The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I live in a men’s dorm on the campus of a Christian University.  The rest of this story won’t make sense if you don’t know that.

Last night I woke up at 11:45 to guys running down the hall banging on doors shouting something I couldn’t understand.  Then I saw a bunch of guys running away from our dorm.  This was shortly followed by loud intermittent cheering and chanting that I couldn’t quite understand that lasted until about 12:30. I was tired and the noise was keeping me up.

Those are the facts as I knew them.

This is the story my subconscious created to help me make sense of what was going on:

A group of guys from another dorm came to prank our dorm.  They ran through our halls yelling, banging on doors and making noise.  I worried about what else they had done but since the dorm is my husband’s responsibility, not mine, and he had somehow slept through the initial ruckus, there wasn’t a lot I could do.  But I was annoyed, I’m not a big fan of pranks to begin with and I’m not a fan of being woken up in the middle of the night.

After harassing our guys, they went back to their dorms where their RAs (student leaders) were giving inspirational speeches about how awesome they were and celebrating their fun, late-night prank.  The longer they went the more frustrated I got.  With every new chant or cheer I lost more respect for the dorm leadership that was encouraging this madness.

I was ridiculously upset.  Besides being tired, I felt concerned and out of control.  My husband didn’t seem to care that much; when the noise finally woke him up and he just closed the window and went back to sleep.  Then I got frustrated with him for not being as worried or annoyed as I was.  Then I got mad at the pranksters for causing a disagreement and frustration between my husband and I. Stupid college guys.

So, that’s the story I told myself.  It was the most logical way to explain the noise and the running and the chants. 

I got a text from my husband the next morning  that explained what actually happened.

“It was a candle light ceremony.  That will happen 10ish times a year.”

With that one text I was largely pacified.  That text told a completely different story about what happened.

So here’s the real story:

In keeping with tradition that has been part of the school for decades, word was spread that a couple had gotten engaged but not who the couple was.  The guys were rounded up by others guys running and yelling throughout the dorms and they all met at the clock tower to find out who had gotten engaged, to hear the story of the proposal and to toss the soon-to-be-groom in the pond.  The girls met in the dorm of the soon-to-be-bride to learn her identity and hear her share her story.  It’s called a Candlelight Ceremony because all the girls sit in a circle and pass a lit candle with the engagement ring on it around the circle so everyone can admire the ring.  When the candle gets to the soon-to-be-bride she identifies herself by blowing out the candle, everyone shrieks and cheers and she tells her story.   Then, if she’s a good fiancé she’ll be waiting by the pond with a towel to dry off her man after he gets out of the duck infested waters.

So all of the noise and the excitement was because someone got engaged and the campus gathered to hear and celebrate.  The chanting and cheers were students supporting their soon-to-be-groom, not celebrating  a lame prank.  They were building community, for sure, but not at the expense of harassing another dorm.

How had I gotten it so wrong?

I took the facts and filled in the details using my past experiences.  At the last dorm we lived in, on the campus of another university, when there was yelling followed by guys running from the dorm 100% of the time it was guys from another dorm pranking ours (or our guys preempting a prank they knew was coming).  But my past experiences weren’t sufficient to understand this situation and, as a result, I assigned guilt, judged motives and got really upset.

We all fill in the details all the time without realizing it.  A lot of times we do a pretty good job and get a relatively accurate picture of what happened and the motives of the people involved.  Sometimes we fail miserably.  We misunderstand what happened; we assign motives that are wrong.

We respond, not to the facts, but to the stories we create based on the facts and it can be difficult to distinguish the two.

My husband is late for dinner.  The story I tell?  He doesn’t respect me or my time.  He doesn’t care that I made a real meal tonight.   That might be the case or…he’s talking to a suicidal student…or he set his “time to go home” alarm for AM instead of PM and he doesn’t realize what time it is…or…the possibilities are endless.

My boss is gives me directions with some bite in his voice.  The story I tell?  He’s disappointed in me and thinks I’m doing a bad job.  That might be the case or…he just found out his budget has been cut and he’s trying to figure out the new department budget and I interrupted his thinking…or…you get the point.

So how do we avoid getting caught up in stories that aren’t true?

We need to begin to recognize when we are telling them.  When you find yourself getting upset ask, “What are the facts?” and “What meaning am I attaching to these facts?” This could be hard, especially if your story makes you really emotional.  But try.   Anything that involves motive, emotions or attitudes of other people is very like part of the story you’re making up.

If you can, ask the other people involved what they think is happening.  As them if the facts that you can list are true.  Ask them what those facts mean.

You might be surprised.  You might be less upset.  You might even be a little happy for the newly engaged couple


4 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell Ourselves

  1. Teesha September 9, 2012 / 4:45 am

    I love that tradition!

    Thanks for sharing that! I am constantly making assumptions even though they frustrate me more than the truth does. Thanks for the tips on working on it. I needed that! 🙂

    • jmellison September 17, 2012 / 2:02 am

      Teesha, I miss you! After I wrote this I thought about how we tell ourselves stories about what God thinks/feels about us too. Anyway, thanks for sharing with me. I need to work on the stories I tell, this post was an obvious reminder to me.

  2. Karin September 16, 2012 / 3:01 am

    Over the years, more and more, I’ve found out that I can’t believe everything I think!! Jumping to conclusions is not good exercise!

    • jmellison September 17, 2012 / 2:02 am

      I like how you said, “I can’t believe everything I think!” such good words!

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