Creating interesting stories is a time-honored skill and entertainment for many. A good storyteller can keep the attention of small children as well as antsy, busy businessmen. Unfortunately, your mind is also a great storyteller. Sometimes you may not realize what is truth and what is fiction created by your mind.
Your mind is always creating explanations and possibilities about the world you live in. It will interpret and make assumptions in creating its stories, about the past and the future as well as the present. It rattles on and on and is rarely even close to quiet. Your mind may have a favorite genre–suspense, drama or horror. It may also have favorite themes such as victims, persecutors or helplessness. The mind’s stories are about how you see the world.
Remembering that thoughts are just thoughts and not necessarily true can be difficult when your mind is telling you a story about issues that are scary to you or important in some other way. It takes very little for the mind to take off with an elaborate story that will cause you great pain and perhaps lead you to actions that you will regret later.
Perhaps you worry about friends talking about you behind your back. Your mind will come up with all sorts of stories about your friends betraying you in that way. One day you see one of your friends at a restaurant with another friend. She glances your way (you’re at a table about five feet away) and then returns to talking with her companion without acknowledging your presence. That’s enough for your mind to decide that she is a backstabbing, not-to-be trusted, two-face jerk who you’re ready to unfriend. Maybe you walk up to her table and let her have it. After all, you don’t deserve to be treated this way.
Later you learn that she was planning a surprise birthday party for you. Plus she didn’t have her glasses on and couldn’t see further than three feet. If only you hadn’t listened to that storyteller and if only you had checked out what the facts were, you might not feel so guilty and full of regret.
The mind can create stories that entice you into believing in wonderful outcomes as well. Perhaps you date someone new. You are instantly attracted to him. Your mind then whirls into action and churns out stories every few minutes. Some of the stories are about his fantastically romantic proposal and others are about your wedding. Some may even be about having children and growing old together. Your mind creates a whole future for the two of you. These stories can be painful too when you learn that the man you met is completely incompatible with you. You love quiet evenings; he is a partygoer. He is a hunter; you are vegan. Your disappointment is so much more than it would be if your mind had not created that happy-ever-after story.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, they have many exercises to help you recognize the power of the stories the mind tells. One is the Hands as Thoughts exercise/metaphor by Russ Harris. Imagine that your hands are your thoughts. Hold them together, palms open, as if they’re the pages of an open book. Then slowly raise your hands toward your face until your hands are covering your eyes. Now take a look around you. See how the world looks through the spaces between your fingers. Notice how this affects your view of the world. Imagine going around all day with your hands covering your eyes. What would that be like? What would you miss? How would it affect you? How would your ability to respond to the world be affected? This is what it is like to live your life based on stories that your mind tells you instead of facts. Now slowly lower your hands. Notice how much easier it is to see clearly and to know what is happening around you. This is like when you check out what is real and question the stories that your mind tells you.
Stoddard, J. and Afari, N. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. California: New Harbinger Publications, 2014.
Photo: Amy Spreitzer Windsor, Creative Commons
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