The Story We Tell Ourselves
Today, I want to chat about a theme I am seeing in relationships. Most of us are familiar with that nasty inner critic we all have. It is the voice inside of us that tells us "helpful" thoughts like:
I am a failure!
I am a bad mom.
I am not good enough!
I will never measure up.
Growing up, regardless of how amazing our childhood is, we start to pick up these negative beliefs. Many of us don't even realize these negative thoughts are creating havoc in our lives. Maybe they keep us from applying for the job we want; maybe these beliefs keep us up at night. Maybe these thoughts cause us to never say no. Maybe these thoughts keep us from enjoying the moment; maybe they give us headaches and GI distress...or maybe the inner critic is keeping us from staying connected with our significant other.
I work with incredible people. They all have different stories and strengths. I see many people that have absolutely flourished in their career, or other parts of their life, but they are really struggling in their relationship. They find themselves feeling extremely disconnected, or they experience a great deal of conflict. Why is this happening?
Our relationship with our significant other is extremely vulnerable. Even if we always "keep it together" in the work environment, or at the social functions, the person we live with will ultimately see our good, our bad, and even our ugly.
For example, last night Brad witnessed me melt down over a stressful interaction with one of our children. He heard me say things I wouldn't dream of saying to anyone else, as I was fuming. He listened to me ramble on about my fears. Eventually, he saw me move out of stress response, grow my brain back, and return to a rational state. Even as I type this, I am not proud of my moment, but...everyone has these times, and generally our significant other is the one person who gets the front row seat.
I am willing to bet that every relationship has difficult times. I have never met that perfect couple that doesn't. Somewhere along the journey, we will show a wide range of colorful emotions. We will eventually do something that causes pain for our person. We will make choices we wish we didn't. Again, our significant other is the witness for all this messy personal growth. I would like to point out that this is what makes our core relationship unique and special.
How does our inner critic play a role? Take last night, for example. I was not winning any "Mom of the Year" awards, and my inner critic was ensuring I remembered that. My inner critic also jumped in with thoughts like, "Brad thinks you’re a terrible mom!" "Brad thinks you’re crazy!" and "Brad is judging you for having a meltdown."
If I allow those thoughts to creep in and take over, my natural response would be to create distance. Typically, if we decide someone is judging or criticizing us, we limit interaction with them, and our internal critic gets louder. We all fear judgement, and one safety response is to move away.
This is why, post meltdown, I might begin to assume that Brad doesn't really want to spend time with me. I could start to assume that he thinks I'm not a good mom. I could start to assume that deep down, maybe I am not worthy of love.
In the Brene Brown Netflix special, Call to Courage, Brene tells a story of a misunderstanding between her and her husband that really highlights how our inner critic can take over. What keeps the scenario from escalating into conflict is that she starts the conversation with the brilliant words, "The story I'm telling myself is..."
This little statement keeps us from blaming our partner, and helps us to take responsibility for our assumptions.
You see, all of us are constantly telling ourselves a story. If someone sends a short text, you might assume they are mad. If someone looks cranky when they walk in the door, you might assume it's about you. If someone is not speaking your love language, you might assume it is because they don't care. If someone doesn't remember a conversation, you might assume that they don't ever hear you. If someone seems preoccupied, you might assume they don't want to be with you. As humans, we tend to fill in the unknown with assumptions.
These thoughts (if unchecked) can ultimately cause a great deal of conflict and pain in a relationship. In session after session, I witness that the assumptions are most often worse than the truth. I watch couples heal from events that happened 20 years ago, because the story they told themselves was so much worse than reality. Believe me, our inner critic is never painting a pretty picture.
Start to pay attention to the story you are telling yourself. When the narrative is running away with assumptions regarding what your significant other thinks and feels, stop yourself and ask them questions. Do not stay silent and start to disconnect, solely based on assumptions. When you get to a topic that brings conflict, slow the conversation down and start to ask questions.
If you have a need that is going unmet, clearly state that need so your person has the opportunity to respond. Clear communication and listening, combined with curiosity helps quiet the inner critic as you start to live more and more in truth. Move toward fact checking, and revise your story. If you find that your inner dialogue continues to be negative, please don’t hesitate to work with a clinician. It’s incredible to witness the healing that happens when the story we tell ourselves has a positive spin.