How To Step Out of Your Mental Traps
Getting out of the "I" of the storm.
Posted Nov 23, 2018
Consider this scenario that happened to me recently. I had a very important phone conference scheduled with someone at 10:00 a.m., and I had been awaiting this call with some anticipation and excitement. We had never spoken, but this conversation involved an important professional opportunity for me. I scheduled my morning to make sure I would be available at this time, uninterrupted. I sat waiting for the call, but the person did not call. After a few minutes, I was puzzled, then became increasingly frustrated as time passed.
After about 15 minutes of waiting, my mind began to spin stories about why this person hadn’t called me. After 30 minutes had passed, the stories became more elaborate, negative, and more centered around me, my disappointment and my upset about this person not being reliable, as well as thoughts of my own shortcomings (maybe they decided they don’t want to talk with me).
I finally got up the courage to call this person and, to my surprise, they answered the phone and sounded confused. They were puzzled as to why I was calling at 7:00 in the morning! Neither of us had taken into account that we were on opposite sides of the country and in completely different time zones — with a three hour time difference!
When situations happen throughout our day we don’t just experience these happenings directly. We often attach a story to them, a narrative and interpretation that is told from a limited, “me” perspective. In the situation above, I had constructed all kinds of stories about my own shortcomings and those of the person I was waiting to speak to — based on interpretations that turned out to be inaccurate. We do this on a small (and sometimes large) scale more often than we may realize. Often, our stories involve critical or negative self-judgments (telling ourselves some version of “there is something wrong with me”). Sometimes these stories can involve criticism and judgment toward others, making assumptions that are untrue because we are viewing the world through a one-sided lens. Often times, the stories we attach to our experiences can make a neutral situation challenging, and a challenging situation more difficult because we miss the bigger picture.
The Cost of Being Trapped in Our Own Mental Stories
The narrator of our stories tends to engage in self-referential thinking and can be judgmental, negative, critical, and tend to distort things in irrational or inaccurate ways. Is that person really giving me a “dirty look” and thinking bad things about me? Is my child really doing this to push my buttons, (or are they perhaps hurting in some way that I have not considered)? Am I really not good enough because I didn’t get that promotion, or because a relationship ended, or because someone didn’t like my presentation at work? Is it true that my partner always ignores my requests, or my child never helps out around the house?
The cost of such mental storytelling is that it can increase our sense of separateness and disconnection, contribute to upset, anxiety or conflict, create a sense of unease or unhappiness, and take us away from the truth of the present moment.
How to Step Out of the “I” of the Storm
So how do we get out of our heads, and away from the “I” of the storm that often creates increased suffering for us? Here are a few suggestions:
1. The first step is to begin to notice the narratives that show up in your day-to-day life. It is helpful to recognize that these are your own interpretation of your experience and not necessarily absolute “Truth.” We don’t have to turn this voice of our inner narrator off, nor could we if we wanted to (I challenge you to try and stop yourself from thinking), but we can let this voice loosen its grip on us by recognizing it for what it is. These thoughts are mental constructs, our own interpretations of events in our day.
2. Take a moment to pause, and separate fact from interpretation. A fact might be: that person looked over my way; my uncle did not come to my house for the holidays; I did not get the job I wanted; my partner didn’t do the thing I requested of him/her; I have to go for further medical testing. The stories that get attached to such facts might go something like this: that person doesn’t like me; my uncle doesn’t care about me; I’m a failure; my partner doesn’t care about my needs; something is terribly wrong with me.
3. When you recognize yourself being caught in a story, stop and ask yourself the following questions: (it may be helpful to think for a moment about a recent “story” that you told yourself as you go through these questions).
Is what I am saying to myself true and accurate, or are there perhaps some distortions, or multiple potential interpretations of the situation.
If there is someone else involved, what might this story look like through their eyes?
When I step back and see this from a larger perspective, can I envision some other possible stories that exist about this situation? Are some of them more helpful than others? Are some of them more accurate than others? Which one do I want to embrace? Which do I want to let go of? Which one best serves me?
What might I focus on that allows me to feel more connected, rather than disconnected, from others and myself?
As an example, if I am upset with a family member or friend, I could consider that perhaps the other person who upset me has their own reasons for why they acted as they did, and it may have less to do with me personally, and more to do with something painful in their own life. In addition, I might recognize some part that I may have played in the situation, that perhaps at first I hadn’t acknowledged. Alternatively, I might see that this situation is triggering emotions within me that have much less to do with this immediate situation and more to do with my own past hurts. Furthermore, rather than staying attached to this story, I could evaluate whether there are any steps I could take to help resolve the conflict. I could also make sure that I am not focusing on thoughts that are inaccurate (e.g., generalizing to thoughts such as “he never listens to me,” based on this one incident).
Taking these steps can help us take the “I” out of the storm, and find a place of greater calm, perspective, and connection within life’s challenges.
Note: This article was originally published on PsychCentral's World of Psychology Blog.