It’s been a rough week. I’ve had difficult conversations with two pastors I sometimes work with. I admire both immensely—not only for their ability to lead their flocks but also because we have a long history of friendship and mutual admiration. The first pastor told me I was annoying because I texted, called, and emailed all in the same week. I was slammed with guilt as the pastor pointed out that he was a very busy person. I had barely recovered from that conversation when the other pastor told me she had lost confidence in my ability to handle challenging ministry situations. As I fought back feelings of shame, I recognized a familiar urge to explain myself and try to patch things up. I have been down this road more times than I care to admit. Sadly, the emotional rollercoaster I found myself on was not based on reality. You see, these conversations only happened in my head.🙄

In reality, while I waited for my pastor friend to reply to my third request in a week, I only imagined that he was fed up with my persistence. (As it turns out, he was the one to apologize profusely for not responding to me sooner.) As for the second pastor, rather than expressing disappointment with my work with one of her congregants, she texted me to say she was looking forward to catching up. The feedback I feared was a non-issue in her eyes. In both cases, the guilt and shame that I felt were based on imaginary narratives that came from within me and reflected my fear of being hurt and of making mistakes. Does this ever happen to you? Sadly, this kind of thing happens to me way too often. I now understand why.

According to Brené Brown, author and researcher on shame, vulnerability, and empathy, we are neurobiologically wired to make sense of what is happening in our hearts as fast as possible. Thus, when an emotion pops up, we will create a narrative to explain what is happening inside us. Our brains facilitate this process by chemically rewarding us for that story, whether it’s accurate or not. In other words, we tend to make stuff up to give meaning to our emotions. When we do this, we risk not being able to acknowledge and own what is happening inside of us; instead, we create stories that allow us to blame our feelings on someone else. In my example, if I accept the false narrative that my friend finds my persistent communication annoying, I don’t have to address my reluctance to ask for what I need. I wonder if you can relate.

These self-created stories act as filters or lenses through which we view our lives. According to Brown, the most dangerous stories are the ones that diminish our inherent worthiness: our lovability, divinity, and creativity. For example, if you have had an uncaring relationship with a parent or have experienced deep rejection by a loved one, you may have developed a narrative that questions whether you are worthy of being loved. Similarly, people who have experienced shame in their faith journey are likely to have narratives that question their spiritual worthiness. You may have had shaming experiences in school where you were told you weren’t good at art or writing or some other expression of creativity. However, just because someone else fails to see the value in what we can create or achieve doesn’t negate its worth or ours. Brown notes that as painful as our experiences are, the greater harm comes from agreeing with the stories we make up:

“The most difficult part of our stories is often what we bring to them—what we make up about who we are and how we are perceived by others. Yes, maybe we failed or screwed up a project, but what makes that story so painful is what we tell ourselves about our own self-worth and value.”

black flat screen tv turned on at the living room

If you suspect that you, too, tend to use well-rehearsed but false narratives to make sense of what is going on with your emotions, what can you do about it? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions, and be curious about what is happening inside you. Brené Brown writes: “Owning our stories means acknowledging our feelings and wrestling with the hard emotions—our fear, anger, aggression, shame, and blame. This isn’t easy, but the alternative—denying our stories and disengaging from emotion—means choosing to live our entire lives in the dark. It means no accountability, no learning, no growth.” To acknowledge our emotions, we first have to learn to tune into them. Many of us live disassociated from our internal world, so learning to tune in will take lots of practice. When I took the time to tune into what was happening in me, I noticed that I felt guilt and fear as I thought about reaching out to my friend again. “What’s up with that?” I wondered. We need to recognize our emotions and then become curious about them.
  • Process the emotions with someone else if you can: If you have someone who will simply listen and acknowledge your feelings (without trying to fix you), tell them what you notice happening inside you. If you don’t have a good listener in your life, acknowledge what you are feeling to yourself and God. If you don’t take time to slow down and acknowledge what’s happening in you, you are more likely to create a narrative that justifies your feelings. In my example, I made up the story “My friend thinks I’m annoying” rather than acknowledging I was feeling guilty and ashamed.
  • Ask God to show you if you are creating a false narrative about your current situation: It is so easy to let our false narratives distort what is happening in us at the moment. Ask Jesus—who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)—what is really happening in your current situation. He doesn’t have an internal narrative to follow; He sees through any pretense and can help us see what is true. In my example, instead of picking up the phone to ask the second pastor if she thought I had made a mistake, I sensed God telling me to wait. While I waited, I asked God for His truth about the situation instead. That brings me to the next step:
  • Ask God if there is anyone you need to forgive: Our false narratives are often linked to hurts and wounds we picked up in our past. Unforgiveness and bitterness can keep you stuck in that pain. Forgiving the person who hurt, shamed, or cursed you can help release you from the prison of believing a false narrative. In my case, God reminded me of the times I was called a pest by important people in my life, so I forgave them and came out of agreement with that label.
  • Ask God for His truth about you and your situation: Because God sees the big picture, we need to ask him what is really going on in our circumstances. It’s not wrong to ask a friend for their opinion, but there is no guarantee that their guidance will align with what God says. In my situation, when I asked God whether I messed up, I sensed his approval of how I handled the situation. I also felt him urging me not to fear what the pastor thought about me; He had my back. Wow. That certainly helped to shift my narrative.
  • When you find a false narrative, write a declaration that corrects it and practice speaking it out loud daily. If you have an ingrained false narrative that seems to be on repeat, it’s time to rewrite your story. You can use Scripture to reveal God’s truth to speak over yourself. Here are a few examples:-I am deeply loved by God, who sees my value and worth (1 John 3:1)-If God is for me, who can be against me? (Rom 8:31)-I have a right to ask for what I need (Matt 7:9-11)-My mistakes don’t define me (1 John 1:9)-God forgives me when I make mistakes (Psa 37:24)-I am made in God’s image; therefore, I am creative (Gen 1:26)-Jesus died for my sins; He’s not mad when I mess up (Rom 5:8)-God is not ashamed of me (Isa 50:7)-I am an overcomer (Rom 8:37)
  • Seek help if you are stuck. Learning how to listen to our inner world and identify the false narratives we create takes consistent focus and practice. Working with a therapist, coach, or guide can help you with the process. The alternative option—denying our stories and disengaging from emotion—means living our entire lives in the dark. If you need support on your journey, I would be delighted to help! Please reach out.

In summary, as we tackle these false narratives to gain a greater understanding of our emotions for our own healing, keep in mind that the ultimate purpose is so that we can love God and love others better. These false narratives can damage not only ourselves (keeping us in the dark and locked away) but also our relationship with others and God by distorting our lenses.

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