Stop rehearsing your conflict story

conflict story

A client told me the story of a conflict with her brother. She told me the story first before we began working together. Then she told me again during our first session. The story — sometimes with new details, sometimes with the same phrasing repeated — came up repeatedly.

Of course, each time she told what happened, she polished the story more, just by the act of re-telling. She wasn’t trying to polish it, of course. She was trying to understand it, to figure it out, to get it to give up its secret so she could know what to do. It is something we do.

Nevertheless, the act was turning into rehearsal and it was making her story feel more and more like The Truth. I invited her to stop rehearsing the story about her inconsiderate brother and about the heavy burden she faced. I invited her to stop telling versions of the story to herself as she tended the garden. I invited her to stop complaining about it to her friends.

Together, we came up with a plan that each time she observed herself beginning to ruminate on her story when she was alone, she would sing a song instead. I know that sounds loony. But she enjoyed singing and had done musical theatre in her community. The idea was to keep her mind from its habit and distract it by doing something else instead, for now. The goal was to try to keep the story from further embedding itself in her mind.

When we spoke next, she was both aghast and full of good humor. “I’ve never sung so many show tunes!” she laughed. But beneath the laughter, she was startled to notice how much of her mental energy had been going to her conflict story.

Are you rehearsing your own conflict story, allowing it to take up residence in your mind, allowing it to carve out a little nook in which it can live with you every day, draining and distracting you?

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  1. Luci says

    “She was trying to understand it, to figure it out, to get it to give up its secret so she could know what to do. It is something we do.”

    Well, Tammy, on target, as usual! I have been going through something lately – a matter of the heart where he said, she said came into play. Your wording, “trying understand it…to get it to give up its secret” could not be more appropriate. A mind tends to work overtime when it is trying to make sense of something or when it is trying to put a face on it in order to figure it out.

    I have gone over this situation hundreds of times. Each time I refine and polish the thing to make myself feel OK and not feel like I am losing my mind or completely off base over something about which I feel correct. The more I do that, the more I realize that the work I have to do is to refine and polish myself and NOT the “thing”.

    While I, too, enjoy singing and see where you are coming from in giving that advice, I do understand that singing wasn’t actually the point. Whatever you can do to take your focus from the conflict and put it on your here and now, the better off you can be. One person may gain a benefit from singing while another, like myself, may gain a similar benefit from cooking. I have been doing a lot more cooking lately (with music in the background to sing to and listen to) and find a quiet sanity in the act.

    I guess the moral of the story is to purpose to change your focus and not to allow conflict of any sort to take up a permanent residence in your mind. Thanks, Tammy, for the reminder of what I already know but never seem to remember when I need it most!

    • says

      Beautifully said, Luci. I really like your words, “The more I do that, the more I realize that the work I have to do is to refine and polish myself and NOT the ‘thing’.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that comment!

  2. Willow says

    Re-telling my story..”allowing it to carve out a little nook,” ah…for me it’s a groove, like on a record. Ghost anthems, or true “crime” laments, or really loud rockers…because people just don’t listen (including me), during the standoff.

    What’s next Tammy?

    Giving up polishing our “fools gold,” and stopping operations is good. Breaking free from a spell, ceasefire or an intense “investigation” is not always easy. Banishments I like. Yet the hounds of hurt and “reason” keep coming back it seems.

    I am very happy to have found your site. I love it. When is your book being released?

    • says

      Willow – A groove is exactly right! My husband’s a big vinyl fan and we use the record groove (and scratches) metaphor a lot in our house because it’s so vivid and perfect. I really like your ghost anthem reference too.

      On your point about “reason” returning: I like to remind myself that having a thought and believing it are different things. I’ll talk a great deal more about this in my book, which I anticipate being out by early summer.

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. Welcome!

  3. says

    I remember making the decision after my dad died after being hit by a car that he had been “killed.” After that, I used that word every time I talked about my dad. In fact, I became so invested in the story of how my father died that I told that before I told anything about how my father lived. A few months ago, I started realizing that I had created a grievance story, as Dr. Fred Luskin describes in his book, Forgive for Good, and was repeating the grievance every time I told the story of how my father died. I then decided I had to change the story I was telling about my dad. First, it made me sad every time I told it. It opened a wound that was healing. Second, how he died and how he lived had very possibly been integrated by him at this point in his journey. Shouldn’t I be willing to let go of the grievance about how he died and focus on the beautiful stories I can tell about how he lived? I know better: I wrote a poem once about being a witness to a horrible auto accident and said, “But listen, the crystal morning air/clouds and song/ though only minutes/last longer than death’s little moment.” When we create, and then retell a grievance story over and over, we deprive ourselves of the good stories we could tell instead. Not only that, but as you pointed out, we foster a negativity that is completely unnecessary. As Dr. Luskin says, Forgiveness is not for the other guy. It is for you: So you can move on and have peace of mind.

    • says

      Meredith, what a moving story! It’s a powerful testament to the ways our stories influence how we feel, what we do, even how we live. It’s also a powerful testament to the ways a conscious act — you deciding to change the story you tell about your dad — can transform our days. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

  4. says

    Beautifully put, Tammy. I especially like your idea of singing a song whenever tempted to retell the conflict story. It can be a challenge to stop ourselves from doing something, and giving our brain an activity to do instead makes it so much easier to alter a pattern.

    • says

      Thanks, Lisa. When I did my doctoral work in behavior change many years ago, one thing that stood out clearly was that it’s very hard to just stop doing something and it’s helpful to find something else to do instead. Just as you noticed, it’s a way of redirecting ourselves.

  5. Anne says

    Hi Tammy,

    I am so glad I found your blog! I find your blogs to be very inspirational! Do you have anything that would be connected to Parent Alienation? My husband and I are going through that right now with his children. I would love for them to read something inspiring about how a story they have heard may not always be the truth and how life is too short to have conflict ruin the time loss that can never be brought back. Thanks.