Monday, August 31, 2009

Lessons From Mary

One of my dearest friends was a  professor at the university where I was a student.  We actually met when I became her teaching assistant.  She was teaching a class on the psychology of groups and group dynamics.  It was an experiential learning environment, where students are formed into groups, given a task and then asked to apply the group development theories they were learning to what was happening in their groups.  Students loved her classes because they were not the usual and often boring lecture format.  Through a lot of work, learning and laughter, we became steadfast, lifelong friends.  I learned so many things from Mary, here are a couple:

When we would be together, marking papers, preparing a class, going out for a bite to eat after a class, we would chat about all kinds of things.  Sometimes, I would tell her about personal challenges, ranting  on about how my feelings were being ignored, or I was not getting my way.  Mary would only listen for a brief time - then she would gently interrupt and say:

Mary:  "Stories in your head."
Me:  Huh?
Mary:  Stories in your head.
Me:  Yes, but now I'm telling you about it, so it is not just in my head anymore.
Mary:  You are spinning a story in your head that has moved way beyond the actual event.
Me:  Huh?
Mary:  You are assuming based on what so-and-so did, that you know what he was thinking.
Me:  Yeaaaah.
Mary:  You don't know what he's thinking or what motivates him unless you ask.  Did you ask?
Me:  No.
Mary:  Then it is just a story you are fabricating in your head.
Me.  Alrightyyyy then.            End of Story

With several conversations of this nature - "stories in your head again, Bonnie", I finally 'got it', and when I had a situation to discuss I stuck to what had actually happened and what had actually been said, and not weaving in MY story or spin about what it meant, or why they did it, or what their motivations were.  This spared me a lot of angst and saved a lot of life energy.

This has become a phrase I use with myself, my children, and sometimes my clients:  "Story in your head."  It's a way to catch oneself before you spin some tale about what is happening in your life, that has little basis in reality.  It is often these very stories that we spin that cause our suffering.  Eliminate the story (not truly rooted in reality) and you will eliminate much of your mental and emotional pain.

In a way it reminds me of an TV show my mother used to watch years ago called, Dragnet.  I think it was Sargeant Friday who would interrupt witnesses to a crime as they babbled on and say:  "The facts, Ma'am - just the facts."

Another thing I learned from Mary was how to manage myself when I was having a strong reaction to something.  If I was upset, ready to lash out, tell someone a thing or two, scream, - whatever - Mary said "Before you react, take a breath and just get curious."  Huh?  "Just be curious." 

Ask yourself - what is going on here?  Do I really have to take this personally?  Do I understand the other person's situation, context, need, hurt?  How will it help the situation for me to be reactive?  What other choices do I have?  Could I simply and quietly seek clarification with the person?  Could I say, I felt hurt by the comment or action, and need some time out to regain my composure, and then we will need to talk about it?

By taking a step back and being curious, I was in effect stepping out of reactionary ego-mind, and approaching the situation from my more centered Observer Self.  (We all have one, BTW.)
So Mary (and I have since learned buddhists, taoists, etc.) suggest that instead of reacting to a situation, step back, breathe and be curious.  Observe your own tendancy to react.  Be curious about where that reaction comes from.  Be curious about whether giving in to your reaction will solidify your connections or break them.

Stephen Levine, a buddhist teacher, suggests something similar when he says:  "Respond TO the reaction/feeling not FROM it.  Take time to think about that.  When you respond FROM a feeling such as anger or indignation, the feeling envelopes you and your words, actions, intent are all colored by the feeling. 

If you respond TO your own feeling (not from it) it might go like this:  Hmmm, I notice (the observer) anger rising up in me, what is that about?  How am I feeling threatened?  What am I afraid of losing (besides my temper)?  Would reacting from the anger arising, be the loving or compassionate thing to do?  Can I state my case, set limits, express my feelings in an assertive way without being aggressive?  Is this more about me than the other person - and do I need to sort this out with myself before I respond to him/her?

When you respond TO instead of FROM you are acknowledging that the feeling is there, and then making a conscious choice as to whether it is appropriate or not to express it.  You may very well choose to express it - and then it will not be a knee-jerk reaction, but a considered one.

So as Mary said to me one day:  "When the sh** hits the fan, that is the time to be curious."  You always still retain the option to react, if you choose.

This is also much like the Byron Katie four question approach, where when you notice a strong reaction or judgment you become curious or inquire of yourself "Is it true?".  Usually it is not - and you can move into a place of equanimity rather than judgment or hurt.

So just as one feels curious when they see a gate or a meandering path - wondering what lies down that path or behind that gate.  Perhaps you stop and consider what could happen if you open the gate and walk through:   will it be a peaceful, rewarding walk, will you be attacked by guard dogs that you cannot see at the moment, are you entering foreign territory, is there another route to the same goal for you, will you be trespassing or intruding???

So too with our thinking.  If we get curious - we will notice if we are entering through a gate that will slam shut behind us cutting off future options;  we can question whether our thoughts and or reactions will lead us down the most productive path;  we can determine whether our reactions would lead us on a path of compassion or a path of judgment and disconnection.

Be curious about your own reactions/feelings and about the stories you spin in your head.
Are they helping you get where you want - or do they make you weave all over the place, sap your energy, and dismantle the connections you have built?

Voila, a couple of the valuable lessons I learned from my friend and mentor, Mary.  Thank you Mare.


  1. One of the scariest times in my life was when I read the book, Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindel. It made me realize that, once you got a handle on your description of responding rather than reacting, you had the "ability" to sit in the fire - be a part of real emotion in small and large groups. Scary only because another whole world opened up then. Thanks for the great post, and thanks to Mary - from all of us!


  2. So, was Mary a Buddhist? She sounds a lot like Buddhist teachers I've known, though most certainly this sort of wisdom can be found outside Buddhism--in Toaism, in the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, in Hinduism, etc. etc. as well as outside of religion altogether, as for instance here on this blog and in Byron Katie's work.

    Getting curious and dropping our stories are very helpful in finding creative and healing approaches to difficulties. It's not religious, spiritual, just human.

    Lovely post! I'm glad you found Mary to help you on your path.

  3. Well Mary has got her advice down to a T! Stories in your head sure rings true and once we stop embellishing and stop second guessing the other parties feelings...virtually would be a lot calmer. I certainly have to remember this one...and the rest of the advice! Thank you Bonnie and thank you Mary!

  4. Expat From Hell:

    I just love it when comments like yours expand on and clarify my post. As you say, it really does allow us to live with more risk, to step into situations that would normally threaten us, and, in fact, you have just made me realize that it creates more emotional intimacy. Respond rather than react. Thanks Expat! You're the expat that expands the posts. Get it . . . expat that expands. . . yea yea.

  5. Dan:

    That's so true - it has nothing to do with religion - it is about living as consciously and with as much integrity as we can as a human.

    Mary studied them all and incorporated the best of them all into her philosophy of living. She seems quite taken by Shamanism these days. She would say she is an eternal student and seeker - and to my mind, one of the most joyful and compassionate people I have ever met.

    Thanks Dan - I so enjoy interacting with you.

  6. Thank you Alicia!

    Yes - embellishing and second guessing . . . and we are usually off the mark. I'm glad you find value in Mary's advice.

  7. Hello Bonnie

    You learned some valuable lessons from your wise friend Mary...

    Once I learned that there is always a gap between the event/stimulus and my response I had the key...

    One of my friends said, during an argument one day, that she always operated from her heart...implying her intentions were good and pure because she let her heart rule over her mind.
    I suggested that what she was doing was operating from her emotions and that is something altogether different...

    We must listen to our feelings but use the power of our minds in conjunction with those feelings in order to be discerning and to make the best choice for our next actions...

    I like the phrase 'stories in your head',

    I asked clients if the story that they were sharing was true...they would look at me oddly and then I would say...

    how do you know that it is true....

    and they would then consider whether they were in fact relaying facts or their interpretation and assumptions...and extrapolations...

    and then I would ask

    and if it is true what would it mean....

    A great discussion thank you Bonnie

    Happy days

  8. Great advice that i really must make an effort to act upon! I have a bad habit of snowballing situations in my mind, then getting really depressed about them.
    Oh, Anger. I have a VERY short fuse! I've been told I'm aggressive, and I guess i can be....I'm not sure that's always a bad thing, so long as the aggression is channelled in a productive way. Often it results in self destructive actions and thoughts for me unfortunately- sometimes to the point where I actually hurt myself. It's like an extreme frustration that I can't express what I want to express, and it just folds in on itself or something. I don't know, I can't really explain it properly. (obviously!)
    Meh. I just need to try to think more positively. It's a huge challenge for me!

  9. Delwyn:

    Such good points you raise. It is so easy to be seduced by our own interpretations, assumptions and extrapolations - especially when we think they are brilliant! ;-)

    Few seem to understand that our feelings are information - and sometimes give us more info about ourself than the situation. We are meant to use the information we get from our emotions to then respond to the situation. But often as you say, we forget the gap between our emotions and our actions/reactions, where we can insert some gentle curiousity or inquiry so we can make a considered response rather than an inflammed reaction.

    I love bouncing ideas around with you.

  10. One Little Simitopian:

    Well I think your comments show a great deal of awareness of your patterns. You describe them well.

    Anger and aggression can often be about what we feel is just or unjust. The thing is to slow down, breathe, and ask yourself what the anger is telling you - get the information it is bringing you. Decide to learn more about it before you act on it. What is the need buried in your anger? If you figure that out, then meet the need instead of expressing aggression. Often anger comes as a result of sensing a threat - thus it is often about fear.

    Maybe a book on assertiveness training would help you direct your frustrationss in a constructive way - instead of getting aggressive.

    Turning your anger on yourself is not a good thing. Stephen Levine has a lovely saying. He says, "Treat yourself as if you were your only child." In other words, be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Could your aggression be about the lack of compassion you experience in your life? We can't always control how much compassion comes our way from the outside world - but we can control the amount of compassion and love we give ourself.

  11. What an interesting post. Your friend Mary is very wise and offers an excellent way of looking at things.

    When I think of all the things that have made me angry the seem so unimportant as time passes.

  12. So true. And so much easier to see other people's stories than it is to see our own, at least when we're invested in them.

  13. Wow..!
    Mary seems to be reaaallly wise!
    You are lucky to have such a wonderful friend.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.
    You made me learn a new concept. I, too, will be curious from now on. I'm sure it will save me from a lot of anger and resentment.
    Great piece!!Keep up the great job!


  14. I am an EXPERT story weaver! Thanks for this post. I am going to try that one simple phrase: Stories in your head. Thanks to Mary, too :)

  15. Oh, so much truth here Bonnie. I am going through much of these feelings at work right now, and I can see how I am creating stories in my head to make me feel better about my decision to leave. I got hurt by words, retreated, and then those words took on a life of their own, and with them, the decision to label what that person meant when she said them. Whew. Not that I don't think it's time for me to find something else to do, but it's surely made me see that I am embellishing too much of it to justify my being mistreated. Thanks for the food for thought this morning, and thank you Mary.

  16. Very interesting post to ponder Bonnie. Again. Thanks.

  17. makes me wonder why others quite often try to quell our mother was always fond of saying "curiosity killed the cat" and yet, how do we learn anything if we aren't curious? Needless to say, I probably killed a lot of cats with my curiosity!! lol!!!

    On a more serious note, your Mary has been quite a mentor. A wise woman. I learned so much about myself and about life and how to appropriately use my curiosity when I encountered my own mentor about 6 years ago. Quite a blessing.

  18. Such good stuff! I love the "get curious" question... its a bit better than just breathe, it gets to the core... Yes so very little is truly about us and yet we just can't seem to get past our egocentric thoughts and feelings.

    Plus so often, anger is the surface and emergent state, but underneath it we will discover sadness, anxiety or fear, depression, etc... but we need that time to truly excavate what that emotion is that initially looks like anger.

    Mare sounds like an inspired teacher and mentor, how wonderful to have her as a friend as well!

  19. Oh Bonnie...amazing post!!! I am empathic to a large degree..I was to say the least very oversensitive and reactive (internally) as a child and younger woman! IT took me years to figure these things out - I needed you or Mary 25 years ago LOL!! I was thinking about Byron Katie as I was reading your post - I am working through one of her books!
    I learned to literally "change my mind" in my early forties and then, that grew into being a curious being. I like me alot better this way. Much more peaceful to be curious that reactive. I wish I had read this many years wonderful for you that Mary offered these ideas up to you!! Hugs, Sarah

  20. Liss:
    Scattering Lupines:
    Sherry Lee:

    Thank you each and every one for stopping by and commenting. It makes me so happy that you find value in my offerings.

  21. Vicky: Such a good point. We often use anger to keep other more "painful" feelings at bay. But if we are curious - we may find out there is other "stuff" going on and we do not need to risk our reputations, jobs, friendships, relationships with anger. Thanks for your comment.

  22. Sarah:

    It is very Byron Katie - esque. Go beyond that and it is pure Taoist thought. Everything old is new again - or presented in a way that suits the time we live in. Glad to hear you are enjoying Byron Katie. What freedom it brings to put her suggestions into practice.

  23. hi bonnie - it's such a human trait to create narratives from fragments of knowing or understanding. to extend a relationship beyond the actual experiencing of it into an imaginary state. conjecture. expectation. ultimately disappointment whent the reality fails to match the imagined. better as you say to relegate those to their proper place as "stories in your head". distractions. fantasy. thanks so much for this. have a peaceful day. steven

  24. Oh, Bonnie, How I needed this post today. Coming here to your blog is always like taking a deep breath of wisdom. I had a reactive day yesterday and I was not wise enough to be curious. But today, I will try to regain my footing and don on my curiosity. Thanks for the post.

  25. Wise woman, wise words. Thank you for your wonderful posts on life and everything!

    Julie Magers Soulen Photography

  26. Barbara:

    It works both ways - I love what I learn on your blog too. I always feel invigorated to continue with your affirming comments. Thanks.

  27. Steven:

    Thank you for your visits and comments!!

  28. Bonnie thank you for such an enlightening post. I have been using the phrase "stories in your mind" since you first mentioned it on one of your comments on my blog. I have learned to put "space" between my reactions. The buddhist nun, Pema Chodron has many suggestions such as your wise friend and professor.

    Great post.

  29. Nancy:

    It's so rewarding to know people are using and benefitting from the suggestions they find here.

    Pema Chodron is an amazing woman, buddhist, teacher.

  30. Just dropping back in to say thankyou for your reply to my comment. The last paragraph really hit me. A lot of times as a child when I was genuinely very upset, I was told to shut up. I was never allowed to express my feelings, and if i dared to do so, would receive The Silent Treatment for days on end. This made me very depressed, but then I was told that I was "an asshole" for being so depressed, and was forced to apologise to make amends, even when it wasn't my fault. . Every dream i shared was practically ridiculed, and physical self expression was met with "you're just a show off". I think i can safely say that it probably didn't do very good things to my confidence levels and self esteem. It's funny how things we learn as kids can impact upon us so heavily in adult life.
    Interesting that you mention anger stemming from some fear of something too, because it's when i feel that my feelings are being ignored or belittled that I become positively furious! I do have a genuine fear of not being taken seriously by those i love. it's the thing that hurts me most.
    It's so bizarre that we can treat ourselves in ways that would be unacceptable from anybody else, but we carry on doing it! we humans are crazy.
    Thanks for giving me some serious food for thought. seriously, thankyou so much.

  31. Simitopian:

    Your feelings were ignored, belittled and not taken seriously in your family of origin. Sounds like that wound has not yet healed. Then if anything happens that has a similar flavor to what happened in the past, you react strongly.

    If you slow down and "get curious", you will be able to remind yourself that you are in part reacting to what happened to you as a child and you can ask yourself if this situation, now, really requires such a strong reaction.

    Ask yourself: Am I responding to things in the here and now - as if I were still back in the there and then. Then ask: Is that what I want to do.

    When we react in the now with more intensity than the situation really calls for, it is a clear signal that we are reacting to our past at the same time. Work on the issues from your past, close up the gaping wound - and your life in the now will become much more peaceful and easy. Sometimes we need help to close the wounds.


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