Updated: Aug 16, 2019
Extracts on managing anxiety were published in my article on "Phone Phobia" in Happiful September.
"I always ask - what story am I telling myself?" Brene Brown, The Call to Courage
A "standard" phrase, almost as common as "Tell me about your mother" is to Freudian psychoanalysis, is "own your narrative" . In other words, this is my life, and I'm going to live it, no matter what the story is or was.
While this is true, I personally believe that the position most conducive to personal growth is owning the pen. The knowledge that you not only get to write your story, but you can edit it based simply on the fact you know you are the author, is phenomenally empowering.
I highly recommend Dr Brene Brown's "The Call to Courage" (as I write, it's on Netflix). She is a shame and vulnerability researcher and her insights into this area presented as a Ted talk, are not only uplifting, but hugely enlightening. She speaks of her own example where she had constructed a narrative in her head which had the potential to affect her relationship and takes you through her thought process in resolving it, and I'd like to discuss the concept in more detail in this post.
Since the 1950's Beck's research into the cognitive elements of depression identifies that "negative automatic thoughts" (NATs) are a common symptom of the disorder. These NATs can play over in our minds and be gravely anxiety-producing as they often are exaggerated through "catastrophising". In other words for example, we may look at the "3 dots" on a smart phone which disappear and then we think "They don't want to talk to me..." after a pause, "They hated seeing me..." pause "I always mess things up like this, I'm rubbish..." (and the use of the elipsis here is not unnoticed!) Soon you are in a deep spiral of anger, frustration and sadness. Worse, this can lead to ineffective relationship behaviours - such as never contacting that person again, or being distant when a reply comes through, or "soothing" such as "I'm still awesome I'll go and prove it". Often what has happened if I'm the "3 dot culprit" is that I was about to start a reply and then I was called away. As much as I love the people I chat with, I'm still a professional who works. (In an emergency I'd have phoned you or turned up - no dots needed!)
Often our anxiety causes us to overthink a situation. Perhaps you are willing to pause for a moment in reading and consider one such example that you might have experienced...what story did you tell yourself, and what happened? (Note, if you didn't give the person any chance to explain and then complained they were "off" - I would ask you to consider if your behaviour could have caused their response following yours. They weren't necessarily to know this was what you were thinking).
I appreciate that when you are invested in a situation, you might have a need for the other person to respond right away, but they have needs too. Further, if there is a break in conversation - through no fault of either party, it's not always easy to remember where you were. I can even lapse in thought while mid-sentance sometimes!
The next time you find yourself becoming anxious about a situation which has, as yet, no outcome, ask yourself "What story am I telling myself?"
This might result in further reflection - Have I told myself stories like this in the past? Have I been right? Why am I telling myself this story? What can I tell myself instead?
Try to remain calm (distract yourself - try not to make up any further narrative on the topic) and when you are in control of the facts, reassess. At the very least if your concerns were appropriate you have stronger grounds for a less upbeat approach.
Assuming there was nothing to "fear", especially if the other person in question is significant, explain the story you constructed and you can both work to try and tackle the real fear at a deeper level...eg. do you have a fear of being left? Of being forgotten? Of not being a priority?
As an example, sometimes my husband does not want to be my first audience for a talk I might have spent all day preparing and am desperate to beta test. He works too, and the world does not (as my new narrative states) I repeat does not revolve around me. Rather than pretending to listen or just listening with a sense of resentment - which is unsatisfying for us both (we've been there), he will now tell me "I know you want to talk, I want to...[complete as relevant]...Can I listen later?" - and later always comes. It's not easy, he doesn't like upsetting people and I don't like rejection - but we got there, so it's possible.
If owning your narrative is hard, this is pushing the idea a step further - it is the knowledge that you can write the next chapter. But go on, pick up the pen.
Audrey is a Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol), and the author of "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness" (2018) and "Be A Great Manager - Now" (2016) She is a CPD Accredited speaker, trainer, and qualified FIRO-B and NLP Practitioner. She is the founding Development Coach and Training Consultant with her training consultancy CLICK Training, and the resident psychologist on The Chrissy B Show (Sky191), the UK's only TV programme dedicated to mental health and wellbeing. She consults, coaches and often presents at National and International conferences in the fields of leadership and team cohesion, as well as being part of the Amity University conference panel. She currently lectures in Personal Development and Mindfulness and provides psychological consultancy in these areas to organisations.