We all make up stories in our heads about our life (The Dangers of Unconscious Storytelling). Every interaction warrants an opportunity for storytelling. Most of our storytelling expertise is derived from the female leads of our childhood with a little influence from our male role models. The ladies play a bigger part most likely because the female brain is wired for relational connection. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University states, “that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. It is known as the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory. Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. The empathizer intuitively figures out how people are feeling, and how to treat people with care and sensitivity…” So, basically, women are wired to analyze other people and formulate a correlating response.
I KNEW IT! It explains why women are often labeled as “caddy, chatty, over-analytical, or just plain crazy”! Because of course we take a good thing a little too far and toss in some self-analysis too, and voila! People (men) think we’re crazy! For those of us who are gifted with a more sensitive personality, this makes even more sense. I have a solid history of impeccable intuition/“picking up on” things going on underneath the surface of what was being shown or said. I have an equally impeccable rap sheet of times I have INaccurately perceived things that were not happening at all (but maybe that’s only because the real truth was never revealed; this is an argument I am willing to take to the death). But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that we ladies are hardwired to think about the people we encounter and how we should best respond.
This natural intuition can lead us to beautiful places of connection and deep intimacy. It can also lead us into some treacherous waters of certifiable neurosis. As I begin to stir these waters a bit and shine some light on the more disturbing elements of our empathetic wiring, I will reign in the inclusive nature of this idea and strictly focus on situations of the neurotic behavior of which I have been the origin, the catalyst, and the dynamite. Obviously, the male/female interactions will be my most dramatic displays of… imbalanced emotions, so that is where most of my examples come from. I will only share 3 today, but you have my word that I will continue to share my epic tales of disillusionment in later essays. Please enjoy at my expense, and once you’ve recovered from all the cringing, you can turn the spotlight on your own neurotic episodes. Thank you and you’re welcome in advance.
I was 19, blonde, tan and flirty. He was tall, dark, and handsome. We were inevitably drawn to each other. It was probably my tan skin and his dark hair that did us in. Regardless of why, we began dating and it was euphoric. Passionate, fun, carefree. Just five weeks in, the walls of euphoria came crumbling down when he told me he had slept with his ex-girlfriend the weekend before. I was dumbfounded. Why? How? We were on Cloud 9! There are no ex-girlfriends on Cloud 9! Then it dawned on me, oh, maybe I was the only one on Cloud 9.
From the beginning, I had a beautifully laid out narrative running in my head. This was that good kind of connection and romance, the kind that people drop everything for and run away with, it was the once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing… or at least it was headed there fast. But then he cheated on me. That incident didn’t line up with my storyline whatsoever. It was jarring and it took me a very long time to come to terms with (I don’t really want to tell you how long because it’s embarrassing the years- I mean “months”- it took for me to get over a relationship that lasted five WEEKS). Once I finally moved on, he haunted me for yearrrrrs. It was so frustrating, I even talked to my therapist about it. I didn’t feel done with him and our fling was cut short by his stupid betrayal, I just needed “closure” or something.
Well, turns out, all I really needed to do was erase the story I had going all along and create a new, more accurate one: We were hot for each other. I had chosen not to be sexually active until I got married. He had been sexually active for years. We were nowhere close to getting married (although we had naively talked about it once or twice). So, basically, we needed to get on the same page and start connecting in other ways besides our lips or we were destined for a breakdown. This updated narrative would have served me much more wisely than my original one. Call it lack of experience or maturity, and hindsight is always 20/20, but no matter what, a little tweak in my storytelling could have changed my recovery process for that one.
Moving on to the next example. I was still young, 21, and this time I had inserted myself into a lovely little bubble of radical religion and small-minded thinking: the evangelical church. In that bubble lived a rock-star Christian boy, acting like a man. See, when you’re in your early twenties and people give you a microphone, a leadership title, and a few subordinates to lead, you think you’re mature. You think you’ve earned the responsibility to care for souls. You think you know things, when really, at that age, you’re just repeating the truths you’ve heard others who have learned from their own experiences talk about. You’re pretending to have lived more life than you have and it’s a dirty little game to get involved in. But I can play dirty, so I jumped in. He was esteemed, respected, and swooned over in this bubble. He was the cream of the evangelical crop, and he and I were falling in love.
The story I had running in my head had taken the data and formulated that I was lucky to be dating the top pick of guys and every girl wished she was me and every guy wished he was as awesome as my guy. Other people’s opinions of him were so high, I felt I was making a no-brainer decision to date/marry him. Sure he exhibited a few out-of-the-box reactions to certain things while we were dating and engaged, but he was the strongest Christian guy this side of the Mississippi. It would all work itself out because he loved God and he loved me and I loved him. We were committed to each other and God, what more could a promising young couple possibly have?!
Umm, I don’t know, maybe proof. The story I was telling didn’t demand any proof of character, time to show true colors or validation of authenticity. So, what my storytelling got me was a super-Christian, bipolar, abusive pastor for a husband. Yes, we loved each other, but love doesn’t cure mental illness and it doesn’t stop abuse. Bad storytelling played a major role in my decision to marry my husband, and it kept playing out for another decade, telling me I should stick it out and love him more every time he called me names, humiliated me in public, or belittled my existence. Had I told myself the truth- that I wasn’t sure I could make it alone in the world, so I’ll hitch my wagon to the one who shows the most promise- the story in my head and the story of my life would have gone very differently.
Maybe we would have taken more time to date, address the reality of his depression, and I still would have married him and had our beautiful children. Who knows? I’m just grateful my choices got me the two incredible children I have. Going back in time isn’t the point. Seeing how my storytelling has led me through my biggest decisions in life without me even realizing it is the point!
Now for a story not about a boy. A couple of years ago, I’m on my way to meet a group of widows at a restaurant for margaritas and some MUCH needed kid-free time. We met in a grief group for our preschoolers and sort of clicked, so we decided to meet outside of the group to see what we could really make of this connection. I wasn’t nervous so much as excited and anticipating where our conversation would lead us. 10 minutes in and we are full-on widow dark thirty. Morbid jokes, awkward widow storytelling, and tear-filled moments talking about the unimaginable pain all of our babies were going through. They were the real deal. At the time, I didn’t know how badly I needed a new addition, but I desperately needed a widow/grief room in my heart.
We all hugged as we left and immediately started texting about the next date. And I made some sort of sick, dark joke about how we’re all black widows and people should watch out when we’re around or they might die too. No one replied back immediately, and thus my bad storytelling began: Aw, crap. I took it too far. Stupid stupid stupid! Why can’t I just shut up? Now they’re all going to think I’m the really twisted one. I’m going to have a lot of backpedaling on this one. Why don’t I just take it easy and build up a rapport with new people before I dive in head first with my huge personality and god-awful jokes?!
My past experiences and fears of rejection were telling a story of what the other girls were thinking about me- I’m ridiculous. I’m a shit-starter, a line-crosser. I need to be reigned in and toned down. I don’t know when to stop or how to control myself. I was running full throttle into defense mode, building up walls when my phone started buzzing. Right!? We should call ourselves the Black Widows… Yes! And when people ask how we met, we can tell them it’s because Death follows us wherever we go!
Ohhhhh, that bad storytelling got corrected early on this one. Thankfully. These crazy ladies were just like me! I never told myself another bad story about the widows… and to this day they continue to stack my widow/grief room full of life, love, and morbid humor!
Confirmation bias is defined as the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. Whatever I think about myself will show up in my story. My insecurities will be the theme of my storyline and no matter what the intention was, I will interpret/force/rearrange how others are loving, accepting, or believing in me as something entirely different, so it can fit my current narrative. The stories I tell myself will either keep me from diving into the moments that make my heart pound (starting up a convo with a crush, leaning in for a first kiss, laying out heart on the table, daring to do what I’ve feared the most, taking a chance on my dreams) OR they will catapult me into a life of taking chances, unadulterated honesty, and flipping regret the bird!
We tell stories of all kinds all day long. The guy who cut me off did it to me on purpose! Or, modified, that story could more accurately say I don’t know why he did it but maybe he just found out his loved one died (God knows how many traffic violations I made in the moments after I found out the news of Tyrel’s suicide) and that’s why he’s driving like a lunatic. My kid’s teacher didn’t respond to the email I sent yesterday probably because she’s so annoyed with my constant questions and requests. Or, a better story, she hasn’t had time to check it yet because she’s very busy loving and educating my child. We tell janky stories about the clerk at the store, the boss, the in-laws, the partner, the flight attendant… anyone and everyone. I’m not necessarily saying give everyone the benefit of the doubt, although I think we all should try to, I know how difficult that is when life has screwed you over hard. I just want to remember not to fill in the blanks with make-believe and squirrely details that really have no basis for the current situation. I don’t want to tell UNTRUE stories. I either need to shut up and stop telling a story at all or wait until I have accurate, full-bodied details to formulate a TRUE narrative.
It’s so simple! Start thinking of bad stories you’ve told yourself in the past and follow the path those have led you down. Then recognize the stories you’re telling today, and identify where they could use some tweaking.
Let’s get right with our stories and get some ever-loving peace of mind for once!