There are facts, and there’s the story you’re telling yourself about the facts. What story are you telling yourself this school year?
Here’s the thing: there are multiple truths that can be happening simultaneously. You can choose to focus on the ones that make you feel better or the ones that make you feel worse. You can also interrogate the story you are telling yourself about the facts, and make sure it’s true.
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Examining stories is a very useful strategy for school-based work. Notice the stories that you layer on top of the facts.
Let’s say a parent asks you a question about your class policies.
You can choose the interpretation that the parent doubts your teaching abilities, is criticizing your approach, and is upset with you. Or, you could choose the interpretation that the parent is curious and wants to understand better what their child is telling them.
You could choose the interpretation that the parent doesn’t respect teachers and is intentionally undermining you, or the interpretation that the parent wants the best for their child and the process of uncovering what’s best, feels uncomfortable to you.
It’s important to notice the story you’re telling yourself, particularly when you don’t yet have all the facts, because it will keep you from jumping to conclusions.
Perhaps the parent has a personal vendetta against you and that will become obvious later on. But our minds tend to go to the worst-case scenario right away. This is a feature of the human brain that served us well in ancient times — our brains are primed to notice potential danger and respond to them.
But in the workplace, our threats are nasty emails, not saber-toothed tigers. So we’ve got to be aware of our brain’s tendency to assume the worst and prepare for attack or defense at all times.
The first time you get that email that feels like a red flag, the one from a parent or maybe a student or colleague or admin that feels like it could be a bit passive-aggressive or snarky or rude? Notice the story you’re telling yourself.
A key phrase I’ve noticed in my own thoughts that lets me know I’m catastrophizing is, “Here we go again.”
At the first sign of a student misbehaving on the first day of school, for example, my brain will immediately think, “Here we go again, I’ve got a kid who’s going to do THAT again.”
This is because our brain is always pattern-seeking. We are looking for meaning. We don’t process events in isolation, we compare them to things that have already happened and we look for connections.
If something signaled a danger or threat in the past, and that even happens again in a completely different context, our brain will still want to prime us to go on offense and anticipate danger.
This is the opposite of the reaction we want to have in building healthy relationships with the people around us. We have to consciously and intentionally de-escalate those thoughts. Examine them. Notice that they are happening, and ask:
“Is this really true, or did I just jump to conclusions? Did I see this student roll his eyes and assume, here we go again, he’s going to give me attitude all year and I shouldn’t have to put up with this and I can’t even make it through five minutes in class without a kid being rude to me?”
Stop that train of thought by asking, “What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation?” You may notice that you have constructed an entire framework for the other person’s behavior and motivation based on one action they took or one sentence they spoke.
When that’s the case, ask yourself, “What else might be true about this situation?”
- Could it be true that the student is in a bad mood today?
- Could it be true that the student is defensive because of all the anxiety of starting a new school year?
- Could it be true that the teacher in the class before mine was aggressive with him and now he’s carrying over that anger to my class?
- Could it be true that something happened at home or in his personal life that has nothing to do with me that is making him short-tempered and impatient today?
- Could it be true that I don’t have to interpret the eye roll as a problem right now?
When you begin to interrogate your own thoughts and examine the stories you’re telling yourself about what’s happening, you immediately remove some of the stress and anxiety from the situation. You are no longer locked into your interpretation but are seeing things from other perspectives.
You are also releasing yourself to choose the story that serves you best.
Choosing the story that the parent or student or your partner or whoever is going to make your life miserable with this behavior is a story that does not strengthen your relationship with that person. It doesn’t put you in your best possible state to handle the situation with grace, maturity, flexibility, and patience.
So why choose that story then? Multiple stories could be true.
And, multiple stories can exist concurrently. Life is not always black and white. There’s a lot of nuance and paradox, particularly when it comes to our relationships with others.
Why not choose the story that gives the other person the benefit of the doubt, particularly if that story is the one that makes you feel less stressed out?
You can also dialogue directly with the other person about the story you’re telling yourself. Have you seen Brené Brown’s Ted talk that’s streamlining on Netflix right now? It’s worth the watch. She shares how one of the things she says to her husband that avoids a lot of conflict is, “Here’s the story I’m telling myself right now. Is this true? Is this what you meant?”
So assuming you have a relationship with your student, you could choose a calm time after an unpleasant interaction and say something like, “I noticed you rolling your eyes earlier. The story I told myself about that is that you don’t like my class and you don’t respect me as your teacher. Is that what you were actually feeling, or am I making that up?”
Then listen to understand where the student is coming from.
Listen with curiosity rather than judgment.
Listen to get an accurate story — the objective truth about the facts — so that you can respond to what’s really happening and not a scenario you created in your own head.
Same thing with the parent issue: Say, “The story I’m telling myself about your email is that you’re doubting my abilities as a teacher and you don’t think I know what I’m doing. Was that what you intended for me to feel, or am I reading into things? What were you hoping I would say or do in response to your message?”
Again, this is done with genuine curiosity and desire to understand. It is not a trap to trick the other person into telling you how they feel and attacking each other. It’s a real question so you know if your story is true.
If your story is true, then you can deal with that when you know it is a fact and not just a story. You can respond differently if a person confirms that they genuinely do not like or trust you and wanted you to be hurt or offended.
But I think you’ll be surprised at how often peoples’ intentions do not match their impact. What they tried to communicate through their words and actions is not actually how they meant to make you feel or the outcome they were trying to produce. Often they’re not even thinking about the impact, they’re just lashing out without even considering how it will make you feel.
So these kinds of conversations can bring humanity back to the relationship: They will allow you to be your authentic self and show your real feelings instead of hiding them, and you’re doing it without making accusations or getting defensive.
Remember that multiple stories can be true, and you can choose the interpretation that serves you best. Something might be true but it might not be healthy or productive to focus on that. So, examine your thoughts, and ask yourself: Am I escalating this situation by layering on an interpretation that makes things worse? Is this really true, or is this a story I’m telling myself?
Freeing yourself from these stories will bring you a lot of peace.
For example, if you’re sitting in a meeting that feels like a waste of time, it might genuinely be true that your time is better spent working in your classroom. But you can make that meeting even more unpleasant if you focus on that story, if you are repeating to yourself, “I shouldn’t have to be here, I have so many other things to get done, this is a waste of time, this person doesn’t respect my time, I’m never going to be able to get my lessons done if they keep doing this to me…”
All of that is the story you’re layering on top of the facts. The fact is, you’re sitting in a meeting that doesn’t feel useful to you. Telling yourself those stories about the meeting will make you feel agitated and will make it harder to calm down and get back into your productive flow when the meeting is over. Those stories make the experience worse than it needs to be.
So just deal with the facts: This meeting doesn’t feel worthwhile. Then choose some other thoughts:
Can I zone out right now and plan something mentally that I needed to think through for my classroom? Can I make some notes for myself about what I’m going to do when I get back to my room and start getting myself in that headspace? Can I just sit and breathe and step back from this whole experience and be present for a moment, see the big picture and notice the parts of this experience that feel good to me, like the fact that I’m sitting with my colleague that I love and we’re planning that awesome unit together?
So, differentiate between the facts and the story you’re telling yourself about the facts. Examine the story to see if it’s really true, and decide if the story you’re choosing is serving you well. When you get locked into one story, ask yourself, “What else might be true about this situation? What might be happening that I haven’t considered yet?” Choose the stories that help you rather than discourage you.
Tell yourself a better story.
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