Explain This: Change Your Story, Change Your Life

Okay, this time you’re serious. You’re going on a regimen that will really improve your health—not like that crash diet: You’ll snarf down antioxidants; exercise moderately but consistently; balance fats, proteins, and carbs; and pay attention to the way you explain whatever happens to you.

Wait a minute. The way you explain what happens? What does that have to do with physical health? According to findings from the burgeoning field of behavioral medicine, a lot. How we think can affect physical processes as surely as diet and exercise do. For example, putting a positive spin on events in our past is associated with an enormous array of health benefits, from improved immune function to reduced stress to quicker healing, with all their emotional and physical advantages. To some degree, we may be able to literally explain away many devastating physical problems. If you want to have a healthier body, I suggest changing your mind first.

So What’s Your Story?

Caroline, one of my brightest, prettiest, best-educated clients, was a wreck. Her pet cockatiel, Bonkers, had flown away.

The way she told the story of her bird’s disappearance—what researchers have called “explanatory style”—was making her situation much worse. Her explanation of Bonkers’ great escape showed the three key markers of pessimism: She described the problem as being personal (“I made it happen; these things always happen to me”), permanent (“Things will never get better”), and pervasive (“My whole life is rotten; I’m such a loser”).

On the other hand, I’d noticed that whenever something good happened, she explained it as a fluke. ” This cute guy from work asked me out,” she said one day. Caroline explained the man’s interest in her as his own “insanity” (not personal) and assumed it wouldn’t last (not permanent). She stressed that other people’s interest never lasted, even though I knew she had been the one to end most romantic relationships (not pervasive).

Bear in mind that Caroline didn’t think like this only when she talked to me. Day in, day out, her mind serialized every piece of bad luck into another episode in a continuing Saga of Doom and deflected every happy event into the Meaningless Trivia scrap pile. Her style was crushing her mood—and was probably damaging her body as well.

Why See the Glass Half Empty?

Despite its attendant miseries, there seems to be a useful place for a pessimistic explanatory style. Some people appear to downplay positive aspects of their situations to limit their expectations and help them feel less pressured. They’re less likely to feel let down if things go wrong.

Researchers Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor call this defensive pessimism. My friend Julia calls it inoculating yourself against disappointment. In the seven years I’ve known her, Julia has changed her explanatory style deliberately, gradually, and successfully. Giving up defensive pessimism may invite disappointment in certain situations, but overall, Julia’s quality of life and her physical health are benefiting as she turns herself into a thoroughgoing optimist.

This doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re a habitual pessimist, you know there’s nothing worse than those bouncy optimists.

Habitual thought patterns are like ruts in a dirt road. The mind slips into them over and over, and at first, steering down another route is extremely difficult. Stopping habitual thoughts as they flash along these pathways, turning one’s mental energy to a new way of thinking, requires an effort that is not merely impressive but heroic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The way to start changing your mind is not to force it or command it but to watch it. Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, who studies obsessive-compulsive disorders, teaches his patients “mindful awareness,” a form of meditation that can free them from intrusive thoughts—a technique that has also been shown to help other patients stop a blue mood from becoming full-blown depression. The idea is to identify a destructive thought pattern, then simply label it and watch it and let it pass by whenever it appears in your mind.

When Caroline did this, her mood changed immediately. Instead of drowning in thoughts like “Bonkers never loved me!” she learned to say, “Oh look, there’s a pessimistic explanation.” This gave her enough space, enough mental distance, to at least consider a more optimistic story.

If you want to change your explanatory style, start by evaluating where you fall on the spectrum from pessimism to optimism. Researchers do this by analyzing the way people use the “three Ps” (personal, permanent, and pervasive elements) in their descriptions of past events. (You can use this quiz.) Unless your score shows you to be wildly optimistic, consider nudging yourself further toward the bright side.

Testing your explanatory style is the beginning of mindfulness, of watching the way your brain tells stories. Initially, you may simply notice that a thought seems negative; as you pay more attention, you will begin to see how you use the three Ps.

Once you’ve become aware of your explanatory style and its elements, make a concerted effort to describe positive events as personal, permanent, and pervasive. Tell the story of a bad event without personalizing it or thinking that it will have a broad, lasting impact on your life.

Staying the Course

The great thing about developing an optimistic explanatory style is that it’s self-reinforcing. It increases your hope and expectation that your whole health-and-fitness regimen, mental and physical, will be worth the effort. This frame of mind will help keep you not only happy but healthy; studies have linked it to improved immune function, better lung function, quicker recovery from heart surgery, and a lower risk of heart disease. I’ve also noticed that it correlates with my clients’ ability to achieve all their goals. Changing your thought diet—your way of thinking—may be the best thing you can do to stay on your food diet.

I suspect this is why Caroline, like many of my clients who successfully change their explanatory patterns, has experienced an unexpected side effect: She’s in the best shape of her life. She’s managed to drop a pattern of emotional eating, stay on an effective workout schedule, and lose five pounds. Even more dramatic are the changes in her posture and facial expression, which have gone from cringing and miserable to alert and interested, making her much more attractive and approachable. Not only does her mood improve every time she observes and alters a negative explanation rather than getting mired in it, but her body appears to love the change.

And I suggest that Caroline can expect this trend to continue. Is this an optimistic explanation? You bet. I’m sticking to my diet.

Revealing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Disclosure

Cindy was my own little JFK: A riddle wrapped in a question locked inside an enigma. She’d been my client for nearly three months, but I still had no idea what she thought or felt. Our conversations always went something like this:

Me: “So, Cindy, what’s going on in your life?”

Cindy: “Oh, you know. Like, my parents…[long pause]“

Me: “Yes?”

Cindy: “You know how they are.”

Me: “Um, not really. How are they?”

Cindy: “It’s like, well, anyway…I don’t know, they…like…[sigh]“

Me: “Like what?”

Cindy: “You know.”

As flattered as I was that Cindy seemed to consider me omniscient (she said “you know” approximately four thousand times per session), I eventually had to advise that she stop wasting money on a life coach who had no clue what to tell her. “But,” Cindy exclaimed with obvious dismay, “you’re the only person who really seems to understand me!” 

Until that moment, I’d assumed that Cindy didn’t trust me enough to talk about her inner life. Then I realized that she just didn’t know how. To some degree, most of us share her dilemma. We want desperately to be understood, and we think this will happen when we meet the Perfectly Understanding Person. The truth is that we lack the capacity to make ourselves understood, the ability to disclose our real selves in a way that connects us with others. Even if you’re as stuck as Cindy, you can—and if you want to live joyfully, you must—learn to do it. 

The Dance of the Seven Veils 

The ability to make yourself understood is a prosaic, practical skill, like swimming or telling time but more fundamental to your emotional health. In his poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” William Butler Yeats called it “the heart-revealing intimacy / that chooses right,” phrasing that emphasizes the importance of opening our feelings to others—but carefully. Most of us reveal ourselves about as gracefully as drunken ducklings until we’ve had a little experience. Like Cindy, we may spend years in inarticulate silence, then blurt out things that make us feel, well, like we’re exposing ourselves. 

The ability to disclose our true selves effectively is a bit like the famous dance of the seven veils, in which the dancer removes one veil at a time, with plenty of dancing in between, creating far more allure than if she just showed up buck naked. Relationships, even completely asexual ones, work the same way (one of my clients used the term falling in like to describe the happy dance of gradual disclosure involved in making friends). Our true selves are hidden behind innumerable veils. Each time we disclose a truth about ourselves—anything from our favorite color to our deepest feelings—we remove a layer. Pay attention the next time you do this. Notice the other person’s reaction. Does it make you feel understood, safe, glad you’ve unveiled a bit? If so, you’ll probably feel like shedding another layer sometime soon. If not, simply stop unveiling. By responding to your instincts, you’ll develop the skill of setting boundaries very precisely. This sets you free to bond with people who really understand you, while remaining cordially detached from those who don’t.

The Art of Self-Disclosure 

Cindy didn’t have any objection to shedding her veils, but she was tangled in knots of inarticulate shyness. She had to learn the art of self-disclosure from the ground up. I use the term art advisedly. I believe even if you’re a bullheaded truckdriver with the emotional range of a stump, developing an ability to disclose will require—at least temporarily—that you become a self-disclosing artist. There are several different ways to awaken the artist in yourself, starting with: 

1. Let your body talk. You could assemble a group of mothers from Zimbabwe, Greenland, and New York, have them describe what it was like to give birth, and rest assured that they would soon be weeping for one another’s pain and laughing at one another’s jokes without any need for interpreters. Lacking a common language, they would speak in Body, the communicative code of gesture, movement, and facial expression shared by all people. If you’re not able to articulate what you feel or believe, you can use this code to let your deep self talk to your conscious, verbal mind. 

Cindy and I started using this process shortly after she rejected my suggestion that she find another coach. I had her describe to me, in as much detail as possible, some of the best and worst experiences of her life. Her words were few and halting, but the more she tried to describe these events, the more Cindy’s body unconsciously began to express profound experiences: hands moving protectively toward her throat or opening into starbursts of excitement; eyes narrowing in anger, then widening in astonishment; shoulders hunching, drooping, squaring off for combat. Every so often I’d ask Cindy to freeze, and we’d talk about what we thought her body was trying to convey.

You can use a similar method alone or (better) with a buddy or counselor or (best) with a group of friends. As you talk about a problem or prospect you’re facing, ask yourself and your observers what your body is expressing. When I do this in seminars, I’m amazed by how much information people get from one another’s physical signals, how sensitively they can interpret nuances of feeling, and how much consensus exists, even in large groups, about what any given person’s body is expressing. If your mind isn’t sure what you’re feeling, you’ll be amazed what you can learn from and say with your body.

2. Fumble for words. Despite the power of body language, we are ineluctably verbal creatures; words usually end up being our preferred means of self-disclosure. Most of us don’t realize that humans have barely begun using language to describe subjective experiences. Until a paltry few centuries ago, most people were far too busy surviving to spend time discussing thoughts and feelings. Many of the words we use to describe psychological phenomena (depression, excitement, humor) were originally used to refer to physical objects or actions (a concave surface, the initiation of motion, bodily fluid). These words were adapted almost fancifully to describe feelings or thoughts. They stuck because no better alternatives existed.

Since using words to capture and convey experience is so new, I think we should all consider ourselves verbal pioneers, pushing back the boundaries of the wild frontier, groping for the words to express things that may never have been expressed before. If you’re intimidated by the thought of saying the Wrong Thing, try deliberately playing fast and loose with words. Most of us censor and edit ourselves when the words that pop into our minds aren’t sensible. If Shakespeare had thought this way, he might have written, “That’s a hurtful thing to say,” instead of, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears.” The second sentence is less factual, but we can feel its meaning viscerally. When it comes to self-disclosure, choose guts over grammar. Say what comes up.

When Cindy began to experiment with voicing her first thoughts, rather than the “right” answer, I immediately began to understand her better. “I feel like my head is full of sand,” she said one day, “with a bird in it.” Then she blushed and apologized, “That makes no sense!” But it made perfect sense to me. I could feel the clogged thickness of Cindy’s brain in my own head, sense the fluttering, winged thing that was buried alive inside it. My inner life had connected with Cindy’s, and her emotional isolation began dissolving.

Try writing down the phrase “I feel like a ———” and then toss out the first ten nouns that come to mind: pizza, orchid, sword, whatever. Now read over what you’ve written and see what rings true. Do you really feel like an orchid? In what way? Be as irrational as you can be. The less you keep the rules, the more your mind will begin to use words as vehicles to convey the sense of your experience, rather than as rigid structures that limit your thoughts and feelings.

3. Use artists’ creations to describe how you feel. Great art, in my opinion, is simply a reflection of the artist’s ability to disclose his or her inner experience very directly and accurately. I know exactly how Edvard Munch was feeling when he painted The Scream, and so do you. A sequence of musical tones assembled by Bach, or a few words placed in a sparse line by e.e. cummings, can convey pure emotion or articulate truths I never knew about myself—I have no idea how this is possible, but it is. A wonderful way to disclose your own heart, then, is to get a little help from artists who communicate feelings similar to your own. I tend to play music for my family and friends (“Here! This is what I’m feeling!”) as a way of disclosing aspects of myself I can’t express. I also plague people with drawings, paintings, books, and movies that have touched me deeply. It always strikes me as miraculous that I—or you or even the noncommunicative Cindy—can borrow the genius of artists who lived in other times and places to build bridges across the voids that separate our hearts from each other. 

*****

As a matter of fact, Cindy the Silent gradually blossomed into one of the most expressive people I’ve ever coached. After learning to interpret her own feelings, speak freely, and ride piggyback on the self-disclosing genius of others, she decided to quit her dead-end job and enroll in film school. She recently sent me a still shot she’d taken of me sitting in my office with my dog, discussing the art of self-disclosure. Beneath the image Cindy had written, “This is a little underexposed, like me. But I’m working on it.” She didn’t need to say more. She knew I’d understand.

Creativity Tips from Martha

One thing’s for sure… If any one of us unleashes our creativity, our world will split open. We’ll find unprecedented ways of solving problems and expressing our souls, and our lives will be forever changed.  But perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of creative expression is that it depends on resistance to the opinions read more…