One of the biggest influences on how I feel is the stories I tell myself. These stories can make or break my experience of a situation, mean the difference between connection and conflict, and hold sway over key decisions I make in my life.
This is something I’ve become more conscious of over the past few years. Part of me loooooves jumping to conclusions and creating stories: taking a situation, filling in the gaps, and tying everything up in a neat little bow (even if that bow induces anxiety, fear and feelings of “not good enough”). Learning to recognise when this is happening and question the story instead of reacting as though it were true is a work in progress (and might always be).
Last year, I read something that helped me understand more about why jumping to conclusions and creating stories is such a sticky process, and how we can help ourselves step back and unravel them, and I want to share this today.
In her book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown talks about the importance of “rumbling with our stories.” In other words, being conscious of the meanings we attach to particular events and situations, and unpacking what we know to be true from where we’re filling in the gaps with guesswork.
She shares the work of Robert Burton, a neurologist who explains why we jump to conclusions (and why it can be so hard to stop). According to him, our brains reward us with dopamine whenever we recognise and complete patterns, whenever we fill in the gaps and reach an understanding about something.
The problem is we don’t have to be right to get this dopamine hit: we just need to think we’re right. Certainty matters more than accuracy.
And this is where we run into issues with our stories. It’s why, when a good friend doesn’t respond to a call or email for a week, we think “She must be mad at me about something” and feel a sense of satisfaction from thinking this, even though the idea also provokes anxiety and upset.
Even with our darkest self-stories, that lightbulb moment has a physiological reward and as a result we are more likely to shun the process of working with uncertainty and vulnerability to get to the truth. Living in uncertainty is a vulnerable place that is much healthier emotionally but doesn’t come with the same physiological reward.
How do we stop before we jump to conclusions?
This is all still a work in progress for me, as I suspect it will be for a long time, if not a lifetime! Here’s what I’ve found helpful for this process so far:
First, by noticing when we’re doing it. Our stories often feel justified and so very real, which is why the first step to changing them is about noticing they are just stories.
We can separate out fact from fiction by asking what we know to be objectively true, what assumptions we’re making, the other possibilities and whether we need further information. We can prioritise asking questions over finding answers.
We can also look at the feelings underneath our response. Feelings like anger go hand-in-hand with other experiences, like vulnerability, shame, guilt, and so on. When we can name those underlying feelings, we can better address them. And, when we can recognise and accept that sometimes we don’t—and won’t—know, that becomes our new certainty.
In what situations are you most likely to jump to conclusions? And how do you question these stories? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.