I’ve been reading the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, which is a good book. I ran across something neat in it about relationships that has some broader applicability to faith, which I wanted to share.
Page 109 had a diagram showing a sequence that happens in our interpersonal relationships.
1) We see and hear somebody do something,
2) we tell ourselves a story about what that means,
3) the meaning we create gives rise to feelings and emotions, which are often very strong, and
4) we act on those feelings.
In terms of how relate to each other, this sequence can happen really fast. Someone cuts us off on the freeway, we instantly tell ourselves the story, “He did that because he’s a jerk!” Then we feel angry, and we may make some angry remark or yell, or even try to retaliate. (Yikes!)
The book says we can improve our relationships by noticing the stories we are telling ourselves and then thinking of alternate stories that might fit the facts to explain how a normal good person would act that way. Thus, the person who cut us off on the freeway might be in a big hurry for something very important. His wife might be having a baby. Maybe he found out someone he loves is in trouble. Maybe there’s an event he has to go to and others made him late. Better alternate stories help us interact with respect and kindness instead of attacking or withdrawing.
Now, to apply this to faith… We tell ourselves stories about what Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are like and what they can do to help us. Those stories have a big effect and sometimes we don’t realize how big the effect is.
There are people who don’t believe in God who tell themselves stories about how God should act and they either criticize what is happening, or they come to disbelieve He exists altogether. There are all kinds of ways they do this, which I don’t intend to get into now.
There are all kinds of narratives in the scriptures that tell us how God has worked in the past that help us get at least a small idea of the many different things He does to intervene, how He can help, and so on, so that we can tell ourselves better stories about His character and ways.
Sometimes those stories we tell ourselves may get out of balance. If we tell ourselves stories about God’s judgment, but none about His mercy, we will be scared of Him and needlessly feel we are unworthy. If we tell stories about God’s mercy, but none about His judgment, we will not have the appropriate concern about our accountability and we will neglect to repent as we should.
If we tell ourselves stories about God’s help, but not about how He gives us space to act and make choices, we will not learn to make decisions and try our hardest, and we may also wonder why God doesn’t intervene more. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves stories about how He gives us space, but not about His willingness to help, we will neglect to turn and ask His help when He could give it. I could go on about different stories we tell ourselves about God and how they affect the extent we exercise our faith.
Another factor is that we also tell internal stories about ourselves and what we can and can’t do and why. Those stories create emotion and ultimately affect how we act because they affect how we see ourselves and our possibilities. Knowing we are a child of God and that we have the seeds of godhood in us opens up soooo many avenues for growth and development. But sometimes we get pulled down by discouragement and doubt and fear and frustration and begin to tell ourselves stories like: I can’t…or I’ll never make it… or I’m just too broken… or I can’t get over this sin… or something like that.
There have been some things in my life I feel stuck about. It has occurred to me from reading this section of the book that I need to think about what kind of stories I’m telling myself and see if I can find an alternate story that fits better and will allow me to take appropriate action and get unstuck.
I will give a small example of one story I have told myself in the past that has caused me problems. On occasion I have been asked to give a talk or teach a lesson in church. When that happens I throw myself into preparation, telling myself that I have to give the best talk or the best lesson EVER. It’s like I have something to prove. There’s also a measure of pride in there too. But then this starts to cause problems if I think the material or the lesson activities are not up to my idea of “the best EVER.” I start thinking I will fail, and this causes me major angst. And I realize that my pride is getting in the way too. The toxic story I have told myself is, “I have to be the best or I will fail, and failure means I’m unimportant.” You can see that’s totally wrong, right?
Eventually I realized that perfectionism was a big part of the problem. So I had to tell myself a different story that would drive me to prepare carefully, but help me remember that the Spirit is the real teacher. I had a little breakthrough when I discovered and proved that when I give my best efforts, ordinary results actually produces the same satisfaction for me as extraordinary results. In terms of lessons or talks, I know the results on myself, but I don't know the results on other listeners, so I have to leave that in the Lord's hands.
So I settled on telling myself the following: “I will do my best to prepare, and I will give an ordinary talk [or lesson], and Heavenly Father will make it awesome.” I learned to give myself permission to have ordinary and average results, and that removes the stress because instead I rely on the Lord to make something better out of what I’ve done. It gives me the satisfaction that comes from the chance to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands, it helps me find humility, and it gives credit to the Lord for His great work.
If you’re feeling stuck, and it doesn’t seem like God is helping, think about the stories you are telling yourself about your obstacles and also about God. Are there better stories you can tell that will generate more faith in God and faith to act and grow?