When It's Wrong TO Make Up Stories

Have you ever caught yourself stressing out about a future situation? You’ve convinced yourself that you already know how things are going to turn out, so you’re anticipating the worst. Or you are confident someone didn’t like you, only to find out later they have no problem with you at all and actually think you’re great!? We have to consciously determine whether if what we feel is based on fact or on a story that we made up.

Excerpt from Dr. Brene Brown’s Rising Strong on making up stories.

“In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are wired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Meaning making up stories is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how best to self-protect. What we’re trying to do in the rumble with the truth - is a conscious choice. A brave, conscious choice.

Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, explains that our brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognizes the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.

Burton writes, ‘Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.’ He goes on to say that even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world - even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’

What do we call a story that’s based on limited read data and imagined data blended into coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory. Drawing on extensive research and history, English professor and science writer Jonathan Gottschall examines the human need for story in his book The Storytelling Animal. He explains that there’s growing evidence that ‘ordinary, mentally healthy people are strikingly prone to confabulate in everyday situations.’ Social workers always use the word confabulate when talking about how dementia or a brain injury sometimes causes people to replace missing information with something false that they believe to be true. The stories were confabulations - lies, honestly told.

Many of my research participants who had gone through a painful breakup or divorce, been betrayed by a partner, or experienced a distant or uncaring relationship with a parent or family member spoke about responding to their pain with a story about being unlovable. A narrative questioning if they were worthy of being loved. This may be the most dangerous conspiracy theory of all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past thirteen years, it’s this: just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.”

Dr. Brown continues on by explaining that we need to get good at recognizing the stories we are making up. The best way to do this is intentionally writing down in drafts. Every draft can be small enough to fit on a post-it note. It doesn’t have to be well written or even a full paragraph. Just get it down. The first draft is the five-year-old-tyrant - no filter, write every word that come to mind. In the next draft, it’s time to explore the ins and outs of your story. Ask yourself “what assumptions am I allowing in my story?” Write those down. Ask yourself, “what clarification do I need from the other people in this story?” Write it down. Finally, ask yourself, “What am I really feeling?” Write it down.

In terms of communication, it’s also healthy to dialogue honestly by confessing, “the story I’m making up in my head is…” Let the other person know what conspiracy is feeding into conflict. Continue talking until the facts are at the surface and the emotions you feel help rather than hinder your relationship.

As creatives, I believe this process is uniquely important because creating something out of nothing is admired and desired in the artistic community. Making up stories to fill novels or canvases is one thing, but making up stories that alter our perception of truth can lead us to a place of mental ill-health. Take care of yourself, friend.

Ashlee Wright