Feeling Stressed? Stop Telling That Story


You probably don't call yourself a storyteller.

Storytellers are writers or actors or public speakers who hold audiences in rapt attention with tales of daring do and triumphing over adversity. You? You hate grammar, the only role you ever played was Third Tree From the Left in the school play, and speaking in public? Nooooooooo, thank you very much.

But, if I asked you how your day was today, you'd have a story to tell.

Consider this one:

Apparently, I hit the Off button this morning instead of Snooze, so I woke up in a panic. Totally blew my goal of eating a healthy breakfast and crammed a candy bar in my bag instead. Gah, I'm never going to lose this paunch! Then, there I am at the car door, when I realize I'm wearing my shirt inside-out! I had to run back inside to change again, so I was even later.

My manager totally gave me the evil eye when I got to work this morning. I am stressed.

Can you picture this scenario? Does this story make you feel anything? Listening to it might make you feel rushed and edgy, or amused, or annoyed.

Telling stories is a way that we share our experiences with others and try to make sense of them, ourselves. As we relate our experiences, our goal is to pull the listener into that experience so s/he can feel what it was like to be there. This is why our stories have power.

If I were the speaker above, and I told that story to four people, I would recreate those feelings of stress, worry, and recrimination each time -- amplifying the details and feelings of my morning experience four-fold.

Which begs the question: what stories are you always sharing? Do you find yourself armed with a ready list of aches, complaints, and irritations whenever someone asks, 'How's it going?' You might be unwittingly adding power to your worries and frustrations by "venting" them all the time.

We all need to vent, but venting all the time can amplify our stresses. 

We all need to vent, but venting all the time can amplify our stresses. 

I know, we all need to vent. Letting off steam with a listener is a source of comfort, reassurance, and/or problem-solving. I get it, absolutely.

But, in your day to day life, resolve to consider what you're amplifying whenever you're telling a story about yourself. Do you have a pattern of directing the inherent power behind your stories to supporting your aspirations and growth, or diminishing them?

If you don't like your pattern, you can try two different approaches going forward:

When you tell a story, consciously frame the feelings you want to amplify with it; or, choose not to re-tell a stressful story over and over and over again.

What do I mean by framing? Let's look at our stressful morning story anew:

Apparently, I hit the Off button this morning instead of Snooze. Gah! I gotta try putting the alarm farther from my bed. If I have to physically get out of bed, maybe I'll wake up enough to hit Snooze instead of Off, right? Ha ha. Do you have any fruit? I didn't have time to eat something healthy. Oh and guess what? There I am at the car door when I realize I'm wearing my shirt inside-out! Thank heavens I realized that before I got here.

My manager totally gave me a sideways look when I got to work this morning as it is. I'm a little rattled, but I'm here and ready to go!

Relieve stress by framing your stories from your "best self's" perspective.
Relieve stress by framing your stories from your "best self's" perspective.

In the first version, the speaker's story features a cascade of crises that befell her before arriving at work. She recounts feeling panicked and disappointed with herself for skipping breakfast. She ends her story by pronouncing how stressed she is.

In the second version, the speaker's story recounts how she came to wake up late, and that she wants to think of ideas to prevent this from happening again. She doesn't use judging language to address her lack of breakfast, and she expresses gratitude that she realized her shirt was inside-out before arriving at work. Finally, she owns that she feels "rattled," but she asserts she's ready to move on to what's next.

The morning's events unfolded the same way in both stories; but, in the second one, the story emphasizes crises from which the speaker can't escape. The second one reflects that the speaker had a bumpy morning, she rallied and arrived, and is ready to take on the rest of the day. If she repeats this story to four different people, each time she'll be reinforcing that she made the best of her bumpy morning, and she's ready to be present at work.

One story ends with the implied potential of more crisis. The other portends an open horizon for the rest of the day. Which story would you prefer?

So, YOU. How can you use this hidden storytelling superpower to keep stress at bay now that you know about it? Try this.

What do you aspire to? What are three of your strengths when you feel you're at your best? Grab a sheet of paper, a napkin, an opened envelope from the pile of mail on the kitchen table and jot them down right now.

I challenge you to keep that note for the next week, and when someone asks you, 'How's it going?' try using your response, your story, to power-boost your best self!

Rock on, storytellers. Let me know how it goes.