we come up with them because they feel true. But they are grounded not in what is uncontroversially true but rather in assumptions, and so we have the power to overturn them when they no longer serve us. To do that, we have to notice them, get curious, and then be willing to try believing something else if it turns out that our stories might not be true.

Noticing is the hard part. I’ve found the habitual use of the question is that true? to be particularly useful in this regard, but another way is to look for times that you feel bad and then work back to the thoughts behind that feeling.
Curiosity means focusing on whether you can absolutely, positively be sure that your interpretations are true. (Hint: no.) Once you’ve gotten to this point of doubt, you have done a surprising amount of the heavy lifting.
After this, I find it helpful to make up an alternate story that is more helpful. If my story is about another person and we are close, sometimes asking them can be fruitful. Byron Katie recommends thinking of times when the opposite of your interpretation is true: if you have decided it is distantly possible your partner might not hate you, think of loving things they have done recently.

You can also engage in all sorts of clever workarounds, some of which we’ll talk about in the weeks to come. For now, I invite you just to see if you can find stories in action in your life, ones that help you and ones that maybe aren’t as helpful. If this practice changes anything for you, I would love to know about it.

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