The Stories We Tell Ourselves


Rachael ran into her friend, Jennifer in the grocery store.They both smiled and talked briefly, but Jennifer seemed a bit distant.Jennifer ended the conversation by saying she had a lot to do. After they parted, Rachael questioned why Jennifer seemed distant and why she left so quickly. In her mind, Rachael told herself a story that Jennifer must be upset with her about something. She recalled that two weeks earlier, she had declinedJennifer’s invitation for lunch because she had other plans. She reasoned thatJennifer was upset with her because of that event.

Todd was competing with several co-workers for a promotion. His interview that morning had gone fairly well. Later in the day, he noticed the boss talking to one of the other candidates in the hall. They were laughing about something. Todd began telling himself a story that this co-worker was going to get the job. He became angry as he concluded that the interviews were just a formality, and that this company followed a good-ole-boy mentality and always would. He began thinking about looking for a job with another company.

Both situations illustrate that we tend to operate on a combination of facts and assumptions. Rachael and Todd did observe some facts. Jennifer did end the conversation fairly quickly. Rachael had turned down the earlier invitation. Todd did see the co-worker and boss laughing together. That’s all they really knew, but then they began to tell themselves a story. They formed conclusions based on their combination of facts and assumptions.

We do this all the time. We observe events and then begin generating our stories. We make assumptions about other’s underlying thoughts, feelings and motivations. We make assumptions about future events, failures and successes. Our emotions and actions are determined by the stories we tell ourselves, not the actual facts.

The human brain actively seeks resolution. Our brains constantly work to make sense out of incomplete information. For example, when you look at a flower, you don’t actually see the flower. Your eye sends data signals to the brain about color and shape, contrasts between light and dark, texture and depth. The brain then fills in the blanks to create an image of the flower in your mind.

Our brain also seeks resolution as we experience life events. We see certain facts, then our brains work to fill in the blanks to form conclusions. By filling in the unknown pieces of information, the brain achieves resolution. We feel a sense of satisfaction with this resolution, even when the conclusion is negative.

Unfortunately, our stories are often wrong. Our assumptions reflect our pre-existing beliefs more often than objective truth. When we believe we are inadequate, we tell ourselves stories of failure, mistakes and other’s being critical. When we believe we are unlovable or unimportant, we tell ourselves stories of others rejecting or backing away from us. When we believe that people are mean and hurtful, we tell ourselves the story that others will hurt us.

Sometimes, our stories may be true, but often they are not. Just pay attention to the times when you are adding to the facts you know with a story. You might think something like this, “This event happened, then the story I told myself was ….” It might help you distinguish between fact and assumption.

When Bad Things Happen

Our response to negative events can make all the difference.

Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears.

                                                                         Pope Francis

 difficult times in life

Why do bad things happen? A national survey asked people what they would ask God, if they could ask him only one question. The number one question posed was, “Why is there suffering in the world?”

The only accurate answer to that question is, “I don’t know.” We may speculate. We may have our theories, but there will always be events in this life that are beyond comprehension.

For what it’s worth, I’ll briefly share my personal thoughts on the question, noting that others have voiced similar opinions. First, I don’t believe that God causes bad events. I believe God suffers along with us when we suffer, because He loves us. I also believe that God can, and does, use bad events for good. I believe we experience pain and suffering in this life, because we live in a sinful and broken world. Much suffering is directly caused by sinful behavior, our own or someone else’s. Other times, bad things happen where no sin was involved, such as physical illness or natural disasters. In these cases, it makes sense to me that such events occur simply because we live in a broken world.

So, we’re left with the reality that bad things do happen. Since we can’t change this reality, we need to look at how we can best respond to it. There are several truths that can help us with our response.

  1. Bad things happen to everyone. We are not alone or unique in our suffering. We may perceive that life is easy for some, but we would be wrong. Others may hide their dark days or seem to handle them well, but they still occur. Understanding that life is difficult for everyone helps us accept our difficulties with more grace.
  2. We don’t have to feel alone. When bad things happen, we need to lean on others. We need other’s support. If you are a believer, you know that you need to lean on God during these times. I know that my spiritual growth accelerates during my difficult times. During such times, I am reminded that I need to depend on something greater than myself.
  3. Others don’t have to feel alone. We naturally reach out during the bad times. We want to help, to support, and to encourage. We are blessed when we reach out to bless others. Bad times spur us to do this.
  4. We see life more clearly. Bad events help us see what is really important. Issues that once seemed so important, fade into the background. Our bad times work like a miner’s sifting pan, allowing the unimportant and trivial to fall back into the river, while highlighting the true gold in life.
  5. We reorganize our priorities. I have worked with many people who have altered their life’s direction following a negative life event. Some have come to a place of gratitude for the bad event, as a needed turning point.

So, we are left with the reality that bad things happen to everyone. We can’t avoid them. We may not be able to understand them. But, we can work on how we respond to them, and that can make all the difference.

I Know Why You Did That

We make too many assumptions about why others do what they do.

We do it all the time. We all do. We observe someone’s behavior and immediately assume we mind readingknow why they did what they did. We do it so often, that we don’t even notice it.

Someone doesn’t return a phone call or a text. A co-worker leaves a meeting early. An acquaintance walks by us without speaking. A friend doesn’t voice agreement when we state an opinion. A spouse avoids talking about a recent disagreement. A loved one hasn’t called in a while.

The list could go on. We observe an endless number of behaviors from other people every day, and we assume what those behaviors mean about the person’s feelings, opinions, intentions or attitudes. Our assumptions are often wrong, but we feel quite certain that we are right.

We misread other’s behaviors because we tend to believe that other people think the same way we do. We look at their behaviors and ask ourselves what it would mean if we did the same behavior in the same situation. “If I did that in this situation, it would mean that I was feeling…” We then assume that the other person must be feeling the same way.

We also assume that we know all the information we need to know to interpret the person’s behaviors. This assumption is often wrong. The late Dr. Steven Covey shared a particularly moving example in his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.”

Dr. Covey was riding on a subway car in New York City. It was a pleasant Sunday morning ride, with most passengers quietly reading their newspapers. A man and his three children get on the train. As the car was fairly full, they had to sit in different places. The man just sat looking down at the floor. The kids, however, were hyper and argumentative. Their behaviors worsened as the train progressed. Other passengers were watching these unruly kids and waiting on the father to correct them, but he just sat there staring at the floor. As the misbehavior worsened, Covey spoke to the man and asked him if he couldn’t say something to his kids, as they were being a disruption to the other passengers. The man looked up, as if in a daze. He responded that he guessed he should say something to them. He went on to say that they just came from the hospital and that their mother just died. He said that he didn’t know how to deal with it and guessed they didn’t either.

With the new information, Dr. Covey’s attitude toward the man and the children suddenly changed. He had assumed that this was an uncaring father, and that these were obnoxious children. He now saw the father and the children as hurting and confused. He asked the father if he could help him with the children until he came to his stop. He now felt compassion rather than irritation.

Before assuming that you know why someone is exhibiting a behavior, remind yourself that you may not have all the information. It will also help if you can remember that the other person may perceive or think differently from yourself. An assumption is just an assumption. You’re just guessing.

I’ve Never Told Anyone This, But ….

It's comforting to know that your secret feelings are shared by many others.

Over 36 years of practicing psychology, I have heard this phrase quite a lot. Sometimes during shared feelingsthe first session, and sometimes after several sessions, the client will pause for a moment, then begin with that phrase. They will go on to share something they have never shared with another human being. Sometimes their voice will crack, or their face will reveal their discomfort.


I feel the importance of those moments. I realize that my reaction to this information can have a significant impact. I know that my reaction can determine whether they feel acceptance or shame. I also know that my response can affect the future or our counseling relationship.


I consider it an honor that they have decided they trust me enough to share this thing they have never before shared before. Of course, I know that my role as a psychologist and the confidentiality of the therapy setting play a part, but I still think it says something about their perceptions of me as a human being.


The information may be an event that happened during childhood. It may be some characteristic or trait. It could be an opinion or pattern of thinking they have kept hidden. Regardless of the content, they have felt afraid or ashamed to tell it to any other human being.


I think about how hard it must have been to have carried this secret. I imagine the burden they have felt through the years. I consider the situations where they had to choose their words carefully to protect the information.


The person has kept this information a secret for a reason. In most cases, he has imagined that others would be judgmental or disapproving. He anticipates being ostracized, rejected or at least treated differently.


Whether or not we have a particular secret, we all wonder at times if other people think the way we do. Are we similar to others or are we different? Do others share similar feelings, reactions or insecurities? Are we normal or abnormal?


One of the nice parts of my job is helping the person, who has always thought she was abnormal, realize that she’s not. It’s very comforting to know that your feelings are shared by many others. It’s a relief when you can understand that you are simply being human, imperfect just like everyone else.

A Time of New Beginnings

We often look to a new year as a time for positive change.

As we celebrate the new year, we often think of new year’s resolutions. I don’t hear people talkNew Year about them as often as I used to, but the topic still comes up. I think most of us consider resolutions a waste of time, as they’re usually forgotten by February.

But still, a new year can be thought of as a new beginning or a new start. We hope that this year will be better than the last, that we will finally make that positive change, or at least have better luck. We look toward the future.

While New Year’s resolutions often fail, there is a benefit to setting goals. Research shows that most top athletes and business people set goals. They often attribute their success to proper goal setting. Their goals help them focus their efforts and increase their motivation.

So, how do we set goals that actually make a difference? Here are some guidelines to consider.

  1. Make your goals measurable. A goal should be specific so it is easy to determine whether it was or was not met. Saying you want to be a better person is nice, but your success will depend on the day of the week and who you ask. Saying that you will show some act of kindness every day is a little more manageable. Saying you will be healthier is too vague. Saying you will love twenty pounds is measurable.
  2. Give yourself a timeframe. Set a specific time where you will check your success or failure. Saying, “I will lose twenty pounds by March first” will increase your motivation and focus.
  3. Don’t set too many goals. We can become overwhelmed by too many goals. Keep the number at three or less at first. If you succeed at those, you can add more.
  4. Visualize your success. There is tremendous power in visualization. Picture the time when the goal is a reality. Imagine yourself twenty pounds lighter. Picture the project as already completed. Be as detailed in your visualization as possible. Notice what you see, feel and hear in that moment. Notice the look on your face. Notice how good you feel with your success.
  5. Avoid self-criticism if you fail at a goal. You will not succeed at every goal you set. When you do fail, just start over. Try to identify why you failed and make corrections. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t beat yourself up with them. Self-abuse never helps. It just crushes your motivation and morale.


As this new year rings in, consider how you want your life to look. Self-growth is a good thing. You often can improve your circumstances. For years I have said, “I want to live my life deliberately.” Be intentional. Set a goal or two this new year, and see what happens.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Enjoy your holidays, but be realistic about your expectations.

One of my favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a beautiful snow-covered farm scene. The farm house is beautifully decorated for Christmas GatheringsChristmas. The caption at the top says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you open the card, the words read, “And in therapy for the next year.”


The card is funny but expresses an unfortunate truth. I talk to so many people who grew up in dysfunctional families. They recall a parent’s substance abuse, an abandoning or critical parent, or constant drama and infighting through childhood. Like all children, they carried this overriding hope that the parents would change, and they would at last feel the love they had longed for. Like all children, those family experiences created self-esteem wounds, where they believed that they were at fault. They mistakenly believed that they were defective, unlovable or inadequate.


Many of those children carry this hope of family change into adulthood. As adults, they still long for that negative, critical parent to finally be proud of them. They hope to see expressions of love, or attention from that distant or abandoning parent. Their hope is fueled by the mistaken belief that their worth is measured by the parent’s behaviors toward them. They believe that loving or accepting behaviors from the parent will mean that the defective child has finally grown into a competent and lovable adult.


Now, here’s where the Christmas card comes in. These people carry the hope that this time or this visit, things will be different. They hope that this Christmas, they will see the change. They may not be conscious of this hope. They may consciously realize that the negative parent won’t change until they decide to change. But, subconsciously they carry hope.


The person who returns home for a visit, carrying this unrealistic hope, is primed for disappointment. When the family member once again behaves critically, is rejecting, or gets drunk, that hope is shattered. The result can be anger, depression, or a deepening of an old self-esteem wound.


Of course, the truth is that the parent’s critical or rejecting behaviors reflect a problem with the parent, not an inadequacy in the child. And, the parent won’t change until he or she realizes the problem and has a desire to change.


The holidays can be a very special time of year. Enjoy the good parts. Establish your own traditions but remember that people basically act like themselves. Try to be realistic about your expectations when you make that Christmas visit. It might save you some of the cost of therapy.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

We must learn to listen to each other with respect and civility.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  Abraham Lincolnkindness


These words were spoken by Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address on March 4th, 1861. In just over one month, the Civil War would begin. The country would be torn apart. Four years of intense combat would follow, with 620,000 to 750,000 people being killed. Neighbors would fight neighbors, brothers would kill brothers, Americans would destroy other Americans.

Though it would take years, America did reunite and heal from the Civil War. Our common goals and purposes became more important than our differences. Divisive labels lost their meaning. Our forefather’s wonderful experiment of Democracy thrived once again.

While the most dramatic, the Civil War wasn’t the only time our country and our people have been divided. We have had other times of separation, times when the distinctions between “us” and “them” seemed clear. We have had other times when our goals, our cultures and our purposes were at odds.

I believe we are in such a time now. The divide between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, right wing and left wing has consistently widened. It seems to me that we’ve lost our ability to disagree with civility and remain neighbors and friends after the discussion. Like many, I have felt a deep concern about where we are heading.

Recently, however, I have been reading “The Soul of America” by Jon Meacham and feeling more hopeful because of it. In this book, released May, 2018, Meacham provides a historical perspective for our current social climate. He points out that we have seen many times of strife, but that each was followed by healing and even strengthening of our country. He notes that our Democratic form of government serves to facilitate such healing. I really appreciate his hopeful perspective.

On the first day of his presidency, Lincoln appealed, “We must not be enemies.”  But, it’s up to us. We have to begin by listening to each other with respect and calm. We must remember that our differences are far outweighed by our similarities. We have to look for common ground. Those on the “other side” are, after all, our neighbors. In this time, we can work together for the common good, but to do so, we must depend on “the better angels of our nature.

The Medicine of Laughter

A good laugh can do much to improve our mental and physical health.

We all laugh. In fact, laughter is universal. Regardless of culture or native language, all humanslaughter laugh. It is a hardwired response, involving the brain centers of emotion and memory; the amygdala and the hippocampus. It activates the pleasure systems of the brain.

A baby’s first laugh will delight her parents at about 14 to 18 weeks of age. At about eight months of age, infants begin doing things to make others laugh. Without words, they begin clowning to make others laugh. They may try to put their toes into their caregiver’s mouth or expose their naked tummy, while shaking back and forth. At this early age, they seem to understand humor.

Comedians make us laugh by exploiting our expectations. They set us up, then surprise us with the punch line. We laugh at the unexpected or the absurd.

So, why do we laugh? Other than the fact that it feels good, are there benefits to a good belly laugh. Research indicates that laughter serves us well. Here are a few ways that laughter is good medicine.

  1. Laughter is good for your heart. It gives us a good cardiovascular workout, much like going for a walk. A good laugh will strengthen your heart muscle.


  1. It is a natural pain killer. Laughter makes us produce endorphins, which increase comfort, decrease pain, and just make us feel good.


  1. It protects us from disease. Studies show that people who laugh regularly have lower incidence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension. Laughter also boosts our immune system, helping us ward off infections.


  1. Laughter decreases our blood pressure. People who laugh frequently tend to have lower blood pressure, which decreases the risk of heart attack or stroke.


  1. It decreases stress and anxiety. We increase our relaxation response when we laugh. Our stress hormones go down, and we become less anxious. Genuine laughter calms an anxious mind.


  1. Laughter helps depression. Studies have shown that watching funny television shows or movies improves one’s outlook on life. While it may be more difficult to laugh when depressed, the research suggests that watching comedy significantly decreases the emotional pain of the disease.


  1. It strengthens relationship bonds. Laughing with others increases our feelings of connection. Sharing a funny moment makes us feel closer to each other. A non-threatening humorous comment can often ease a tense discussion.


  1. It can shift our perspective. When dealing with a problem, a little laughter can help us distance ourselves from the seriousness of the difficulty, helping us feel less overwhelmed.


These are just a few of the benefits of laughter. So, let yourself laugh a little. Look for things that make you laugh. The best laughter is when you spontaneously laugh with a friend or loved one. But, you can also find humor on the internet. Just google “clean comedy” or “clean jokes.” Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’ll feel better for it.

But, It’s Not Fair!

We tend to have the mistaken belief that life should be fair.

It seems to begin early in childhood. Every parent has heard the complaint, “But, that’s not Life is Unfairfair.” We seem to have this instinctual expectation that the world should be fair, and that expectation often continues into adulthood.


When we perceive that we have not been treated fairly, we complain. To ourselves, or to anyone who will listen, we complain about our unfair treatment. Our protests reflect our inner expectation that life should be fair. Even though we intellectually know better, our complaints also indicate that we assume life has been fair to everyone else.


So, what do we mean by fairness? Arthur Dobrin, DSW, teacher of applied ethics at Hofstra University, points out that there are three different perceptions of fairness. These are as follows:


  1. Sameness: This is the expectation that everyone will be treated equally. Everyone pays the same thing, and everyone gets the same thing. Regardless of need and circumstances, everything is equal. Everyone eats, or no one does. Senior citizens pay the same as younger adults and children. No one gets more than another. Dr. Dobrin calls this perception of fairness, equality of outcome.


  1. Deservedness: This is the expectation that you get what you deserve. If you work hard, you get everything you earn, and you keep it. You get only what you earn, and you get nothing if you don’t earn it. Those who are smarter, more talented and harder working will have more, and the inept, unmotivated or less diligent will have less. Dobrin says this is fairness as individual freedom.


  1. Need: This is the perception that those who have more should give more to help those who are unable to contribute as much. This is based on the belief that we all have obligations to one another, and that we should show compassion to those who have less. Here we see fairness linked with responsibility. Dr. Dobrin notes that this is fairness as social justice.


As you read through these, I suspect you agreed with some elements of all three. Most of us adhere to each perception, depending on the circumstances. We may also apply one concept to the world, and a different one to ourselves.


However, the truth is that life is not fair. A tornado will rip through a neighborhood, completely destroying one house, while not touching the one next door. One person gets cancer, while another remains healthy. It’s hard to understand. It’s not fair.


I certainly don’t pretend to understand why things happen the way they do. I do know, however, that obsessing or moaning about the unfairness of life accomplishes nothing. It just intensifies our pain. Once we accept that life isn’t fair, once we accept that life is difficult, we can begin to move on and live again. It may be hard, but it’s the reality of this life.

One Key to Happiness

An attitude of gratitude can do wonders for your mood.

Once more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents gratitudealready knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.


In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.


We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do so with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.


First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, research indicates that we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.


The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.


The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share characteristic; an attitude of gratitude. They report that exceptionally positive people pay more attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. They report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.


We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!