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May 4, 2011

If You Don’t Like Your Story, Can You Create a New One?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 01:45

why we do what we do

For most of my life, I have struggled intermittently with depression (the Noonday Demon), and anxiety (its Accomplice). And in my practice to become more present, I have been trying to better understand, recognize and articulate strong negative emotions that come up for me from time to time, and which sometimes propel me into depression, and often keep me from being truly present in that magical state of simultaneous awareness and relaxation.

Here’s a table I recently constructed to categorize these negative emotions and how I’m learning to deal with them:

Trigger Emotions Triggered Thoughts/Stories/Beliefs Triggered How I Try to Avoid Being Triggered How I’m Trying to Cope When Triggered
1. Bad news, daily observations. Grief, Sadness, Anger, Determination
Our planet is being desolated by human activity and sheer human numbers, and we are inflicting a staggering amount of suffering trying to keep the industrial growth civilization going, a civilization that is inevitably collapsing anyway. This story seems valid.
Avoid news and places that provoke this. (1) Seek out beautiful natural places to be present and remind myself how wonderful life is; (2) Imagine and write about how we might live better; (3) Increase personal and collective capacities; (4) Let go of what I can’t change, control or predict.
2. Bad news, daily observations. Anger, Acceptance.
Most of the people in the world act, often, and usually unintentionally, in ways that are cruel, ignorant, irrational, dysfunctional, irresponsible, unreasonable and/or destructive. This story seems valid.
Avoid news and people that provoke this. (1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Recognize my feelings and judgements, (b) self-accept, (c) understand what’s happened and why, and allow time to discharge any irrational feelings and allow irrational beliefs to subside, (d) articulate and express my feelings, (e) be generous: appreciate others’ intentions were not malicious, and then (f) let go of my feelings and judgements and acknowledge that for most people, it’s just too hard for them to change, so forgive them: No one is to blame; (2) Assess and improve when possible any underlying systemic process/communication/collaboration problems that provoke these misbehaviours and actions by others (usually only possible at local, small scale level); (3) Recognize and explain my view that others’ behaviour is generally their stuff to address not mine (don’t take it personally or try to “fix” it).
3. Criticism by others (stated or perceived). Anxiety, Hurt, Defensiveness, Self-hatred Because of my propensity to be overly optimistic about what I can do, and to over-promise, and to procrastinate, I often end up letting people down, and in so doing let myself down. New story needed.
Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit
(1) Admit what has happened, apologize, learn from it, self-accept, self-forgive, and take steps so I don’t repeat it; But: What about situations (most of them?) where others’ criticism of me is unfounded or exaggerated?
4. Situations of actual or possible danger or physical discomfort.
Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame, Helplessness I (and/or someone I love) is likely going to suffer greatly (worst case scenario thinking). New story needed.
Try to avoid such situations.
None. Coping strategies needed.
5. Situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort. Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame
I am going to feel trapped and miserable. New story needed.
Try to avoid such situations. None. Coping strategies needed.
6. Situations of actual or possible personal failure. Anxiety, Dread, Fear, Shame I am going to screw up and cause great suffering to myself and/or others. New story needed. Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit; allow time; do my research. None. Coping strategies needed.

I’ve focused most of my attention on dealing with the first three categories, since the avoidance strategies for them (shown in the fourth column above) are mostly ineffective — these things are happening, and are going to happen, no matter how I try to avoid them, or try to avoid knowing about them. I think I’ve made good progress on these, with the coping strategies shown in the right-hand column of the chart.

These strategies are fairly simple self-awareness and self-management techniques. They don’t require me to change myself, or others, or the world.

Recently, a friend said to me, “What if you turned that third statement around? What if what’s really up with you, Mr. Idealist, is that other people are constantly letting you down? Maybe it’s just easier for you, as a believer in people’s basic goodness and good intentions, to take the fall when things go wrong.”

This got me thinking about whether (and when) the ‘stories’ I’ve been telling myself in categories 3-5 are true, and, if/when they’re not, what is the true ‘New Story’ I should be telling myself instead when these anxiety-provoking triggers occur? So, using the turn-around statement above, my New Story for category 3 situations might be:

This person’s claim to be disappointed or let down by me is unwarranted. Their expectations are not what I clearly offered or agreed to. Their disappointment is their stuff, a gap that they created in their mind/heart, not one I created or am responsible for. I’m actually disappointed in them, that they are laying this on me, unfairly and unreasonably.

Assuming this is supportable (there are times when I have created expectations that I haven’t lived up to, though I am learning not to do this), then this becomes a category 2 trigger instead of a category 3 trigger. Instead of being filled with anxiety, hurt and self-hatred, it is more appropriate for me in these situations to feel outrage, but to use the coping mechanisms in the final column for category 2: self-manage my own feelings, understand and be generous about the accuser’s unreasonable behaviour, assess whether it came about because of some systemic but rectifiable failure (e.g. poor communication processes), and put it back to them that their behaviour and/or action was unreasonable, and why, and then just let it go. Not easy, but much better than trying to cope with feelings of self-hatred for something I didn’t do.

At the same time, I have to take care not to over-promise, which is hard to avoid when you want everyone to be happy with you. I am slowly learning this. The hardest part is avoiding the implicit (unstated) promise that can be inferred when I don’t say explicitly what I will and what I won’t do, so that I anticipate and prevent possible disappointments through clear, unambiguous communication. Such communications can produce immediate expressions of disappointment (“I didn’t think you planned to do that, I thought you were going to do this”), and it’s a real temptation to avoid them when that possibility exists, but such avoidance is really not much better than a lie, a lie of omission. I’m learning that someone’s disappointment with my intentions is much easier to deal with than later disappointment with me because of their unreasonable (but unchallenged) expectations about my actions (i.e. what I have or haven’t done).

Then I wondered whether the other contributor to this trigger — my propensity to procrastinate — might need a similar “New Story”. I view procrastination as an exemplar of Pollard’s Law — we do what we must (our personal imperatives), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. To the procrastinator, doing “what we must” means doing it only when we have to, when there’s no time left to do anything else. I’ve stopped giving myself (and others) a hard time for procrastinating, because I think it’s human nature. If it’s really a matter of over-promising, then I have to learn not to promise what I can’t deliver. But most of the time it’s just procrastination, and if people have issues because I leave things until the last minute, that’s their problem, not mine.

The final three categories of triggers are all fear/anxiety triggers, and they include:

  • situations of actual or possible danger e.g. bad weather (especially when driving), and situations of actual or possible physical discomfort e.g. cold, wet, illness, pain
  • situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort e.g. where there is pressure to interact socially with people I don’t know or particularly like (I feel trapped and miserable)
  • situations of actual or possible personal failure e.g. missing important deadlines, dropping the ball while juggling a lot of things at once, forgetting something important

In all these situations, I anticipate an outcome full of suffering, and lack any workable coping strategy, so I have just tried to avoid them. As a consequence, I’ve become a very fearful person, and the related anxieties often lead (when they endure for any period of time, or are given credence by circumstances) to serious bouts of depression.

In thinking about these, it seems to me there is a six-part possible coping strategy (there are other strategies that work for some people, like desensitizing oneself to these fears, but they don’t seem to work well for me):

  • Honour the feelings of anxiety, dread, fear etc. I feel. I feel these things for a valid reason. “Fight or flight” in many of these situations is instinctual.
  • Self-accept. This is who I am.
  • Understand and put in perspective where these feelings come from. What is it I really fear? Is the threat real? What does responding fearfully to these situations get me? Five years from now looking back, will my current fearful response seem justified? What steps can I reasonably take to mitigate the threat or its impact?
  • Be present. Breathe. Be aware of my body, what I am thinking and feeling. As distinct from that “zoned out” state we can sometimes fall into in the face of anxieties and fears.
  • Express my feelings. Let them out. Discharge.
  • Let go. This is the hard step, for me. Let go of outcome, and the need for (and illusion of) control and certainty. Take the existential step of realizing that there is only this moment, now, and that I am not my mind, not my thoughts, not my feelings. Turn the fear to gratefulness.

What then are the New Stories to tell myself instead of “Look out: major suffering ahead”, when these situations arise?

In a few cases, these situations were preventable, and in those cases, the story I should tell myself is similar to the one I am now telling myself when others criticize me for valid reasons: “I need to learn from this experience so it won’t happen again”.

In most cases, however, these situations are not preventable, predictable or controllable, and in those cases, the story I should tell myself is one of self-compassion and dispassion:

  • For situations of real/possible danger, physical discomfort, or failure, the story is: “This sucks. I feel bad. Oh well, I just need to do my best, it will pass, no point getting upset about it.”
  • For situations of social/psychological discomfort, the story is: “I care about most people, I just don’t care about most people’s stuff. Oh, well, don’t beat myself up over that, I just need to find the people I care most about and bide my time with them until this is over.”

With these New Stories and additional coping strategies, my trigger chart looks very different:

Trigger Emotions Triggered Thoughts/Stories/Beliefs Triggered How I Try to Avoid Being Triggered How I’m Trying to Cope When Triggered
1. Bad news, daily observations. Grief, Sadness, Anger, Determination
Our planet is being desolated by human activity and sheer human numbers, and we are inflicting a staggering amount of suffering trying to keep the industrial growth civilization going, a civilization that is inevitably collapsing anyway.
Avoid news and places that provoke this. (1) Seek out beautiful natural places to be present and remind myself how wonderful life is; (2) Imagine and write about how we might live better; (3) Increase personal and collective capacities; (4) Let go of what I can’t change, control or predict.
2. Bad news, daily observations, unwarranted criticism by others.
Anger, Disappointment, Acceptance.
(1) Most of the people in the world act, often, and usually unintentionally, in ways that are cruel, ignorant, irrational, dysfunctional, irresponsible, unreasonable and/or destructive; or (2) This criticism of me is unwarranted. Their expectations are not what I clearly offered or agreed to. Their disappointment is their stuff, a gap that they created in their mind/heart, not one I created or am responsible for. I’m actually disappointed in them, that they are laying this on me, unfairly and unreasonably. Avoid news and people that provoke this. (1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Recognize my feelings and judgements, (b) self-accept, (c) understand what’s happened and why, and allow time to discharge any irrational feelings and allow irrational beliefs to subside, (d) articulate and express my feelings, (e) be generous: appreciate others’ intentions were not malicious, and then (f) let go of my feelings and judgements and acknowledge that for most people, it’s just too hard for them to change, so forgive them: No one is to blame; (2) Assess and improve when possible any underlying systemic process/communication/collaboration problems that provoke these misbehaviours and actions by others (usually only possible at local, small scale level); (3) Recognize and explain my view that others’ behaviour is generally their stuff to address not mine (don’t take it personally or try to “fix” it).
3. Valid criticism by others (stated or perceived); OR Preventable situations of actual or possible danger, discomfort or failure.
Regret, Determination.
I need to learn from this experience so it won’t happen again.
Self-manage: Don’t over-promise or over-commit; allow time; do my research
(1) Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful; (2) Admit what has happened, apologize if appropriate, learn from it, self-forgive, and take steps so I don’t repeat it.
4. Unpreventable situations of actual or possible danger or physical discomfort or personal failure.
Acceptance. This sucks. I feel bad. Oh well, I just need to do my best, it will pass, no point getting upset about it. None
Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful.
5. Unpreventable situations of actual or possible psychological or social discomfort. Acceptance.
I care about most people, I just don’t care about most people’s stuff. Oh, well, don’t beat myself up over that, I just need to find the people I care most about and bide my time with them until this is over. None
Be present, self-manage and appreciate: (a) Honour my feelings, (b) self-accept, (c) understand these feelings and put them in perspective, (d) be present, (e) express and discharge my emotions, (f) let go, and be grateful.

There’s a lot new here, and I’m still thinking it through. But I realize that, while I’m moving forward in becoming more present in the face of the world’s unbearable suffering, and the violence and other misbehaviour of our human species, I still have much to learn in coping with external criticism and with my deep-seated fears. Maybe by changing my stories that provoke negative emotions, and by changing my coping strategies, I will get better at this. I’m not sure that this isn’t just a rationalization or wishful thinking, however: If I’m really coming to self-acceptance, can I really change those stories or strategies? Is this less anxious, less fearful, less self-hating person really me? Or do I really need to come to acknowledge and accept who I am, now, the person represented by the upper table, not the lower one?

One way or the other, I think the answer to these questions is emerging. And once I have them, perhaps I’ll finally be ready, after more than a year of reflection and “down time”, to discover what I’m meant to do with the rest of my life.

8 Comments

  1. “Because of my propensity to be overly optimistic about what I can do, and to over-promise, and to procrastinate, I often end up letting people down, and in so doing let myself down. New story needed.” Precisely this phenomenon has been the bane of my own existence–particularly devastating when one is a parent, and really believes and makes promises based on what one believes one can do. Grown children are seldom very forgiving these days. But anyway, Dave, After 58 years of a really confusing and messed-up life, despite my high IQ, exuberance, and disdain for mind-altering substances, I recently learned that I have Asperger’s syndrome. After a month of initial shock, this knowledge gradually has led so self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, and an increasingly realistic appreciation for and acceptance of my true limitations. I no longer believe I must force myself into roles and expectations–I don’t have to! I can be eccentric as I like (there are limits here, too), find help for the practical challenges I used to insist I would learn to cope with (now I know I actually don’t have the wiring for it), and accomplish a great deal thus unburdened. Sobering, yet freeing. Much of what you write reminds me of what I read about the syndrome. Check it out. It’s not about what you think.

    Comment by Sam Mills — May 4, 2011 @ 09:46

  2. [...] Read the original post on How to Save the World. [...]

    Pingback by If You Don’t Like Your Story, Can You Create a New One? - Dave Pollard at Chelsea Green — May 4, 2011 @ 12:42

  3. [...] If You Don’t Like Your Story, Can You Create a New One? Published: May 4, 2011 Source: how to save the world For most of my life, I have struggled intermittently with depression (the Noonday Demon), and anxiety (its Accomplice). And in my practice to become more present, I have been trying to better understand, recog… [...]

    Pingback by Storytelling Business Social Media Marketing PR & Technology Curated Stories May 4, 2011 — May 4, 2011 @ 15:04

  4. Dave,

    Thanks for your insights – it’s a deep piece.

    I’ve done some exploration of a related issue: whether emotions are woven into a fundamental pattern of experience.

    I think a narrative fractal that generates emotion can be seen work, at any level of focus.

    Here are highlights of the hypothesis:

    1) A chart on emotions associated with elements of narrative fractals

    http://www.slideshare.net/openworld/narrative-fractals-overviewpdf

    2) How replicable patterns in emotional space (“lumenes”) may be co-evolving with genes and memes

    http://www.quora.com/What-are-narrative-fractals

    3) A speculation — around halfway down the page — regarding an “EmoWave” continuum (of sensations->feelings->mood->disposition->character) similar to the short/long wave spectrum of other kinds of waves

    http://emergentbydesign.pbworks.com/w/page/32869837/EbDish

    I’ll welcome your thoughts on the preliminary ideas here, and look forward to further insights from your blog.

    Best,

    Mark Frazier
    @openworld @peerleaning

    Comment by Openworld — May 5, 2011 @ 04:49

  5. There is the opportunity to study martial arts, which decreases the fear and anxiety of a class of ‘situations of actual or possible danger’ as well as grounding adherents in a situated here-and-now cognitive state. This also brings you into contact with martial artists who may have a very different head and that might change you, too.

    You don’t mention a simple strategy for changing ‘your story’ which is this: our stories are collective, to a great extent. You may seem like the hero in your own epic, but we are supporting cast in other people’s. We are connected to others, and we can choose who to connect to. You can move, change jobs, attend a zen center, volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, run away and join the circus.

    Picking who to connect to is the most elemental step to changing your story, not an afterthought or postscript.

    Comment by Stowe Boyd — May 5, 2011 @ 05:34

  6. [...] If You Don’t Like Your Story, Can You Create a New One? [...]

    Pingback by Really like this article « Our life with MPD/DID — May 5, 2011 @ 20:01

  7. Hey Dave,

    I don’t see an awful lot of story changing here (at least not what I would define as story changing). What I do see is an exploration of coping mechanisms to deal with the existing storyline. ..which is great, and necessary, but a different topic.

    The story itself is the trigger. As all great storytellers will remind you, a good plot requires a conflict. If you want to change the story, you have to change the conflict which drives the plot. And this is where the challenge for us melancholics lies. However, as you intimate, this DOES require a fundamental change is both belief system and self-image. And we are so VERY attached to that. I mean, imagine: Who would Dave Pollard be if he was not a “Warrior railing against the destruction of the world”? Are you willing to let go of that story, no matter how valid and true it seems to you today?

    What I’ve found to be helpful is to remember that (to paraphrase Marshall Rosenberg) all choices (or stories) are strategies to meet our needs. So your choice of storyline meets needs for you. If you can figure out what those are, you can begin to formulate a new story while still meeting the needs the old one did. I`ve created a chart for you which I will share with you offline. But here are the captions and suggested content:

    Old Story (trigger): I am going to screw up, loved ones will be angry and disappointed, so there will be conflict in my relationships.
    Feelings: Tense, anxious
    Unmet Needs: Self-trust, connection, freedom, choice, ease/flow, harmony
    Strategies: Endeavour to be clear and honest in my communication and check often what is expected of me.
    New Story: I trust my ability to be clear so that my loved-ones know where I am at and what to expect. I can correct for potential misunderstanding ahead of time, to maintain connection, honesty and safety in my relationships to loved-ones.

    This is a quick and dirty example, so it may not fit you specifically, but hopefully you get the idea. I`d be curious as to what it would look like if you filled in the columns.

    BONUS 1: You can evaluate your strategies by adding a step, namely: with each strategy, evaluate which of your needs will go unmet and see if you can’t refine your strategy to meet more needs.

    BONUS2: You can also take a guess at what the needs of another individual might be and include those needs with yours when drafting a strategy.

    Much love and talk soon.. :)

    Comment by Miranda Weingartner — May 6, 2011 @ 13:04

  8. Well, the triggers you describe in your chart might be perfectly healthy if you had similar triggers for happiness, and happiness and sadness would be balanced. I suspect however, that you only focus on your problems, which seems reasonable, but makes matters worse. The mind occupies itself mostly with what you focus on. In short: you should spend as much time focusing on the ‘good stuff’ as on the problems.

    Also, try under-promising (and over delivering – UPOD) instead of just ‘not overpromising’.

    And, as a last short comment (I’m in a hurry, sorry, I wish I had time to think more about what to write): Psycho-Therapy mostly tries to change the feelings the triggers cause. You might think that this would be wrong (this is how I understand your comment ‘this story is valid’), but you should consider working on that. You might solve problems better without bad feelings.

    Comment by Another Dave — May 10, 2011 @ 15:08

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