The Stories that we Make-Up, Why They Upset Us, and How They Mess Up Our Relationships
Updated: Aug 4
When it comes to our intimate relationships all of us are fiction writers. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t realize that we’re writing fiction. Instead, we think that we’re journalists providing objective reporting of what our partners, kids, and the other significant people in our lives think, experience, believe, and even feel. But this “objective” perspective is also a fiction. The reality is that we all constantly make up stories in our heads about other people’s behavior. We ascribe motives, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings to our partners, to our kids, to our friends, and to everyone else we interact with, based on our own assumptions. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, it’s how we make sense of the world and the other people in our lives. The problem comes when we believe these made-up stories without respectfully validating them with the person we’ve invented them about.
For most of us, when we get upset with the people who we love and tell ourselves that we “know” why they did something, what they’re feeling, or what character flaw is driving their behavior we move into a self-righteous stance, and instead of appropriately expressing our perspective as an interpretation we more often assert it as an accusation, putting the person in a position of defense. Even in cases where we label their emotions or motives such as, “I know you’re pretending to be fine with it, but that you’re actually really angry,” or “You didn’t just forget to stop at the store, I know that you were being passive-aggressive by not getting those lemons that I really needed,” we are setting ourselves up for conflict simply because no one likes being told what they think or how they feel.
Here’s one of my made-up stories. I have a teenage son* who frequently leaves dirty pans in the sink to “soak” for 12 plus hours at a time instead of cleaning them before the end of the day. It’s super annoying. When he does this the story that I make up is that he leaves them because he knows that there is a better chance than not that if I come into the kitchen and see the pan that I’ll scrub it for him. Based on this story, I get frustrated and upset about his “entitled attitude.” Then I get angry and disappointed in myself that I have failed as a parent by raising a person who is so “entitled.” By the time I actually talk to my son about the soaking pan I’ve worked myself up to such a point of frustration and agitation that it becomes difficult to have a calm and constructive conversation with him.
But instead of sending myself down this distressing and destructive emotional trajectory that in most cases will just leave me frustrated and leave him defensive, I can instead choose to proactively and constructively talk directly to my teen. I can use a process that Relational Life Therapy creator Terry Real calls the “Feedback Wheel.” By using this tool I can honestly and authentically share what I’m feeling by making my implicit stories and assumptions explicit without shaming or blaming my son. I can tell him what I suspect about his motives in leaving the pan in the sink, but by recognizing and labeling it as my own made-up story, rather than as his disowned motivation, I have a much better chance that he’ll stay engaged with what I have to say, rather than defensively reacting to my accusation.
So, on a good day, when I’m the kind of parent that I like to be, I can tell my kid:
“When I come down in the morning and see your dirty pan soaking in the sink the story that I make up is that you didn’t think it was worth cleaning because you figured that I would probably end up just doing it for you and that you’re taking advantage of me. I feel disrespected that you don’t follow the family rule of cleaning after yourself, and that makes me feel sad and disappointed. So, what I’m asking from now is for you to make sure that you wash all of your dishes every night before you go to bed. Is there anything that I can do that will help you to do this so that we don’t have mornings when I come down to dirty dishes and get myself upset?”
By starting with an objective observation that could be made by a video camera - what I see
Then sharing my made-up story which I recognize and name as my own made-up story
As well as expressing how I feel, not something that I believe but that I’m calling a feeling, such as, “I feel like you are being entitled.”
And providing a specific future-focused request of what I’d like to be different
Finishing by offering to support him in doing this in a way that will increase his chance of success
I can share my experience in a way that he can hear and, hopefully, be motivated to change his behavior in the future. This process works equally well in our romantic relationships and other personal interactions when we would like someone to understand the impact of their behavior on us. But it’s critical that we use it sparingly. If we’re providing feedback to our romantic partners every day they’ll be unlikely to be open to a constant stream of feedback. For more about the Feedback Wheel and other helpful tools for communication check out my Free Relationship Tools page.
*My dirty pan neglecting nearly-nineteen-year-old has read and given his consent for me to share this post.
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