The Stories We Tell Ourselves

IMG_5255A client sent me a link to a brilliant article by the wonderful Brené Brown, where she clearly illustrates how it’s the stories we tell ourselves more than actual events that create our anxiety and negative reactions. She relates the story of a couple busily getting ready for work:

“Steve opened the refrigerator and sighed. “We have no groceries. Not even lunch meat.” I shot back, “I’m doing the best I can. You can shop, too!” “I know,” he said in a measured voice. “I do it every week. What’s going on?”

“I knew exactly what was going on: I had turned his comment into a story about how I’m a disorganized, unreliable partner and mother. I apologized and started my next sentence with the phrase that’s become a lifesaver in my marriage, parenting and professional life: “The story I’m making up is that you were blaming me for not having groceries, that I was screwing up.

Steve said, “No, I was going to shop yesterday, but I didn’t have time. I’m not blaming you. I’m hungry.”

It’s the story she told herself that created the problem, not the event itself. She goes on to explain that we make up these stories to try to gain some control over a moment of emotional pain. It’s a misguided attempt, of course, that usually only creates more pain, and ultimately the work is to soften into the original moment of wounding and let ourselves feel that vulnerability. This is extraordinarily difficult work that requires immense self-awareness. It’s the work of heart-warriors.

Nowhere do I see this phenomena more painfully than in the realm of relationships, especially for those suffering from relationship anxiety.

Here’s an example:

It’s the end of the day and you go to hug your wife goodnight. Your wife is, as always, available to you and happy to receive you in her warm embrace. But as soon as you start to hug, something inside of you tightens. What is that? you wonder. Is there something wrong with me, with us? Shouldn’t I feel peaceful when I’m hugging my wife? I doubt anyone else feels this way. This is a bad sign. Something is definitely wrong.

Let’s break this down: You feel the tightness inside of you and, instead of recognizing it as a normal response in a loving relationship and becoming curious about it, you tell yourself a story about it. But this is where it becomes more complicated because when we’re dealing with relationship anxiety we’re also dealing with the stigma about telling the truth in relationships. In other words, we simply don’t know what the truth is in that moment and are left to create a story to try to make sense of it.

Can you imagine if, instead of selling a Hollywood-and-Disney-inspired fantasy, mainstream media told a true and honest story? Imagine yourself into that moment, hugging your partner and your body tenses, and instead of the negative story trolling through you brain, you hear a loving, wise presence, like an older marriage partner who’s been married for thirty years say:

You’re expecting ease every day? Hah! That’s an illusion. Love grows over time. Ease happens after years, sometimes decades, of getting to know yourselves and each other. You have to work at ease; it doesn’t just happen. You have to devote yourself to learning about love; it’s not something you just know when you marry. Anyone who tells you that love in early years is effortless is lying. Your body tensing is not a sign that you’re with the wrong person. It’s a sign that you’re human, and that you have much to learn. Be patient with yourself.  A good marriage takes a lifetime to grow. Hang on, be curious, reach for each other and reach for yourselves. It’s all okay!

Along these lines, a reader recently left this comment on my blog:

I have found through counseling and your blog that most mature adults know what real love in a long-term relationship entails.  One annoying thing our culture tends to do that doesn’t help the anxious ones is how they react to their friends and family meeting the “one”.  We tend to celebrate the early parts of a relationship. Get excited for them when eyes just met across the room, or butterflies after the first date, or the engagement stories. We don’t acknowledge their fear though. We tell them there should be none. We don’t celebrate post marriage relationships much. We all party on the big day, but then walk away and just assume the couple lives happily ever after with no problems, or gets divorced. We don’t offer advice or lend an ear when our friends are troubled that the loving feeling has gone away.  We tell them it’s a bad sign and they should reconsider their relationship. We aren’t honest with them that many of us feel the same way, that feelings ebb and flow in a relationship, and we shouldn’t expect fireworks every waking moment. It’s like confessing you’re anxious about your relationship is somehow a sign to others to give advice that you should leave. It’s very hard. It’s very troubling. When you need support, you get the opposite disguised as the pursuit of happiness.

What a different relationship world it would be if we could all tell the truth. Our internal stories would then follow suit and we wouldn’t feel jailed by the unrealistic expectations and false information we’ve all received about relationships.

When we can slow down our reaction (one) and identify that we’re telling ourselves a story (two), we can then open with curiosity to the world of possibilities that live in that one moment. Instead of being locked into one narrow and restrictive interpretation of what’s happening (my body tightened therefore I’m with the wrong partner), we can explore what may be living in that moment. Then we grow, life becomes a lot more interesting, and we find true freedom from the habitual thought-patterns that keep us imprisoned.

36 comments to The Stories We Tell Ourselves

  • Ashley B

    LOVE! not like this post 😉

  • Berrylotusgirl

    This is so perfectly articulated. I’ve known that tensing up during the embrace and, for too long, thought it meant it was the wrong relationship. Thanks to all your wonderful work, Sheryl, I’ve learned to just accept and breath, and know that love is complicated, often hard, and in its best moments, breathtakingly beautiful and so worth it. Thanks for this! 🙂

  • Ryan

    Wow! So glad I could offer some insight to the blog! I hope we can all start living more truthful lives with ourselves and those around us. As someone who has grown a great deal in the last year, I promise putting in the work to get through that anxious time will pay off. After dealing with the root of anxiety and finding fear, I can now acknowledge it and assess it for what it is. I can breathe into it. Allow it in my relationship, and not let it drive me. It’s okay to be totally freaked out. It’s ok to not be 100% certain. Those feelings will come and go like the wind for awhile. They are just feelings. Feelings rooted in fear that wants you to live in a fairytale that will come along if you just keep waiting. Fear that wants you to be comfortable in the way you knew things. Fear that lets you be lonely. Fear that says you should never have to work at this. Fear that asks why your partner is not the mirror image of yourself. Don’t believe the fear. Allow it, but that is all. Don’t pretend it’s not there either it. Allow it. Breathe. Don’t believe in gut feelings. Don’t believe in intuition. Even if you always have. It’s a crap shoot and you know it. Gut is no way to make the biggest decision in your life. Believe you have chosen an amazing loving partner to live this life with. Believe it is scary. Allow it to be scary. Open yourself up to all of it. You’ll be surprised at the outcome.

    • You’re awesome. Thank you, Ryan, for the words I quoted in the post and for these. They will provide a lifeline for many, I’m sure.

    • H

      Ryan your comments made me cry!! This has made me feel a lot better. My relationship has been feeling quite hard and challenging recently and I know that is down to my anxiety. It is so nice to hear those words you have said,it makes me feel more normal. I have recently joined the e-course and and I will beat this fear and anxiety!! Bring it on

    • Sarah

      I love what you said about gut feelings! When I was dealing with anxiety, asking myself what my gut feeling was was the least helpful (yet often the best “advice” I got from anyone/where). It changed as often as all my other emotions. Belief is much stronger, and a better framework for making a huge decision!

      • Lili

        Thank you all for your great comments. This post came the right time for me too. Ryan many thanks! I also have great issues with ‘gut feelings’. Ive had that over the years of my marriage and its so hard to deal with it sometimes. Sarah your right belief has more power and I kepp reminding my self. The difficult part is when the gut feeling/ intution comes to you repeatdly, for days, month etc you start to beileve it..any opnions on how to distinguish these two feelings -gut feeling and belief- when your at your most vulnerable times?

  • Northernlass

    OMG this came at just the right time for me. This morning I was thinking about how I need to stop listening to the negative stories which constantly play around in my head about my relationship and about myself. Thank you Sheryl 🙂

  • Molly

    Ryan, I am copying/pasting your words into an e-mail and sending it to myself. What a BEAUTIFUL addition to Sheryl’s comforting blog post today.

    Thank you, Sheryl, for always posting something that seems to resonate with me at just the right time. I find that sermons at church do that too! This normalizes my life a bit and makes me feel not so alone in life struggles.

    Thank you again for all that you’ve given in such an extraordinary community. I have made some dear friends along the way; some far, some near! Gratitude is at the base of having found you!

  • ScaredyWife

    What a soothing balm for the anxious heart! The deeper I find myself going into my marriage, the more I’m able to understand the hardships, welcome the hurts and pains, and be able to experience gratitude for the moments of “happy” and warmth. Thank you for all that you do, Sheryl 🙂

  • Thank you, Molly and Scaredy. x

  • Lisa

    So grateful for this beautiful post and comments. I think I need to copy Ryan’s’ words too!
    I’m feeling awful this am after a lovely weekend with someone I’ve been dating a couple months.
    Fear and relationship anxiety in my thoughts and body. Trying to be kind to myself and observe, and trying to release some of the build up. This was so timely and helpful. I do need to stop making up stories, and have
    Compassion for my fears instead of trying to stuff them. I think maybe a good cry is in order!
    Thanks.

  • Juliet

    Yes to all of this! Thanks for this amazing post Sheryl. Ryan, you’ve managed to say something I think all of us who are dedicated followers of Sheryl’s work are perhaps arriving at, but maybe (in my case at least) couldn’t quite put into words yet..well, you’ve found those words and somehow strung them all together into something brilliant. It’s distressing when you try to explain your anxieties to your friends and end up leaving feeling even more isolated – it’s so comforting to come on here and read the experiences of like-minded people who are on the same journey and just…get it! Thank you.

  • Embie

    Sheryl,

    I cannot tell you how much your work has helped me over the past few years. I was so captured by the fairy tale, Hollywood view of romance and love that I almost missed out on a future with a wonderful, loving, committed man. Instead, through your course, I was able to do the work needed to cast this false narrative aside so that I could see the truth about love and relationships. It wasn’t (and still isn’t sometimes) easy letting go of that fantasy story but it has made me so much happier! In addition to helping my relationship, moving away from these false stories about love has helped me develop more truthful and satisfying relationships with my girlfriends. One of my profound moments of clarity came when I took down my fear walls and told my girlfriends about my relationship anxiety. They didn’t tell me that I should leave but instead they shared with me that they had gone through similar moments of fear and doubt, despite what their relationships looked like on the outside or on Facebook. It was so helpful to me to see that love is not what it appears in movies and stories and even on social media and instead involves a deeper commitment and sometimes hard work to flourish. Thank you for your work and your eloquent words!

  • Sarah

    This is great, Sheryl! I love the line, “the story I’m making up!” What a simple way to clarify your defensive delusions. I have a very hard time not assuming my husbands comments are somehow directed at me (even though he’s the most straightforward and least passive aggressive person I’ve ever met. A great way to own your own thoughts/projections and clarify them to your partner as well. Thanks!

    • H

      Hi Sarah,

      Sorry if this seems weird….but I have been reading through lots of blog posts from even a few years back and I can see on some of them you have commented a lot. I was just wondering how you were doing?! I have often wondered about you and some others and how they are in their lives now!! Like I said, sorry if this sounds weird but I was just wondering haha

      • Sarah

        Not weird at all! Thanks for asking:) As far as relationship anxiety goes, it took maybe a year into being married, but it’s eased off a ton! I was seeing a counselor for a while and that helped a ton! I would say a huge mentality shift for me was to just accept that life is full of ups and downs, and transitions will continue to be rough for me. When I had a baby a few years ago I was almost surprised I didn’t have more anxiety, but I was so much better at just crying a lot. It helped a lot. Thanks for asking, and hope your journey is going well!

        • H

          Aww I’m glad it got better! I feel like I’m getting better in accepting (like you said) that life will have ups and downs in literally everything and just because there is a down moment there is no reason to think it will be that way forever! Did you do the e-course? I have just started it and it’s helping a lot already!

          • Sarah

            I didn’t do the ecourse while engaged, but I did do the conscious motherhood one while pregnant and it was great! So much less active anxiety during that transition!

  • Ryan

    It is very difficult to see so many others comments who are experiencing the same anxiety I was, because I know that pain, but so comforting to know that others go through it too. You are not alone. I can’t say that I will never experience anxiety again, but I can say that Sheryl’s writings have been a place of comfort, truth and learning throughout the work I needed to do while I was in anxiety’s throws. For those commenting on gut feelings, I can say I used my gut far too often in life decisions. Once I stopped, life became much easier, clearer and less uncertain. That is much harder to explain than on a comment in this blog, but Sheryl does an excellent job in many of her writings. “20 Ways to Love the One Your With” and “Grass is Always Greener Syndrome” are two fantastic pieces of help with these things. I don’t know if anyone knows 100% who they are with is the “one”. I don’t know if we know that about anything decision in life. I don’t know if God has a blueprint we are supposed to seek out and discover through signs and clues. ( I used to believe that…) I do know choosing good, true, kind and loving people to be in your life is never wrong, even if at times it is difficult. I now think most about who I want by my side when life is tough. Do I want the person who likes the same movies I do? The same type of coffee? The one who just feels the same way I do about everything? Or do I want the person who I can trust and rely on? The person who calls you back when you leave a message? The person with integrity? Can I be that person to whomever I am with as well? Those questions are the types of ones that I spend time answering. They are much more worthwhile, much more tangible, and truly factor into a solid loving relationship.

  • Linda Frommeyer

    As usual Sheryl is spot on. AND Ryan – you are amazing! Are you an Inner Bonding graduate? Where did you get your growth therapy?

    How does one start a relationship when you’re disregarding your ‘gut’? Does physical chemistry come into play? How do you select a healthy partner?

    I’m one month past the finalization of my divorce. I have been dating but every single time they come in for a kiss I get so anxious I turn my head away. I get a sick feeling in my gut!

    How do you know if you just ‘push through it’ and ignore the sick feeling or honor it? Maybe I’m not ready….it is all very confusing.

    • The work is to learn to discern between “gut” and “fear”, and to understand that in most cases where the relationship is good and loving they’re usually the same thing. When you turn inward and approach your feelings with curiosity instead of judgement, shame, or taking them at face value, you will start to understand their messages.

  • Scarlet

    Dear Sheryl,
    I am in a 3 year relationship with a wonderful guy. He is sweet, affectionate, honest and the kindest person i have ever met. This past summer i began to feel so much anxiety concerning him and our relationship, it got so bad that i wasn’t eating for days. The anxiety took a real toll on my body and physical health. I came across your blog and your course on how to have the greatest relationship of your life shortly after i broke up with him. It really helped me understand why i am feeling the way that i am and i asked him to take me back which he did. I am working on myself by trying to get to the real root of the problem and i realize that i am projecting a lot of my own issues of intimacy and fear onto him. I am unsure of how to deal with these issues and i find myself wanting to avoid him which i know hurts him deeply. What can you suggest?

    • I would strongly suggest you join my new course which will be released next month: Break Free From Relationship Anxiety. It’s for anyone at any stage of relationship struggling with anxiety, doubt, and projections in all of their manifestations.

  • Denise

    I really like this. I grew up watching codependent relationships all around me. So when I fell for a military man it made things rough. I love him, and I know he loves me. However his independence has forced me to learn to be independent too, which is a good thing. I have days where learning to be independent has been painful because of my fantasy expectations of relationships. It’s hard to be with someone you don’t hear from for days, and I make up stories about why he hasn’t contacted me. Then I freak out about these things I made up in my head. That’s no way to live! Sheryl your work has helped so much. I’m learning about real love, not codependency. I’m so grateful, because there are a lot of articles out on the Web that teach codependency as true love, but you really know your stuff!

    Ps I’d love to hear what you think of military/similar relationships!

  • ank

    I know this has nothing to do with relation anxiety,even though I have it,but Im kind of in a dilemma.Okay,so 2 days ago I was with my boyfriend at a petstore and he wanted to show me something. I kept repeating that I can’t see and he grabbed me by my arm. It wansn’t a light grab,but it wasn’t even close to a firm one. I got kind of scared because a week ago I heard one woman talking to her friend about her ex-husband beating her.And I got scared not because of him,mostly because I dont know if this is abuse or not. He is never controlling or anything. I talked about it with him and he said he was sorry and even suggested me to break up with him if this ever happen again. He took responsability for his action. Is this abusive? Because he said it wasn’t his intention to hurt me and it didn’t hurt either. I can get over it,because for me it wasnt important,sometimes it happens to me to grab him not very lightly because Im not aware of my power. Im not defending him right now. I just want to know: it’s abuse or am I just making a big deal? Because I feel like Im making a big deal.

  • Angela

    Ryan, thanks for sharing your insights, you really helped me from a bit of an anxious day. I dont think i would manage without this blog!! Sheryl, totally related to brene’ browns story. Thanks your inspirational. Words have power and meaning.xx

  • Chrissy

    Wow I was just thinking not too long ago “I feel he’s not the one for me, therefore I should break up with him” I almost googled guys but instead came to your site and read this. Feelings don’t tell you much, worrying about the future makes you scared and want to run away. Maybe he’s not the one and maybe it is but right now my fear is trying to make me run away. This helped a lot because this was the story I told myself today. It didn’t feel right so it couldn’t be. But why couldn’t it?

  • Stef

    Hi sheryl, Ryan and anyone else reading!

    Just wanted to say this website is a god send! It has helped me loads in the past few months.
    I’ve been with my partner (also a women) for almost 4 years and have been struggling with anxiety bases around our relationship for at least 2 years!
    At first it started as anxiety around if she was going to leave me or fall out of love with me, then after a few near break ups and so on it transformed into anxiety around if I was going to leave her and if she was the one for me anymore.
    I can say that this anxiety is so crippling at times and even my physical body has suffered from being so extremely stressed.

    I find over the last few months that I have been managing my anxiety more and more and I’ve been feeling much better however in the last week or a little longer it’s been a little harder to manage. I feel like I’m having less control over my thoughts.

    I love that in the comments of this blog the topic of ‘following your gut’ has been brought up. I get so much anxiety from this topic because I constantly feel like I’m at war with myself as to if I want to be with my partner.
    I wish that I could be fully sure that I want to spend my life with her, for a while I was and then it changed as my anxiety did.
    I’ve always struggled with decision making and being confident in my choices. I know that this is a huge desicion in life as to who will be your partner for the long haul. Now everyday, even though technically I am making the choice to still be with her as I haven’t broken up with her, I still am never really sure if it’s the choice I want and can never feel fully content with this choice. Then there’s also a choice of leaving her and I can’t seem to choose that choice either so I’m stuck in the middle of a limbo of choices. Sometimes I have thoughts that maybe the only reason why I’m not leaving her is because I’m afraid it will be a mistake to do so and that’s the only reason not that I actually love her and just have a bad case of relationship anxiety.
    It’s also very frustrating because it’s almost like I’m scared that I’m cutting off all other possibilities of my life with someone else and I keep picturing myself with other people who I don’t even know.. Espically men. Even though I’m certain that I’m bi sexual and have had no problem being with a person for who they are rather than their gender!
    Basically I just want to have that feeling of being content with my decision and want to know and feel that it’s the right choice for me without doubting it everyday!
    This comes at a big time too as we are going to finally move out together and of course I can’t even be fully sure it’s what I want even though I really want to ‘want’ to move out.

    This is a massive ramble that I’m going on so I’ll stop there.. I guess I just want to see if anyone else feels like I do and struggles with desicions!

    Stef xxx

  • Fear based

    I think this blog is great and has helped me so much in the past few months!

    I wanted to comment to ask about fear. I notice in a lot of the blogs there is a message to find the fear within and if we find that fear we might be able to settle it and our anxiety will lessen.
    I at first started being anxious in my relationship about my partner leaving me and then it turned into anxiety about me leaving her. The first part of my anxiety I can say now that the fear was based around her leaving me and finding someone else and me being jealous and so on.. Now that the anxiety has transitioned I can’t really put my finger on what my fear is. I have a lot of thoughts about why I might be feeling this way and they all give me so much anxiety but I can’t seem to figure out what the fear is behind them. Is it that I’m scared to be with one person for the rest of my life? Or am I afraid I didn’t explore enough with others? Am I just not confident in my decisions? I don’t really know..
    The biggest anxiety driven thought I have is that my fear is that I won’t leave her because I’m afraid of the break up and mourning the loss of my relationship.. I know if we ever did break up that eventually I would be okay but I am very scared of that feeling of loss of us. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the only reason why I’m still with her..
    I also wonder if maybe because of a few near break ups that maybe my anxiety transitioned because of that feeling of knowing at that time that we could be over so in order to keep away from that feeling that I fear so much my anxiety changed and flipped on itself ? I’m not really sure there are so many questions and thoughts and it gets hard to handle sometimes but this website has really helped!

    I wonder if anyone has any insight on this topic..

    Xx

  • Ani

    So, recently I’ve been feeling very anxious about my marriage. I didn’t like the feelings of uneasiness and am so thankful to have found Sheryl’s work. All these posts describe my feelings perfectly and I really feel like it’s relationship anxiety. I have been reading the book “calming the anxious mind” and have been trying to calm myself. Then the thought of leaving my husband came to mind and I didn’t feel scared or anxious at all. I felt completely numb of any feelings or wants to be with him. Although it didn’t scare me, I decided to go back and read to see if this was normal to feel. On a few comments I read that this is completely normal to feel no love because fear has eclipsed the heart. I read the article on falling out of love and it gave me hope to love again. Maybe I finally am ending the “infatuation” stage of our marriage and starting a new more loving stage. But, I have such a hard time letting go and crying to grieve the process because I feel like I won’t want to love again for fear of getting hurt.

    I could use some words of wisdom, please.