At a park I often go to, a gaggle of other mothers and their kids set up camp near some trees, as I do with my kids. Recently I’ve gotten to know a few of them slightly — well enough to say hello, swap info about babysitters, chat about our jobs and so on.
Photo by FRE Lens
And yet, that group of mothers are tighter with one another than any one of them is with me and for a stretch of time this winter that bugged me a little: I could hear them making plans for outings and play dates for their kids and I couldn’t help but feel a little left out.
And because I am a mildly anxious person (I used to think it was social anxiety, but really it’s everything anxiety) I immediately went to my worst-case interpretation: They didn’t like me. I had said something weird, obviously. Or worse, I was a fundamentally weird person, something who was the walking embodiment of a friendship red flag.
When you are feeling dismissed or ignored or otherwise distressed, say to your partner or friend, “the story I am making up is…” and then describe your interpretation of the events at hand.
At that moment I came across an interview with Brene Brown, the author of Daring Greatly and the leading voice on the topic of shame and vulnerability.
In the interview, Brown describes what she has found to be her number-one relationship trick: to say (when you are feeling dismissed or ignored or otherwise distressed) to your partner or friend, “the story I am making up is…” and then describe your interpretation of the events at hand.
Brown gives an example of swimming in a lake with her husband and making a “bid” for romantic connection, only to be blown off twice with curt answers. Hurt, she said to him, “the story I am making up is either you looked at me while I was swimming and thought, Man, she’s getting old. She can’t even swim freestyle anymore. Or you saw me and thought, She sure as hell doesn’t rock a Speedo like she did twenty-five years ago.”
Is this rational? No. But saying those words to her husband opens a conversation that 1) lets him know that she is feeling ignored and 2) acknowledges that there are elements at play that she might not understand. The preface “the story I am telling myself” allows for the possibility that the speaker might be wrong.
It is infinitely better than Brown snapping “Don’t feel like talking to me because I look fat in a bikini, eh? Well, screw you, man!” and flouncing off. (We’ve all known people who do things like this; we do not want to be people who do things like this.)
Turns out her husband was actually having a panic attack in the water and was trying to keep his cool until they go to the dock.
I like this technique because it is a way of practising empathy, which in my personal study of social skills is the number-one quality that separates socially adept people from paranoid loonies. They have it in friendships and in romantic relationships and with casual acquaintances. They don’t automatically leap to the worst-case interpretations, because they allow that other people might be having experiences that they aren’t aware of.
Re: the park mums: Am I going to march up to them and say “the story I am telling myself is that you all don’t like me because I am weird”? NO. That would be fucking bananas and manipulative and would definitely identify me as the nuttiest mother in all the land, and frankly my kids have enough problems.
But I can say the phrase to myself and I can even say back to myself, “these mothers have known one another for years, their kids go to the same school and are the same ages, and you just met them ten minutes ago. It takes time to build friendships.”
And I will likely try it in my relationship with a husband who is prone to long silent stretches that I often interpret as boredom or irritation (and which are generally due to work or family conversations happening over email/text that I’m not privy to).
If you, like me, tend to see interpersonal events as negative when they’re really neutral or even positive, this might be a good start for re-tracking your thinking — whether you say the preface “the story I’m telling myself” out loud or not.
And if I see you at the park, say hi. Otherwise you won’t believe the story I’m telling myself.