Not all our experiences are real.

For example, when we look at something, only two degrees of our field of vision are sharp, while objects in our periphery are blurred. Yet our brains assume that, when the main object in our field of vision is sharp, so is the entire image. This phenomenon represents our brain’s uncanny ability to fill in the blanks.

Similarly, when something happens to us throughout the day, our body may experience an event that lasts five seconds, but our brains may tell us stories about that event that keep us up all night.

That’s because the human brain constantly creates stories to explain its experiences, and then searches for evidence to convince itself that those stories are true. Neuroscience calls it a confirmation bias, the tendency to look for evidence to confirm our beliefs. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains it this way:

“Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold.” 

The problem with creating stories and convincing ourselves they’re true is that, as Kahneman also writes, the process “favors uncritical acceptance of suggestions and exaggeration of the likelihood of extreme and improbable events.” In other words, our stories may be based more on fiction than on fact. And that fiction can fuel fear-based thinking and fear-based behaviors that don’t serve us well. The reality is: our internal narratives about day-to-day experiences do not necessarily have any connection to fact. Therefore, it’s important to be able to discern between what is true and what could be a story our brain is conjuring.

In one of my FEAR Formula course activities, I ask learners to engage in a “Fear Fact versus Fear Fiction” exercise to help bring awareness to how fictional narratives can quickly get us in the weeds and lead to communication knots (and relationship issues). I use the example of two friends named Michele and Sarah:

Michele invites her friend Sarah to dinner and a movie. Sarah accepts the invitation at first, then cancels at the last minute because of a migraine. Michele later finds out that Sarah went out on the same night with another friend. Although Michele feels hurt and betrayed, she is afraid to confront her friend because Sarah had been getting over a rough breakup from six months earlier and had been complaining of feeling isolated and lonely.

What are the FACTS in this scenario?

  • Sarah first accepted, then declined Michele’s invitation.
  • Sarah went out with another friend.
  • Michele felt betrayed and suspected that Sarah was not honest with her.

What are the FICTIONAL narratives Michele might create from this experience?

  • Sarah declined Michele’s invitation under false pretenses.
  • Sarah’s priority was the other friend, and she chose to be dishonest about it rather than level with Michele.
  • Sarah does not value Michele’s friendship.

See the difference between the facts and the conjecture? While it may be normal for the human brain to fill in blanks and look (and find) reasons to believe the stories we create, things can get sticky if we choose to act on what could be fictional narratives.

When you notice yourself creating stories to explain experiences, try to discern between fact and fiction–it can be helpful to write them down in two columns.

The fiction column is typically longer 🙂.

To learn more about how my FEAR Formula course can help you, click here.

Download my free e-book and receive my monthly newsletter.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Get non-salesy encouragement and support each month.

You'll also receive a copy of my free e-book, “Voice Up: Your Five-Step Guide to Having Difficult Conversations” to learn actionable strategies you can use the next time you’re facing an uncomfortable interaction.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Stay up to date on The FEAR Formula course offerings as well as my other events.

You’ll also receive my free monthly newsletter and a copy of my complimentary e-book, “Voice Up: Your Five-Step Guide to Having Difficult Conversations".

You have Successfully Subscribed!