There was a time when I thought that everything I thought was a fact. I had never taken the time to consider that the things that ran through my head weren’t actually grounded in reality. While it was true that I had a thought, it didn’t make the thought true. For most people, this can be fairly unnerving; it was for me. It was also incredibly freeing.
Why is it valuable to understand the difference between a fact and a story? Well, let me share an example. I got an email from my boss one day, “Stop by my office today before you leave. Want to talk about the project you presented on today.”
Let’s break down what happened next:
1. My thought was, “crap, he doesn’t like it. I knew I messed up that section on the cost projections.”
2. My heart started beating really fast and my breathing was shallow.
3. I sent a response, “ok, will do.”
So what were the facts?
1. I received an email from my boss.
2. It contained pixels that made up words on the screen, “stop by my office.”
3. My face turned red and my breathing became shallow.
(Note: these are all things that a video camera can record)
Now let’s break down the stories.
1. “He doesn't like it.” That was a thought that came into my mind. I had no idea if he liked it or not. I was making up a story.
2. “I messed up the section on cost projections.” I didn’t have any feedback that I messed up the projections or that I didn’t present them well. It was a thought; not a fact.
But why and how does any of this matter?
Imagine the emotional state I’d be in when I stop by his office if I believe my story. My fight and flight response was already taking over. Not the best frame of mind to be in for a meeting with my boss. This has consequences, the first of which is, I won’t be able to hear what he is saying.
The cliché of “you’re not hearing me” has merit. Science has plenty of evidence that demonstrates how our emotional states impact our perception. When we are in fear, sounds are perceived as being louder than they are, for example.
The other consequence is that I am entering his office already in a reactive and triggered state, leaving me with a lack of brain resources to empathize and be creative. There is nothing like believing a less than positive story to get our system activated and ready for battle.
If I were to enter his office without believing the story I created, it affords a greater opportunity for openness and connection.
So, was my story accurate? No. It rarely ever is. He asked me if I would be willing to give the same presentation to another team who was working on a similar project. He felt it could be helpful to them and then thanked me for my work. The entire conversation took 10 minutes and I spent no less than two hours worrying about it.
If we can learn to separate fact from story, we can use this awareness to allow ourselves to come back to presence and see that our stories often don’t match reality.