Most of you are probably too young to have heard of the TV show called Dragnet. Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter in MASH) played a no nonsense detective who was famous for saying, as he was interviewing people, “Just the facts, ma’am”. Inevitably, Officer Gannon would question a potential witness who wanted to take a few detours into irrelevant details such as something cute that their cat did, how bad that particular day was because their washing machine broke, etc. Why do people have this tendency? Humans are wired for story. We’ve been telling stories for over 100,000 years, whereas the written word has only been around since about 3200 BC. In Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong, she cites work from Robert Burton, a neurologist and author, about our need to finish stories. According to Burton, our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. We get a dopamine reward whether the story is accurate or not, and therefore in the face of incomplete data we will finish the story anyway, based on past experiences.
Let’s take the idea of blame and how that can influence our stories. Several years ago I was sitting in the office of my son’s middle school principal discussing an “issue” that had arisen between him and another student. She said that in her experience there are two kinds of parents, ones that always assume their kid was at fault, and ones that assume the other kid was at fault. I fall into the first category. This is not surprising, as I tend to find myself at fault as well. I’m the person who says “I’m sorry” when someone bumps into me or steps on my toe, apologizing for having my foot in their way. No matter how this response originates (do I look like Freud?), it becomes hard-wired, a habit. Our mental stories are habits just like smoking or brushing your teeth before bedtime. This is great if you like how your stories end. However, many of us are striving to change our stories. Mine, for example, often end up in some way with me falling short – grant not funded, not enough papers published, or being the only parent that forgot to send their kid to school in pajamas for Pajama Day. I always thought that blaming myself was good, because at least I’m taking responsibility for my actions. To some extent that's true, as taking responsibility is empowering. Like hot fudge sundaes, much of a good thing can be bad, though, and taken to the extreme "taking responsibility" can lead to chronic self judgment, self blame, and finishing our stories before they even get off the ground. At the least, you write a grant or go to the job interview with the attitude "why bother?". At worst, you stop trying altogether.
Now that I’ve pointed out the problem, what’s the solution? If the solution was easy, I’d be writing this post from the 12 floor of a beautiful research building with windows overlooking the ocean, putting Bill Gates on hold while I finish up this last bit. A big part of the solution is recognition. Pay attention to your thoughts. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself and whether you’re finishing them before they even get started. If you catch your self enough times, you’ll form a new habit where you don’t always assume the worst. The great thing about paying attention to our stories is that, with practice, we get to choose the ending. Now, excuse me, I have a call waiting….
For more information see:
Rising Strong, by Brene Brown, available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller
Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza
Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire and Teach, by Kendall Haven