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Some time ago I met with a wife who felt distant from her husband. She was lonely. She desperately wanted to make her marriage work, but she wasn't sure it was salvageable. I was a brand new coach, and she was one of my very first clients.

As I talked with her, it quickly became clear that she was assigning meaning to things her husband was doing based on past experience with an ex-husband. In other words, she was telling herself a story about the the things that were happening that was based on a totally different character. I showed her how the way she was thinking about her interactions with her husband was actually making HER pull away from HIM. I taught her that she was causing her own problem, and that was the best news ever. If she was causing it, she had the power to fix it.

Over the next couple of weeks, we ran through different scenarios until she realized exactly how to get what she was missing from her marriage. By our third meeting, she told me things with her husband were so much better, and she wanted to spend the time talking about an issue with one of her children. Sometimes, it really is that easy.

To help her learn how to solve her own problem, I taught her a system you'll hear me refer to as "the model." The model will work on any problem. Truly, any problem. The model was developed by Brooke Castillo, and it was built on the work of many brain and behavioral scientists. Good use of the model shows you what is causing your problem and where your power lies to fix it. Coaches go through months and sometimes years of training to be able to master all the ins and outs of model usage, but even a basic understanding of it can change the way you see everything.

This week, we cover part 1 of the model, story vs fact.

FIRST: When something is bothering you, always begin by completely emptying your mind on paper. State what happened and how you feel about it. Write down every thought that comes into your head. Don't censor. We all have thoughts we don't like; we are not our thoughts. Write it ALL down so you can see it.

SECOND: Separate all the "thoughts" from "facts." This is trickier than it seems. There are things on that paper you truly believe are "facts," but are actually thoughts. Usually when I do this with a client I may get one or two actual facts and twenty thoughts. For the sake of the model, a fact is something that every single person in the world would agree to be true. It could be proven in a court of law. It is something you would find on a document. There is no bias, no emotion, no interpretation. It's the most boring part of the story.

Here are some examples that clearly illustrate the concept:

Fact: It is raining right now.

Thought: It is a bad weather day. (Some people love the rain. "Bad weather" is an opinion.)

Fact: I am a 65-year-old woman .

Thought: I am and old woman. (Some people would say 65 is old, others middle aged. A 90 year old might think that sounds young.)

Let's get a little more advanced:

Fact: My daughter scored 50% on her reading assessment. It was the lowest grade in the class.

Thought: My daughter is a poor reader.

Fact: My husband said, "I'm not sure this marriage is working anymore."

Thought: My husband wants a divorce.

And here are some you may really resist:

Fact: Two airplanes collided with the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Thought: September 11, 2001 was a national tragedy.

Fact: My daughter has been expelled from three schools and been arrested for drug possession.

Thought: My daughter is difficult.

This step of separating out the facts (what we'll call circumstances) from thoughts about them is critical to understanding what is really happening in your brain and solving the problem. All circumstances are neutral UNTIL we have a thought about them. A circumstance can have no effect on you. It is your thought about it that has an effect on you.

Consider how differently people feel about the same circumstance. Here's an example: In March 2020 a corporation emailed its employees and said, "Due to COVID-19, our offices will close and everyone will work from home for at least two weeks." This circumstance is neutral. But thoughts and feelings about it were all over the board.

Group 1 was thinking: "Yay! I get to work from home! I get a break from my commute!" This group was feeling excited.

Group 2 was thinking: "What!? How am I supposed to get my work done while my kids are home?" This group felt angry.

Group 3 was thinking: "Oh, thank heavens! I was so worried I would catch COVID at work." This group felt relieved.

Group 4 was thinking: "Oh no, they must really think this is terrible to do something so drastic." This group felt afraid.

Exact same email, but people thought totally different things about it.

Let's pause here to clear up one of the most common misunderstandings about this. When coaches say that your circumstance is neutral, we are not saying you should think and feel neutral things about it. You can think and feel about it any way you want. What we are saying is that it is the narrative running in your mind that makes it negative or positive to you. AND, we are never saying that you should always think positive thoughts. I don't WANT to think positive thoughts about abuse. But gaining awareness of how you are thinking about any situation gives you clarity.

FINALLY: Look at your list of thoughts. Although these things may feel true, none of them are absolutely, unarguably TRUE. This is all story we're telling ourselves about the facts. If the story feels ok, there's no problem with this. But often, the story we're telling ourselves makes us feel terrible. Sometimes, we use these stories to punch ourselves in the face. In these cases, we want to start to loosen up the thoughts. Ask yourself some questions about your thoughts. Some you could consider include:

  • In what way could this thought be wrong?

  • How COULD someone else interpret what is happening here?

  • How could this be a good thing?

  • In what way is this normal?

  • Even if it is true, is thinking this thought serving me?

  • How do I want to think about this?

The first time I was able to look at my thoughts and reconsider them on the fly rocked my world. I had been away for a relaxing weekend with my husband. When we arrived home, we found the house a total disaster (this is a thought, by the way;). I walked in the door, looked around, and I could feel the anger rising from my belly into my chest, and it was about to explode out of my mouth as I was going to yell, "Everyone get down here and clean up this mess!"

But the split second before that happened, I stopped myself. I considered the phrases running through my mind. Things like, "I can't believe they didn't put the food away!" "They know better!" "They treat me like a maid." Zeroing in on the thoughts causing my anger made me realize I was being dramatic.

I decided more useful thoughts were, "Children make messes. This is totally normal. I got to have a beautiful weekend away, and I can clean up the kitchen in 20 minutes. I'm great at cleaning up."

Resentment melted away, and I began quietly cleaning. As my children heard that I was home, one by one, they ran downstairs, gave me a huge hug, and told me how much they missed me. They noticed that I was happily cleaning up their mess. Without even being asked, they all chipped in and began to help as we chatted about the weekend. It was a really fun moment, and I almost missed it because I was upset about what my unsupervised children "should have done."

In the coming weeks I'll teach how to finish your model by filling in the feelings, actions, and results that spring from your thoughts. I'll show you how to use the model to help you feel better, parent better, love better, and do better.

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