The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Check out an expanded version of this post at Common Pursuits.
I'm currently reading Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens by Eric O. Jacobsen and loving every page of it. In it, Jacobsen defines the contours of what he calls "our crisis of belonging", and it's so much more than moralizing about people's social media habits.
While reading a section on the role shared stories play in cultivating a sense of belonging, I was struck by how the practice of telling ourselves stories plays out, in miniature, in our interactions with people. Paraphrasing Brené Brown, Jacobsen suggests that we tell ourselves stories every time we react to another person, especially when it comes to what we can’t observe, like someone’s motives.
He offers this example:
My colleague comes into a meeting late because
- he doesn't respect me and wants to distract others from my presentation,
- something happened with one of his kids, or
- he put a birthday gift on my desk and wanted to do it while I was occupied.
We’ll tell ourselves a story like one of these, and our feelings about the interaction will be based more on our story than on the behaviour itself.
How we react to someone’s behaviour seems to have as much to do with the story we tell ourselves about them as it does with their behaviour in a particular interaction. Just think about how a critical word from a member of your family might land differently than the same word from an acquaintance. The relationship I have with my wife or father is different from my relationship with my boss or colleague, and the stories I tell myself in response to their actions or words differ accordingly.
It seems particularly important to me, however, that we consider the sources of the stories we tell ourselves, especially about people we don’t have close, familiar relationships with. This is important because, as Jacobsen points out, both our private and public social bonds are looser than ever.
“He doesn’t respect me and wants to distract others from my presentation,” is a story written in the ink of fear and insecurity, whether it’s true or not. The second, “Something happened with one of his kids,” might also be based in fear but is likely rooted in shared experience. Perhaps the speaker in the example is also a parent. In either case the story expresses an other-centred concern rather than self-focused fear. The final story—again, whether it’s true or not—betrays a hopeful disposition
The imaginative exercise above reminds us of the importance of exercising a certain kind of moral imagination in our relationships and social interactions. A critical co-worker may be trying to distract from his own perceived shortcomings. Similarly, it’s possible—and very likely—that a rude driver is not actually malicious or morally deficient but distracted. I might still honk at unsafe behaviour, but telling myself the more hopeful story saves me from the bitter and unnecessary bile of offence.