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“In the absence of data, you’ll make up a story”
If I took away only one thing from Brené Brown’s recent talk in Sydney, it’s confirmation that the brain is addicted to connecting the dots. Our need to construct a story is a stronger imperative than the accuracy of the narrative we create. The primitive mind needs an explanation pronto and often we run with the first one we come up with, regardless of the evidence.
Our brain hates ambiguity and uncertainty, so it makes a simple story. It doesn’t reward accuracy it just wants certainty.
Brown’s latest book, the third in her trilogy, continues her thesis around vulnerability and shame. The “story we tell ourselves” is the central theme of Rising Strong. She dissects why we create the story, how we can own it and ultimately rewrite it.
The brain may make the story but it’s the emotions that are driving it.
The Reckoning – walking into the story
While the primitive brain, honed for survival, assembles the story’s limited pieces into a narrative that makes some kind of sense; our emotions actually ignite the process.
When we recognise our emotional responses, we’re able to slow down this primitive reaction. The classic fight or flight symptoms– such as a dry mouth, changes in breathing and racing thoughts – are cues that we’re about to trigger this story creation process. But we can sometimes derail the process by choosing to be curious about these sensations instead.
Brown discovered that in these uncomfortable situations, resilient people were more likely to use mindfulness techniques. For example they ask themselves, “What’s happening right now?” and slow down their breathing. Calming the hyper-emotional response through curiosity and conscious breathing can often stop us from creating the wrong story.
When we react to the first story we make up, 95% of the time our reaction moves us away from our values.
The Rumble – owning our story
When we create a story from limited data, it’s usually an inaccurate one. Brown calls this “the shifty first draft” (SFD)*. Our SFD is the story we tell ourselves, mostly driven by feelings of shame, guilt or fear.
For example how often do we think we’re the reason a friend, partner or colleague is in a bad mood? A grumpy look or gruff tone is easily misinterpreted when we tap into our fears or inadequacies and construct a story. Unlike actual fiction, where a writer knows the first draft is indeed almost always a ‘shitty’ one, our brain often doesn’t challenge the narrative.
If we missed our first opportunity to question the process during this reckoning, the rumble provides a chance to approach the story as a SFD. Brown found resilient people were more likely to challenge the conspiracies and confabulations in their story.
By stepping outside of the story we can ask ourself these questions:
- What’s true?
- What do I know for sure?
- What do I need to learn about myself?
- What do I need to learn about the situation?
Actually writing down the SFD can help disempower our fears. Brown’s research found that people who challenge their assumptions in this way tend to be more resilient.
The story I’m telling myself…
The revolution – rewriting our story
Unlike the writer who gives up after the SFD, we can always rewrite our story. Though this takes a little courage to admit (even if only to ourself) that we got it wrong!
Even simply rephrasing it as: “The story I’m telling myself …” is a powerful tool. For example, “The story I’m telling myself is that I’m no good at my job and scared people will realise I’m a fraud”. When we reframe these thoughts as a “story”, rather than a fact, it’s easier to deconstruct and rewrite them.
When you own your story, you get to write the ending. If you deny the story, the story owns you.
Brown really didn’t want mindfulness to be an essential tool in resilience and even joked that this was her least favourite slide in the talk. It is a common reaction, not wanting to believe that something as simple as box breathing and curiosity can be so powerful. But after interviewing thousands of people over the decades she can no longer deny the importance of these techniques.
For me, mindfulness is a practice that helps develop awareness to create a bigger space between thought and action. Using Brown’s framework, mindfulness can provide the space in the reckoning so we can calm down and challenge our habitual assumptions. It provides another opportunity during the rumble to step out of the story and see it for the erroneous first draft that it is. Finally in the reckoning, we get to own our emotions and write a different ending to the story.
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*Brown attributes the concept of The Shitty First Draft to Anne Lamott.