It’s All Just a Story

A slight lift of her sister’s eyebrow, the tone of voice, a few words. It all conveyed that her younger sister thought the cleaning was inadequate. So the twelve year old, sensitive to criticism, swept the floor a second time, fuming all the while.
“That’s not the way to respond to her,” I said, after she had flounced down the stairs to put the broom away again. “You can’t let her snips annoy you like that.”
She looked up at me, lower lip trembling, as if I suggested that she ignore a puppy being drowned, or her arm being cut off.
“Look, if she says that she doesn’t think the floor is swept well, you have a couple of choices. Check out the floor too. Do you think you did well? Then ignore her, she’s just messing with you. Be proud of the work you’ve done. Does it need another pass with the broom? Great! She just helped you do your job better. Be glad of the chance to fix it.”
“So I’m supposed to be happy?” She’s incredulous. Her blue-grey eyes could hardly be wider.
“Well, it’s no fun to be upset like this, is it?” I ask. “Don’t let her mess with you. It just depends on the story you tell yourself.
“We tell ourselves stories all the time about what’s going on, what’s happening to us. What it means.”
“But I can’t help it,” she wailed, “I just do it automatically.”
“Of course,” I replied, “we all do. We have to learn the very first step, which is to notice what you’re doing. Be aware that you’re telling yourself a story in the first place. Then you can start telling yourself a new story. A story that can make you happier. Just because your brain want to tell one story, to explain what’s going on in one way, doesn’t mean that you have to stick with it. Especially if it’s a story that is hurting you.
“It will take practice, and a lot of tries, and probably a lot of failures. But if you work at it, you’ll be able to realize, ‘Hey, I’m just telling myself a story. I don’t like this one, so I’ll change it.’ Reframe what you see, give it a different explanation. Choose how you’ll respond to what’s going on.”
She doesn’t quite believe me. It’s not the first time we’ve had this conversation. Nor the second. And I’ve given myself a similar lecture countless times. I start to feel frustrated that she doesn’t just get it, doesn’t just believe me, and try it, and figure it out.
Then I remind myself that it’s a long term project, that she needs to hear it over and over again to believe it. She needs to learn to catch herself in the act of telling herself the stories, and to realize she can change it. I take a breath. She’ll get it eventually; it will sink in, and she’ll get better at it and not fly off the handle quite so much. It just will take time, and a lot of help, and a lot of seeing me do it.
Within a few minutes, she’s forgotten about the upset. The bedroom is clean, she’s at peace with her sister again, and working on figuring out the next obstacle in her computer game.
There’ll be more changes to practice later. For both of us.