When Bad Things Happen, Stop Talking in Stories and Start Talking in Facts

One of the most addictive things in human nature are stories. We love to hear them, we love to share them, we read them in books and we watch them in films.

When I was on a personal development course a few years ago, some of the participants were sharing stories of the past that they were still hung up on. Some of them were truly terrible – abusive parents, relationships from hell, or being cheated in business partnerships.

But the idea that the course leader introduced us to was this: Stop talking in stories and start talking in facts.

Whenever someone described themselves as “abused”, or “screwed over”, or being “destroyed”, or “cheated”, the course leader would interrupt the participant. “What happened, what did you say, what did he say? That’s all I want to know. I don’t want to know your story, I want to know what happened.”

So the participant would have to reword how the incident occurred in pure facts, instead of the story that they had developed over the preceding years. And they would really struggle, because the story had been ingrained for so long. When we feel wronged, we are likely to make it sound worse when we describe it to others. Instead of saying “my ex-fiancé slept with a hooker once”, we’ll say “my ex-fiancé cheated on me, betrayed me, and destroyed our relationship.” We choose strong, emotive words that make us feel victimized, wronged, and angry.

It’s not to condone the actions of others in the past, but as the Dalai Lama says: “Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past – until then, someone else will hold the keys to our happiness, and that person will be our jailor.” Until we forgive, we will still be trapped by our past.

When we start talking about our past in facts, we’ll start to loosen our attachment to our narratives that we’ve created, and be able to focus more on our present and future. Our stories will no longer be told in dramatic, entertaining fashion – but we’ll be free.

The Three Ps: A Mental Framework to Deal With Your Problems

The three Ps come from research on happiness by Martin Seligman, described in Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, and a few years ago found her husband dead on a hotel gym floor. The book is about how she dealt with the trauma and grief, and strategies to deal with adversity.

And that’s where the three Ps comes in. When people inevitably come across adversity in life, there are three common things we say to ourselves which make things worse.

The first P is personalization. Personalization means that when things go wrong, you blame yourself. After all, you’re the common factor in all the problems you come across, right? And we’ve also been taught concepts like internal locus of control, and taking responsibility of our lives too. But where there is a misunderstanding is the difference between taking responsibility and placing fault or blame on yourself.

When I was first starting out as a door-to-door salesman, I rarely sold anything. Of course, the natural self-talk was to blame myself. “I suck, wow I’m really bad at this. No-one wants to buy anything from me. Oh God, I’m way worse than I thought I’d be at this.” As good as it is to take responsibility for your results, it is important to understand that firstly, you’re not the only one finding it difficult. Many people have gone through the same struggle you’re going through too, no matter what it is. Secondly, just because someone didn’t buy off you doesn’t mean it’s all your fault. To this day, most prospects still decline the product I’m offering. When someone declines my offer, my self-talk nowadays is: “They didn’t want it.” No blame on anyone, just stating the facts. Of course, I still try to improve at sales, but I try not to beat myself up when things aren’t going well.

The second P is pervasiveness. Pervasiveness means that a problem in one area of your life ends up pervading, or spreading, to every other part of life. Work problems get taken into your home, into intimate relationships, into aspects of mental and physical health and so on. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

During the same, harrowing period starting in door-to-door sales, I slowly began to realize that I was basing my value as a human being solely on whether I had made sales that day or not. And of course, most days I wasn’t making sales. So, my value was pretty fucking low. I didn’t want to speak to anyone after work, and I was getting into a deeper and deeper hole of low-confidence where it was going to take a gargantuan effort to escape. I even ate junk food to try to make myself feel better. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t even make any sense. There’s a lot more to life than work. And there’s a lot of stuff that you’re actually pretty good at. Nowadays, as a sales manager, I always remind new salespeople that the amount of sales they make doesn’t equate to their value as a person. I’m also much better at compartmentalizing work problems as work problems, and not letting those issues infect other parts of my life.

The third P is permanence. Permanence means that you come to believe that the problem will always be there, and that how terrible you’re feeling right now is destined never to end.

As already mentioned, I became stuck in a vicious circle where self-confidence was going so low that I didn’t know if it would ever come back. Luckily, everything in life is impermanent. There’s nothing in life that isn’t impermanent, even life itself will end at some point. So having the grit to stick in there and understand that a bad period won’t last forever gives hope for the future and inspiration for the present moment.

In what situations did the three Ps play a part in your life? And how did you overcome it? I’d love to know, comment below.