The Cornerstones of Our Emotions: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

by Barnes Boffey, Director of Training at The Aloha Foundation

This is the first in an ongoing series of blog posts dedicated to the concepts of Success Counseling and how they may be used in everyday life. 

My good friend Anthony has not been returning my calls, and as time goes by without hearing from him, I begin to create possible explanations of what might be going on. I start telling myself stories about what might be happening that cover a fairly wide range:

“I did something wrong. He’s mad at me and doesn’t want to talk to me. I wonder what I did?”

“It’s not me, he’s just busy, and he’s probably too swamped to call me back.”

“There’s been an accident or an illness. Oh, my God, I hope he’s OK.”

“What a jerk. I always call him back, but I guess I can’t expect the same.”

As we all know, the list can go on and on. We roll these stories around in our heads—and what we may or may not notice as we do is that a different emotion accompanies each story. There is not one emotion created by the incident; there are many possible emotions, depending on our interpretation of the event.

With “I did something wrong. He’s mad at me and doesn’t want to talk to me. I wonder what I did?” we feel nervous and perhaps a bit guilty. We may even dabble in shame.

With “It’s not me, he’s just busy, and he’s probably too swamped to call me back,” we feel concern and maybe even some compassion for his being so straight out.

“There’s been an accident or an illness. Oh, my God I hope he’s OK” is accompanied by emotions of worry and perhaps fear.

And finally, in telling ourselves, “What a jerk. I always call him back, but I guess I can’t expect the same,” we create emotions of anger, resentment, and disappointment.

Someone not returning our calls does in fact give us information about the world, but the emotions we feel (actually, that we create) are primarily influenced by our stories, not the reality of the situation. And yet, if someone asked us, “How does it make you feel when Anthony doesn’t call you back?” many of us might abandon the responsibility of creating our emotions and respond, “It really makes me angry when he does that.” We would blame the external event for our emotions rather than assume responsibility for having created our emotions internally.

Success Counseling encourages people to look at the stories they tell themselves about any situation and to decide if those stories would be the ones they would choose if they were being their best selves. It asks us to bring our stories into awareness and then choose which one/ones we think appropriate for the people we want to be in that situation.

My friendship with Anthony is an important one, and we have times of very good communication and times of spotty communication. I consider him a good and loyal friend. The question I would therefore hope I would ask myself is this: “If I were being the loyal and good friend to Anthony that I say I want to be, what story would I be telling myself when he doesn’t call me back right away?” My answer to myself would be: “Relax. Give him the benefit of the doubt, and stop making a big deal out of this.” I think that telling myself that story would help me feel caring, calm, and forgiving, and I would be much more able to choose a healthy course of action with those thoughts and emotions in place.

There is nothing easy about this process. We live in a world in which most people act as if their emotions have little to do with their behavior and almost entirely are the result of the behavior of others. We find ourselves saying, “If you would just stop doing X, then I wouldn’t have to be angry and upset.” The message is, “It’s not my fault how I feel; you are making me feel that way.” Believing that to be true locks everyone in a victim role that is very hard to escape, especially if we are not aware of it.

Our relationships can be filled with people who create the stories they tell themselves (thereby also creating their emotions) and then complain to us about how they are feeling, while relinquishing responsibility and asking for sympathy. In Success Counseling, we work to help people realize they can’t have it both ways and be empowered in realizing they have a great deal more control of how they are feeling in any situation than they might have believed. The loss of a story—an excuse—is definitely small compared to the gain of response-ability.

Over the next week, try to be aware of the stories you tell yourself in your work and in your relationships. See if you can be more mindful by asking the question, “If I were the person I say I want to be, what story would I be telling myself in this situation?”

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