After you email an expensive proposal to your price-sensitive client, or leave a message for your boss request for vacation time during the busy season, or ask for a raise or promotion (or both) after your last performance review, you have to wait patiently to hear back. And if you're anything like I am, waiting for information patiently is a challenge.
No news is nothing--nothing other than time and space for us to make up a story. And those stories tend to make us feel anxious.
What kinds of stories?
A story about how the client to whom we sent the proposal is deciding to hire someone else. A story about how our boss is getting ready to deny our vacation request.A story about how we're never going to get the raise or promotion we want.
Not happy stories -- that's for sure. So why do we do this to ourselves?
According to neurologist Robert Burton, MD, author of Where Science and Story Meet, "because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them. With a half-story from science in our minds, we earn a dopamine "reward" every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong."
In other words, filling in the blanks makes us feel good, even if the story we're creating isn't a good one.
But since creating stories is entirely within our control, we could just as easily decide to make up one that has a happy ending as one with a devastating outcome, right? What if we became less paranoid and more pronoid--believing that people who may be conspiring could actually make good things happen?
In my book, Overcoming Overthinking, I suggest the following three steps to help stop you (and me) stop spiraling in the face of incomplete information:
1. Separate facts from interpretation. Recognize the difference between what you know for a fact, what you don't know for a fact, and what assumptions you're making to bridge the gap.
2. Call yourself out on storytelling. Say to yourself, "I am making up a story right now."
3. Considering other possible stories. Ask yourself, "What other possibilities could be just as likely?"
Here are a few instances when this could happen:
Fact: You haven't heard back from your client yet on the proposal you sent.
Interpretation: The client is giving their business to someone else.
Storytelling Call-Out: "The story I'm making up is that I haven't heard back because the client is going with someone else. And that's all it is--a made-up story."
Other Possible Stories: The client is on vacation; the client needs to get approval from her manager to move ahead with this proposal; the client had an urgent matter that took priority over getting back to you this week.
Fact: Your boss hasn't approved your vacation request for the busy season yet.
Interpretation: You aren't going to get the time off - and you're going to be in trouble for asking.
Storytelling Call-Out: "The story I'm making up is that my boss is angry with me for requesting the time. He now thinks I'm greedy and selfish for having asked. That's possible--and it's also unlikely."
Other Possible Stories: Your boss a work crisis that's taking up his time right now; he wants to talk to me about how I might shift my request by a day or two; he is checking with other team members to make sure our department has coverage.
Fact: You have asked for a raise or promotion and haven't heard back.
Interpretation: You're fired.
Storytelling Call-Out: "The story I'm making up is that I've asked for something I don't deserve, and I'm going to lose my job for being short-sighted and pushy. And of course, most people who ask for a raise get fired for asking, right? (Not right at all.)"
Other Possible Stories: My boss is waiting to tell me the good news in person; HR is putting through the paperwork now, and it's on backlog; I am probably getting both a raise and a promotion, and my manager needs to complete both processes.
So, the next time you find yourself making up a story that simultaneously makes you feel anxious because of the horrific possibilities and makes you feel better for having tried to make sense of the world, remember to call yourself on the fact that it's just a story. And if you're going to go through the effort of making something up, why not make up something that makes you smile?