The stories we make up

Last week as I was preparing to get ready to do a talk at a local college with nursing students, I rehearsed what I was going to say with my husband, Jeff.

About half way through my talk, I noticed Jeff didn’t seem to be paying attention. So I stopped talking and said to him my self-talk which was, “It’s that bad, isn’t it? It sucks, right? I knew it”. 

He replied, “It’s fine. Keep going”. So I kept talking. But again, he continued to seem indifferent about what I was saying. That’s when I started to get upset and embarrassed. This talk was really important to me, and I was already afraid it wasn’t good enough. I stopped talking again and said, “I need to re-write it. What needs to change? It’s horrible isn’t it? I have to do this talk in two days, what am I going to do? Tell me what you don’t like.” 

It’s great! I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s you. Seriously. Keep going”, he replied.

Finally, I had enough. Something is wrong, I remember thinking. I didn’t understand what was going on, so I said to him, “You don’t seem all that interested in what I have to say. You’re not making eye contact. You’re not smiling or nodding, and you keep looking at your phone. Just tell me what I need to change.” 

To which Jeff calmly replied, “I’m preparing you for the people who aren’t paying attention. The people who are falling asleep in the back row. The people who leave in the middle of your talk. I don’t want you to get distracted by them. I was that kid in school who didn’t pay attention during presentations.”

Of course, it made sense that he would want to prepare me for the worst-case scenario. He didn’t want me to get thrown off course in the middle of sharing my story. A story that’s painful for me to talk about. There’s always a handful of people who don’t seem interested in listening to speakers, or people who are distracted by other things. When a few people aren’t engaged in a presentation, it doesn’t mean that what’s being said isn’t important to other people.

It wasn’t until later on that I realized what happened: I was making up a story in my head about the reality of the situation – and I was wrong. And then I remembered something I recently heard, but forgot:

The first drafts of most things are shit.

It’s not just the first drafts of books, artwork, products, programs or services. I’m talking about the first draft stories we make up in our heads when we’re experiencing situations that expose us to feeling unworthy because we don’t have enough information.

The ‘shitty first draft’, as Brene Brown says, is our initial perception or thoughts about a situation that lead us to feel ashamed or afraid. It’s the story in our heads we think is reality, when it’s not.

The shitty first draft is when we think a colleague is judging us because they said something that’s hard to hear. It’s when we think a friend doesn’t care about us because they haven’t returned our phone call in a week. It’s when we think our partner isn’t attracted to us because they haven’t said “I love you” lately.

The problem is, when we believe our shitty first drafts to be true we get carried away with our thoughts and feel hurt and disconnected because of our own insecurity – not because of reality.

What I’ve learned is that before we confront someone about something that might not be true, we need to stop and ask ourselves: is there information that I’m missing? And if there is, we need to seek the truth. Especially when our made-up story diminishes our worthiness.

But rather than jumping right into blaming someone for our story by saying things like “You did this” or “You did that”, words that make people judged or ashamed, it’s far more helpful for us to say “The story I’m making up in my head is that …”. Researcher Brene Brown says that this simple response shows that we’re owning our perception of a situation and admitting that we don’t have enough information to fully understand it. In other words, we know the story we’re making up isn’t 100% accurate.

Since building NursEd, I’ve learned that not everyone will support you and your work, and that people are more likely to misunderstand you when you’re doing something important. When you’re being vulnerable and trying to be brave and make a difference in the world, beware that you will have many shitty first drafts and so will the people around you.

The most important thing to remember is that the shitty first draft is just a draft. It’s a replaceable made-up story. It’s a momentary perception. When we make up dangerous stories that diminish our worthiness, that’s when we need to seek the truth … and the truth is usually not what we think.