I get some news from a family member. There’s a potentially bad outcome developing in a situation we were waiting to hear about. It hasn’t happened, but it looks like it might be headed in the wrong direction.

I feel my energy shift, my breathing quickens, my chest gets tight, my face starts to tingle. The anxiety starts to bubble; I feel the worry start to rise inside me.

Or I become outraged at a political development I hear about on the radio. My jaw tightens, my chest and neck flush, my eyes harden.

Or I read a story about someone being ignored, abandoned, betrayed and my throat swells. I hold my breath, my mouth quivers, I try to hold back tears.

And in each case my mind kicks in and begins to tell me a story about how:

This isn’t good… They’re so stupid… This is just like that time in seventh grade… They should have seen this coming… How could they do this to me…? The world is such an unfair place…

My hypothetical emotions rev higher, my mood darkens, my energy grows dissonant. I carry all of this into the next situation. I begin to see everything through this negative lens. I create more bad experiences to match how I’m feeling and the stories I’m obsessively repeating in my head. I feel worse and worse.

Isak Dinesen apparently once said something to the effect of “all sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story.” Setting aside what she meant by this (assuming she did actually say it), I think the reason it gets repeated is because it seems to describe something almost all of us do – we use stories to contain, explain and illustrate our pain (mainly in the plain).

When I recently came upon this quote again, however, my first thought was, “Do we really want to be bearing all our sorrows?” In a way, it contains the assumption that we must indefinitely carry all our injuries, and the challenge is to learn to live with them as best you can. What has stood out to me about this lately is how much the story can perpetuate and even exacerbate sorrow.

Sometimes I think of emotions as musical notes in a jazz performance; spontaneous expressions of the energy of each particular moment. A story, then, might be like a critic’s review of a particular concert, with a few recorded cuts thrown in to demonstrate the author’s points.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be telling stories (or reviewing jazz), but I think it helps to acknowledge that both are interpretations. They are attempts to make sense of an abstraction – they aren’t the truth. And that it doesn’t always serve us to do this.

It’s very tempting to the ego try to understand and control the drama of a difficult emotional experience. As I listen to clients, I am frequently amazed at how quickly it moves to do this. It takes a small amount of information that has a difficult emotion attached to it and starts filling in the blanks, comparing it to the past and assigning blame.

What I’m finding is:

There’s the short-term gratification of explaining and justifying the experience to myself, but ultimately the story makes the pain much worse, and last longer.

I detach from the story that has begun spinning in my head. I shift my focus to the energy of how I’m feeling – what is the sensation? Where is it? Instead of why. Just the actual experience.

My stomach is churning, but it’s just a feeling, and it’s not that bad – until I add the interpretation. If I just stay with the energy, there’s no suffering. It changes quickly. After a few moments it actually disappears. Unless I go back to the story – then I’m right back where I started.

What story is the voice in your head telling you? 

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