Relationships

These Five Words Changed My Relationship

These Five Words Changed My Relationship

Confession: I am not the best communicator…

Sometimes, I liken myself to a very early computer, slowwwly processing my feelings, while my partner stares at the spinning wheel, wondering what on earth is happening. Many are the times I’ve wished for a magic phrase that would help me speak my mind without feeling silly or placing blame. As it turns out, such a phrase exists.

Enter perennial genius Brené Brown. Have you seen her latest Netflix special, The Call to Courage? Much like her viral TED talk from 2010, it was 75 minutes of truth bombs that made me laugh and cry.

In the middle of the talk, she describes a time when she and her husband, Steve, got into an argument on a family vacation. I won’t go into the particulars, because a) you should watch it and b) she does a better job recounting it than I possibly could. While telling her story, she offers this brilliant takeaway. In her years spent interviewing couples, the most resilient partners all had one phrase in common, said during times of conflict:

“The story I’m telling myself…”

She explains that when something bad happens, our brains, which are hardwired to protect us, naturally make up a story. “Your brain doesn’t want a wishy-washy story,” she says. “It wants a clear-cut story — where there is a bad guy and a good guy.”

This is why, when a partner doesn’t answer a text quickly enough, or they come home late, or they don’t help clean, or they act defensive or withdrawn or exhibit any other human emotion, we might make up a story about it, often fueled by our own insecurities.

The story may be something like, “INSERT PARTNER’S NAME did that annoying thing again! I always have to do everything in this relationship! They don’t care about me! It must be because of INSERT PERSONAL ACHILLES HEEL!”

When, in reality, maybe your partner was late because they heard the wrong time. Or maybe they were distant because they, too, were grappling with some sort of vulnerability.

The point is, whatever you’re telling yourself in these moments is just a story. Everyone has one. And acknowledging this makes it much easier for both parties to communicate.

Since watching the show, I have invoked this phrase multiple times, and let me tell you: It’s some kind of magic.

Last week, my boyfriend was out of town visiting friends. On a weekday afternoon, soon after his departure, he sent me a text with a picture of cocktails. “Nice!” I replied, and I meant it. I truly did not begrudge him his vacation drinks. I just happened to be in the middle of a 36,756 item to-do list and could not type something more robust.

Some time later, another text popped up. “The story I’m telling myself is that you’re annoyed by my text and you don’t want to hear much about this vacation.” Be still my heart.

“No!” I replied. “I’m just super busy right now so my reply was short. I’m happy to hear about your trip! In fact, I want to hear all about it, otherwise I’m liable to make up some stories of my own.” (This last part could not be more true.)

“Phew! That was a very effective way to communicate,” he replied. “Thanks Brené!” (Yes, this is the exact text that he sent.)

It’s amazing how much easier it is to share your anxieties when they’re couched as stories. With this one little turn of phrase, our BRAINS — not our partners — are the enemy, so no one has to feel blame.

Brené reports that she and her husband have come to rely on this phrase. Since that fateful day, they’ve rarely had a fight that didn’t include each of them saying, “The story I’m making up right now…” (even if it is sometimes said through gritted teeth). Try it! It’s truly a game changer.

Have you ever used this phrase? Do you have any other advice for communicating in challenging moments?

P.S. Another brilliant Brené quote and hilarious marriage pet peeves.

(Photo from Catastrophe.)

  1. Thank you for this reminder, Caroline! So freakin important. Will be implementing immediately and scheduling a date night watch of this ted talk!

  2. Jenny says...

    I said this to myself today after a not-so-great meeting with a potential client. It’s so easy to slip into negative self-talk and imposter syndrome, but saying, “the story I’m telling myself…” made it possible for me to step far enough outside my own negative narrative to acknowledge that the thoughts I had were just that – thoughts, not truth. A helpful tool in the toolbox, indeed.

  3. Amy Walton says...

    Holy cow, this is brilliant. I need to use this with my sister, too, haha.
    Thanks!!

  4. Lauren says...

    5 little words = life changing! I just read On Being Human by Jennifer Pastiloff (HIGHLY RECOMMEND( and this concept is talked about AT LENGTH. Specifically, the bullshit stories we tell ourselves… I love Brene Brown and author Jennifer Pastiloff!

  5. Emma says...

    When I get angry/upset/anxious or any fun combination of the three, my mind just turns into a sieve and any logical thought slips away. A fight with my husband will often trigger a panic attack for me. Knowing that I’m not in the right state to process what’s upsetting me, I find I often hit a brief pause button on arguments/conflicts with my husband. I’ll say something “I love you and I want to talk about this, I just need to go calm down and figure out what’s actually bothering me so we can work it out.” I’ll lay down and have a good cry or take a walk, do some breathing exercises, and then break down the situation to figure out what triggered those bad feelings. I guess its my version of figuring out the “story I’m telling myself! Although my story is often more of a 3-point thesis, haha! I.e. I believe I reacted this way because reason 1, reason 2, reason 3, and here are some examples and cited sources.
    Once we reconvene, what started as a fight will instead be an open and often pleasant discussion with each of us sharing theories about what happened and why we may have spoken/reacted the way we did. He has started adopting this technique, as well. The bonus: His calming, safe place to think over his feelings….doing the dishes. ;)

    TLDR: It can be difficult to figure out the story that you’re telling yourself when you’re in the heat of the moment. Step away, calm down, and figure out the plot points of the story when you can look at the situation objectively.

  6. Jennie says...

    A question I ask myself is “what of me am I bringing to this situation?” meaning what insecurities foibles, etc. This helps me break things down rationally rather than try to understand things with a bunch of personal baggage in my hand.

  7. Gahhhh it seems so obvious I’m mad I didn’t think of it! Ha. This also goes to show how *ineffective* texting is. Considering clear communication is primarily dependent on words, tone, and facial expression, and texting removes 2 of those 3 elements from the equation, it’s no wonder texting leaves us open to creating all kinds of fun stories.

    • In the early months of dating I always found the opposite! Texting allows each person to say their piece without being interrupted, and it also comes in super handy when talking about sensitive issues. When my now-husband and I were first dating we often sorted out issues via text because it was easier to say what we wanted/needed to say. Now we are rock solid and can say whatever we need to in person, but I found it so effective back in the day!

  8. Josiah Fox says...

    If you want to expound on this concept, read “The Lies We Believe” by Dr. Thurman. He calls it “personalization” a distortion lie of what is actually happening where one personalizes things that dont actually have to do with them. Great article, life changing concept.

  9. The hardest thing for us (re: me) is listening to each other’s FULL thoughts/feelings/spiel. I always want to interrupt 1000 times, but that just prolongs the argument and makes me feel more hurt and distant… BUT, when I hear out all 3 or 5 or 7 detailed bullet points of what my husband has to say (or in his case, if he listens to my entire ramble), it goes so much better – 1) because a lot of what I hear him say at the beginning that upsets me isn’t actually how he feels now. 2) usually we are more on the same page than I thought, but I wouldn’t believe that if I didn’t hear everything he has to say. 3) even if I disagree with some of the things he says/believes, I can empathize more if I understand his thought process and the emotions behind it.

  10. Jerine says...

    I read a very illuminating article recently, where term couples were surveyed. Couples 10-15 years strong speak of communication being most important. Couples going on 20-40 years spoke most of respect – this I found particularly insightful.

    Extracting a portion here, and linking the full article for your reading pleasure!

    “ the thing people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked about most was respect.

    My sense is that these people, through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt.

    And the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got.”

    https://qz.com/884448/every-successful-relationship-is-successful-for-the-same-exact-reasons/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=ios_app&utm_name=ios_share_flow_optimization&utm_term=enabled

  11. Ingrid says...

    I’m 72 years old and I just realized that I’m GREAT at telling myself stories. The stories, however, are ones without happy endings. I generally make myself cry… I hope this post helps cure me of this terrible habit. You younger people are so lucky to have heard this now…. It’s never too late to learn something. Thanks!

  12. cleo says...

    Love Brene Brown. So a similar idea of this is in a therapeutic technique called The Body Knot. Basically we are constantly imagining and creating fantasies about what people really did or meant when they hurt our feelings, and often it connects back to a core wound of ours. We are triggered to believe the imaginary story because it addresses something we are afraid of. When I misread my partners words or actions the story usually relates to my fear of abandonment. I’ve known this for years and am a therapist myself, and yet it can be so hard to truly absorb!

    • AnaBri says...

      Everytime me and my husband get into an argument, the story that I would tell myself is that he’s doing this or acting that way which most of the time he acts like he doesn’t care anymore and the story I have is always,always because of that incident from last year that he cheated. I couldn’t get myself to forget and will always bring it up (as a story to myself) whenever we argue. Because what if? What if he’s still doing it? What if he’ll do it again and eventually ruin our family? :(

  13. I do couples counseling and work with clients on a basic “listen-reflect” technique. It’s simple to describe, but harder in practice… which is why we need to practice it! Here it is:
    1. Let your partner talk about how they are feeling
    2. Once they’ve stopped you reflect what you heard them say (i.e. “so I heard you say you’re frustrated that I leave the cabinet doors open all the time.”)
    3. They will probably feel heard and validated now.
    4. Ask them some open ended questions to get more info (i.e. How can I help you feel less frustrated?”)

    The hard part is your brain almost always wants to protect you by being defensive or getting angry, this trick helps you step outside of yourself and empathize with your partner more. Often it’s so revealing because you’ll see that the story you’re telling yourself is wrong. And if you find you’re struggling to not be defensive, problem solve or get your feelings to calm down enough to simply reflect try this:
    1. Notice the feeling
    2. Be with the feeling for a second (with it … not IN it)
    3. Ask the feeling to step to the side for one second while you reflect with your partner.

    *This is a Gottman technique – you can look it up if you want and practice it, I promise it helps!

  14. Rachel says...

    I previously worked as a dietitian in eating disorder treatment. I learned a great communication technique during my time in that role and I still use it in my work and personal life. It’s very similar to Brene Brown’s “The story I’m telling myself…” line, and it goes like this:

    “When you ________ (fill in the blank with what someone else said or did),

    what I made up about that is ________ (fill in the blank with the “story” you’ve created),

    and about that, I feel ________(fill in the blank with your emotion(s)).

    It allows you to clearly state what action triggered you, how you perceived the action, and how it left you feeling. I think what I like best about this feedback loop is it gives you the chance to basically say, “even if you totally meant well and I constructed this whole other story of what happened in my own head, I still felt all these real feelings about it. I want to better understand you, and I also want to be understood.” :)

  15. Alan says...

    When I’m discussing past agreements or arrangements I use the phrase ‘my memory of it is’ or ‘I remember it this way – ‘ rather than ‘you said…’

    • Elle says...

      Oh thank you! This makes so much sense! 🤦‍♀️

  16. Roxana says...

    This is SO true.

    I confess that I have not yet listened to Brene Brown, or read any of her work (I know. Where have I been?), but I will!

    In the meantime, my husband and I (after 12 years of being together) have come to realize that we often perpetuate our disagreements/arguments/fights because we’re both hanging on to our narrative, where there is, of course “a bad guy and a good guy.” It has been so helpful to acknowledge this! I think this idea also translates to so many other life scenarios and relationships (parents, siblings, work, social issues, politics, etc.).

    Thank you for this!

  17. Kim says...

    Funny/not funny but if you find yourself telling yourself stories about what your partner meant or is doing and it’s all pretty negative, perhaps you’re in the wrong relationship? When I look back on my abusive relationships of yore, a lot of the stories I’d tell myself were really happening and very, very bad.

    I feel pretty lucky that nowadays if I’m telling myself a story about my husband, he’s the good guy! I married a good guy and I’m never finding myself ascribing bad behavior or bad intent to his actions. I assume he’s doing the best he can. It definitely helps that he’s a kind and considerate person.

    And this isn’t to say I’m full of myself and my relationship, I went through hell with other men for years, and I thank my lucky stars every day that I found a good therapist, worked on myself, figured out how to spot guys I should not date, and ended up with my wonderful husband. I’m very grateful for what I have.

    • Alyssa says...

      Kim,
      Appreciate your perspective but want to offer up a slightly different view. I’m dating a wonderful man and I know that he and I will eventually get married. But I also suffer with some pretty severe anxiety which unfortunately means I jump to conclusions all the time. So while the stories I’m telling may paint him in a negative light at times, it is not because he is bad. It is because my anxiety wants to believe the worst at all times. About me. About him. About most things.

    • Sadie says...

      I agree. Like any distancing technique, this one can be taken too far. It’s important to consider that we may be wrong about how our partners treat us. It’s equally vital that we consider that we may be right. If you find yourself walking away from every interaction with your partner feeling devalued and disrespected, maybe it’s not “just a story” or just your mood, or just your damage, or just some old pattern, or any of the other ways we discount what our guts are telling us. Maybe it’s because we aren’t being valued or respected, and maybe we should be walking farther away.

  18. Arianna says...

    The thing is that this kind of thing only works when you are in a baseline loving and trusting and equal relationship to start that is merely running into some communication difficulties. If not, this “helpful line” can very easily be used to gaslight people and twist perceptions and make you feel crazy and put the blame on you for “misunderstanding” the other person’s intent and the onus on you to “see” the other’s story/POV. I am so happy for all of you that are in such nice relationships, but just wanted to put this caveat out there for those who might not have been so lucky. Yes, sometimes it is a story you are telling yourself, but sometimes it’s not, it just IS the story, so you should trust yourself on that and not try to talk yourself out of instincts that are there to save you from further abuse. In general though, when both parties are in good faith, this is good advice!

    • Kim says...

      Yes, there’s a comment further down that made me think this same thing. If someone blames you for your feelings and uses these five words, or the “it wasn’t my intention…” but doesn’t accept culpability or apologize for their part in the miscommunication, talk about this further, etc then you’re experiencing some manipulation or gaslighting. Counseling might help, or maybe not.

    • SC says...

      YES. Your comment is on point. I have been in both of these situations (thankfully the healthy version now), and this kind of vulnerability can definitely be used against you by someone who is emotionally abusive/gas lights you.

    • B says...

      Thank you for this.

    • cleo says...

      Oh Lord, the whole ‘but I didn’t mean it that way’ or ‘I wasn’t trying to be a dick’ thing is so challenging to communicate with because it is such a defensive and manipulative way to make the person feel like their feelings are wrong. I agree that when in a healthy relationship it makes practicing these kinds of things light years easier!

    • Daisy says...

      Thank you for this comment. My spouse was recently diagnosed with bipolar and has decided that he needs to be around his family in India to get better while I stay back in the US with our son with zero family help and having to do everything by myself. It has been almost 2 months that I have been managing on my own. The story I am telling myself is all negative and all I feel is anger towards my husband who is unable to believe that he could heal with us being by his side. He is trying and I want to try to get the story right in my head but is extremely hard when one partner has to constantly keep a check on their emotions/feelings to not the other person guilty

    • Ramona Q says...

      I was wondering about a version of this as well. Like what happens when your “story” is correct? What if Caroline was actually annoyed and uninterested. What happens then? Do love Brene and her example of this is very touching.

    • Sadie says...

      In the kind of therapy I’m learning to practice, we talk about “overdoing strengths.” Perspective on yourself, the kind where you realise sometimes you misunderstand things, is a strength. But it can be overdone. We can second-guess ourselves, always give others the benefit of the doubt (even when it’s the seventh 9u, and it was really important, and you were really hurt). We can scrutinize ourselves for impure motives and never allow ourselves to suspect the motives of others.

      Everything has its “too far.”

    • Dee says...

      I tried it last night and then was told to stop making up stories and deal with my own anxieties. Face palm! Yup, I agree that this only works in a healthy respectful relationship.

  19. Alexandra says...

    Raise your hand if you want Cup of Jo to interview in any section or create jsut a new one for Brene Brown!!!!!

    In this land and spacee where Cup Of Jo is our leader/preacher/light of soul, then Brene could be like Gandalf or Prof McGonagall or Queen Mother?

    #BreneBrownforlife #CUpofJoiseverything

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh my gosh, this comment!! want to frame it, alexandra. thank you <3

  20. Mae says...

    This is the most helpful thing. It’s calming, too, to have a shortcut to analyzing your own feelings. Yesterday my partner packed me a lunch with a kind of rice I don’t like at all. We’ve discussed it. And, he packed me a lunch! So kind! So thoughtful! And yet, the story I was telling myself was, he doesn’t listen, doesn’t love me, doesn’t respect the planning I put into buying different rices for different meals, etc. (See how silly this all sounds in the context of rice?) This short phrase cuts to the heart–it’s obviously not about the rice, it is about this insecurity, and that insecurity is just a story I’m telling myself. Thank you!!!

    • Ali says...

      Mae I love you, I feel so seen! It’s just rice and your partners sounds incredible but I’m team “Mae is the good guy” for this story

  21. Maryn says...

    Made my husband watch Brené’s special with me and “the story I’m telling myself” has been a game-changer for our communication too! All hail Queen Brené.

    • Jennifer says...

      I made mine watch it with me too!

  22. Kelly says...

    Did you see “the four boundaries” in Nicole Cliffe’s profile of Alanis Morissette?

    They were: “You can’t tell me what I’m thinking, you can’t tell me what I’m feeling, you can’t f**king touch my body/you can’t do anything with my body, and don’t touch my stuff.” Game changer. This sounds like the first one, writ large!

    https://www.self.com/story/alanis-morissette

  23. Laura says...

    I literally just had an argument with my husband that would have been solved immediately if we had used this phrase, because we were both creating totally different narratives, neither of which happened to be accurate lol.

  24. I love this! As someone who is divorced in a relationship with someone who is also divorced, our brains tell us SO MANY STORIES! I feel like this is going to be so so helpful with conflict going forward. Thanks!

  25. Angela says...

    Your boyfriend is a keeper!! That text gave me warm fuzzies!

  26. Rue says...

    This week I learned that “dont go to bed angry (or anxious or whatever)” is bad advice, at least for me.

    I’ve got some anxieties and post-trauma triggers that can emerge through my relationships, and they often bubble up when *good* stuff happens. This weekend my boyfriend and I had a seriously wonderful conversation about getting engaged, making some concrete plans about finding a ring together, and me getting to share my deep and vulnerable hopes for how the next year is going to look. (Hello trauma triggers, how terrible of you to join us!)

    The next night I couldn’t get to sleep. I was anxious and distant and self-conscious. I had a death grip on my phone, which I normally put away before bed. I kept apologizing to my boyfriend about everything. Like not quite “I’m sorry I’m breathing, is it too loud?” but almost that bad. When I turned the light out I tossed and turned for a solid hour, my brain racing down trauma tunnels and me trying to pull it back to dry land.

    So I tried to give myself space, between me and all those feelings. I tried to focus on breathing or the sound of the fan. I reminded myself that I wouldn’t feel this way forever. That these feelings are ok to have and also don’t define me. When I woke up the next morning I felt fine. Seriously fine. The storm had passed and my skies were clear again.

    My boyfriend brought it up the next day, checking in with me, and it was a MUCH BETTER conversation than what would have taken place while I was in the middle of it. I was calmly able to describe my feelings and where I think they came from. Talking to me during the anxious trauma spell would have involved a lot of distorted reality. Instead we got right to the parts that matter to both of us.

    Basically I was able to cut to the center of it and explain that sharing my wants can still make me feel like the relationship is going to crumble, that I’m only desirable to somebody else if I have no needs. And he was able to whisper softly to me about how it would break his heart if I didn’t get to tell him what I want, and that we’re making a beautiful plan together that he’s excited about.

    So yeah, go to bed anxious or triggered or angry or sad. Weather the storm of emotions. And then talk about it when it doesn’t feel all-consuming. That’s my plan.

    • Anna says...

      Sidetracking here, but do you know the Enneagram? This stood out to me: “sharing my wants can still make me feel like the relationship is going to crumble, that I’m only desirable to somebody else if I have no needs. ” I SEE YOU and I wonder if we are the same Ennegram type! I won’t spoil it for you, but I will check back ; )

    • Twyla says...

      Oooh – you need to listen to Ashley Ford’s interview on the Forever 35 Podcast!! She talks about exactly that – the pressure women feel to downplay their wants/needs/desires for fear of appearing undesirable. It’s mind-blowing.

    • Rue says...

      Anna, I think I’m a 9? But truthfully the Enneagram doesn’t resonate with me as much as it does for some of my friends.

      I’m currently rewriting how I view myself, because my previous self-talk got me through a specific set of harrowing circumstances, and now fortunately no longer applies to my life. It’s a big overhaul. Something I keep sight of is that my old patterns were me trying to problem-solve when faced with a very specific set of harmful issues.

      I think Enneagram is powerful and helpful for becoming aware of your go-to responses, as long as those are just day-to-day things you want a better understanding of. But when those patterns were shaped by abusive experiences in childhood and in early adulthood… those aren’t things I want to claim as my own. Those are things I want to gently let go of. And maybe when I’m further along in recovery from trauma, I’ll have a new Enneagram!

    • Mel says...

      Rue,
      Do you have a blog, podcast or instagram? I want to hear more of your thoughts and insights about trauma, anxiety, healing, and growth!

    • Anna says...

      I am a 9!! And I’m here to say, your needs matter! If what you need is to go on a journey of self-rediscovery, you go. I find that practicing asking- even for little things- really helps. For example, in restaurants I make myself ask for water with no ice, because that is what I prefer. Even though I am afraid of pushback, of being denied what I want, of being judged. IT IS OK TO ASK. It is a restaurant. Knowing that I have that power, even for a little thing like a glass of water, starts to makes it easier to approach bigger asks. Good luck with your journey <3

  27. N. Rogers says...

    Wow!! This post couldn’t have come at a better time as I’m upset with my husband over something he did this weekend! Thank you for the post, and I definitely will watch the Netflix special by Ms. Brown.

  28. Denisse says...

    Enjoy reading you Caroline! Couldn’t agree more with this post.

  29. Jess says...

    I love this! When we were first dating, it took a while for my now-husband and I to find the right balance to our communication styles (I come from a family of firecrackers, whilst his would silently stew- neither were particularly productive modes of communication!). We needed to create a safe space to talk things through when issues arose, and we found our happy medium by focussing on the outcome and how it made us feel, rather than the word or action itself. For example swapping: “I can’t believe that you said/did XX” to: “When you said/did XX, it made me feel XX”. We found that when we reframed it this way, the focus shifted from assuming that the intention was to hurt the other person, to the unintentional outcome and would immediately defuse the situation. We’ve been together 12 years now and we swear by it- I think the key though is finding what works for you as a couple. I still think of that “AHA!” moment when we finally worked it out; it’s so satisfying and makes you so much stronger as a couple when you get there.

    • Karen says...

      Thank you, Jess. You are giving me SO MUCH hope. We are the opposites – my family is the silent stew and his is the firecrackers. I adore him, but we have some work to do.

  30. Maria Nolan says...

    This post could not have come at a better time for me. I am useless at communication and often if annoyed/upset etc I use passive aggressive digs at my boyfriend. I am going to implement this communication method the next time I am feeling like this and see if it results in a more positive conversation.

  31. Mo says...

    Yes! Love this. My husband and I are both therapists (which is it’s own special kind of amazing and challenging) and we use that phrase frequently!!! so helpful. I also love your boyfriend’s vulnerability both in the original text and letting you share it with the world, that’s a secure dude, Bravo!

  32. This is what Bryon Katie talks about in Loving What Is! It’s such a great book, and really changed the way I understand and communicate with my husband.

    • Pru says...

      Yes! I love Byron Katie so much and you are right, Brene is similar to Katie in this way. Questioning my feelings about what I am perceiving is something I try to do every day now. It opens things up so much.

  33. Trzci says...

    Yes! Learning about my Enneagram number (4) has helped me realize most often my narrative is “I’m the only one who feels this way…” has helped me recognize that pattern in myself.

  34. Maria says...

    Did you ask him to marry you after that?

  35. Lauren Ashley says...

    I also think it’s helpful to “define your terms.” Words or phrases, even common ones, often don’t hold the same meaning for different people. For instance, I had a boyfriend who would ask me if whatever he had planned sounded fun and I would reply “sure!” – which hurt his feelings. Huh? Eventually, he told me that “sure” sounded less enthusiastic to him than “yes” did, like it was a begrudging agreement. Who knew! It sounds like a silly thing, but it was super helpful to know that. It’s amazing how great it can be know what certain words mean to your partner, and to be clear with others about what YOU mean when your message isn’t being received as intended.

    • Meg says...

      Yes! My husband texting me, “What time will you be home?” induces a mini rage-fest within me. To him, he really just wants to know when I’ll be home…which is why he asked me. I hear it as, “My life is my own! Why are you trying to control me? You’re not the boss of me!” I shared this with him, copping to my own stuff that’s tangled up in there, and he now texts me that phrase sparingly.

    • Kerryn says...

      So Meg how is he supposed to ask you when you will be home?
      I appreciate direct questions in my relationship.

  36. ElizaK says...

    I remember hearing her explain this on Super Soul but feeling defensive at the time and thinking “But MY story is obviously the TRUE story so why does it matter?!” Feeling slightly more evolved now and should try again to be more generous with my partner and more analytical of my stories.

  37. Marisa says...

    A phrase that came in really handy in a previous relationship was “In an ideal world, I would do ______ now.” We had such trouble choosing what to eat, what to do on a date, etc but if we answered that question honestly, we usually could do what one of us wanted to! It avoided us “compromising” before we’d even expressed a desire. My husband doesn’t play the game as well, otherwise I’d have loved to keep using this trick.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      We do something similar! Alex and I say “if you were married to yourself, what would you do/choose/order/etc?” It helps you say what you really want and the other person can take that into account!

    • Jessica says...

      This is a really helpful tip. One of the things that causes a fair bit of conflict in my relationship is indecisiveness, which on my part stems from not wanting my husband to suffer thru a decision (even minor ones, like dinner) that I made. We end up throwing to each other so much, nothing gets done.

    • Roxana says...

      Oh my goodness! Totally relate to this. A few months after we got married (11 years ago) we went on a little getaway and ended-up having a TERRIBLE time. Big blow-out fight. After things cooled off a bit we realized that neither one of us was clearly communicating what we wanted (e.g. food, places to go, etc.) because we were trying to defer to what we *thought the other person wanted. In many ways the trip felt like a wash, but we laugh that it was redeemed by this huge insight we gained :). JUST SAY WHAT YOU WANT! :)

  38. Maureen says...

    HEART EYES EMOJI

  39. Kamina says...

    We learned this from our marriage counsellor and we use it all the time. We also have permission to say to each other “what story are you telling yourself?” or “that doesn’t sound true, that sounds like a story you’re telling yourself.” Often said affectionately and as though the STORY is the enemy that’s causing the problems, rather than us being each other’s enemies.

  40. Kristin says...

    WOW! I cannot wait to put this into practice. Thanks so much, Caroline!

  41. Brooke says...

    Oh wow Caroline writing + Brené + John O’Donohue in the comments…
    I feel waves of Kindred joy!!!
    Hurrah for Bravery and vulnerability and naming our stories without shame but also not believing them.

  42. Caroline says...

    Oh my god, the number of times I have compared myself to an old computer with my processing skills. Told that to my therapist one time and he suggested I speak more kindly of/to myself. He suggested a deep thinker or reflective. Ha :)

    • Caroline says...

      Also, thank you for this!

  43. Terry says...

    I am so grateful to this blog for so many varied posts that make me think differently–from minimalist to maximalist homes to how to deal with grief to fashion now to raising happy and healthy kids to healthy relationships to good books! Thank you for being there, Cup of Jo!

  44. Erica says...

    Yes! Just discussed this yesterday in marriage counseling! Don’t believe everything you think ;)

  45. Stefanni says...

    Brene Brown=Genius

  46. Rezia says...

    I often say, “So my brain is telling me that….”
    which has a similar effect. It definitely helps our conversations.

  47. So helpful! I feel like I can use this in professional settings, too. It reminds me of the Ladder of Inference concept and that we should stay down on the bottom rungs (observable facts) and not escalate ourselves up the ladder (to potentially inaccurate inferences) without talking to others involved.

  48. I loved that point from Brené’s netflix special (I recommend it to a lot of my clients!). One other communication trick that I love — from the book Difficult Conversations, which I highly recommend — to separate the other person’s INTENTION from it’s IMPACT on you. So often, we’ll be mad at the other person because we’re making assumptions about what their intention was. We assume that they meant to hurt us or belittle us or ignore us. But we can’t ever really know for sure what their intention was, without talking to them. All we can know is how their words or actions *impact* us.

    Saying to my husband, “hey, I don’t know for sure what your intention was, but this was the impact on me” (or when he says it to me) feels so much less blaming. It gives the other space to say, “no that wasn’t my intention!” and to clarify it. And then you can have a conversation about how to interact going forward.

    It’s kind of a different way of thinking of the “the story I’m telling myself is…” conversation, and I like it because it gives space for both people to have good intentions, but different interpretations. (Or, for someone to have a bad intention…but then you can talk about it!)

    • beth says...

      This is great- thanks!

    • Paige says...

      “That wasn’t my intention” is my least favorite phrase in my relationship. It is used to erase the impact of actions. As long as hurting me wasn’t _intended_, I am the one in the wrong for feeling hurt.

    • Kim says...

      Couples therapy!

  49. Faith says...

    “Sometimes, I liken myself to a very early computer, slowwwly processing my feelings, while my partner stares at the spinning wheel, wondering what on earth is happening.” Caroline, I feel ATTACKED! I mean, I feel seen. :) This tendency of mine has not only affected my intimate relationships, but also my professional ones. Thank you for this wonderful advice—relationships of every type require healthy communication, after all!

  50. Lexie says...

    I knew before I even scrolled down what the five words would be! I find this extremely helpful in communicating with my middle school students. So many “disciplined issues” end up being major miscommunications on both ends. I love this phrase as a chance to let people clarify their intentions & actions.

  51. Esss says...

    I read her piece on this a few years ago and it has been a game changer! Definitely something I share with friends when they’re struggling with relationship anxieties, too!

  52. One of my favorite topics! :) Love “the story I’m telling myself is….”

    Another soft approach: “What I’m noticing is…” and being super non-judgmental. Instead of: “You seem pissed.” You can say: “What I’m noticing is your mood has changed since this morning.” Or something like that. :)

    Also, I must say to commenters saying (or thinking) “I’m a bad communicator” — that is just a belief, not a fact. Be careful of what follows “I am” —whatever follows “I am” you create in your life. (I’m always late, I’m always single, I’m awkward at parties, I’m a bad driver, etc.)

    So even consider your first sentence, Caroline! Obviously I’m not suggesting you edit your blog post—but consider adding a “yet” to the end of that thought. Or maybe changing it in your mind to: I am *historically* not the most effective communicator. :) Nothing is stopping you from becoming the best communicator except, perhaps, this limiting belief that you’re treating as truth.

    Ultimately, how we communicate with OURSELVES shapes how we communicate with others. As Louise Hay says: “If we really love ourselves, everything in our life works.” :)

    p.s. HMU if you’re ever interested in a guest post on the transformative power of dropping limiting beliefs and/or real self love, not the Instagrammable variety. ;)

    • Yasmine says...

      “Ultimately, how we communicate with OURSELVES shapes how we communicate with others.” — I love this Joyce! So true, and I love that you’re quoting Louise Hay :)

  53. E says...

    Oh Caroline, how, HOW do you read my mind woman?! After 1.3 years together (but who’s counting) I finally ventured with my boyfriend to his hometown, where we stayed with his parents for the weekend to celebrate his high school friend’s wedding. In addition, I met all of his childhood friends for the first time. It seemed like I was nailing it, but I felt incredibly insecure with him all weekend (like, when we were alone) and came home an unhappy wreck. Now I am reading this and realize I likely need to get my head out of my own ass and acknowledge that it was probably stressful for him too and that bringing a girlfriend home (for the first time ever) after an insanely busy two weeks at work was perhaps not the most calming prospect. I HAVE BEEN TELLING MYSELF THE WRONG STORY. Thank you Caroline, and Brené, for everything,

  54. Hali says...

    The Call to Courage seriously altered my life. I’ve never felt so seen. This is coming from someone who reeeeally hesitates to buy into anything that falls into a category that contains the word “self” in it (self-help, self-care, self-improvement… I find it all a tiny bit yucky for some reason.) BUT if you’re at all creative or ambitious, you need to watch her show. If you struggle to identify as creative or ambitious but secretly you really want to consider yourself that way, you DEFINITELY need to watch it.

  55. Amy says...

    Going to try this!

  56. Louisa says...

    I heard this quote (on Krista Tippet’s show) this weekend: “Every time you start a conversation with another person they’re halfway through a conversation they been already having with them selves.” – John O’Donohue

    I’ve thought of this several times since then – it’s helping me!

    • Faith says...

      That is so helpful, Louisa! Thanks!

    • Una says...

      Krista Tippet’s interview with John O’Donohue is true food for the soul. I listen to that episode whenever I need to gasp at the beauty of human interaction and conversation. Thank you for posting that quote! <3

  57. Melanie says...

    Thanks for posting this. I need to watch her show. I’m such a bad communicator.

  58. Emily says...

    I like it! This is very on par with my own personal mantra, which is: “When you worry, you’re just making up stories with bad endings.” I don’t know who to credit with that phrase, but it can be a serious lifesaver for me during late-night anxiety strikes.

    • Joyce says...

      I love that Emily!! I also say: “Worrying is praying for something you don’t want to happen.” (:

    • Carly says...

      This is great! I need to tell this to my mother…

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      i love these mantras.

  59. Anna says...

    I’ve been using this phrase since watching that Netflix special a few weeks ago and it is a Game Changer!! My husband and I are pretty good communicators, and we’ve had years of concealing to help become better communicators, but that phrase alone is worth countless therapy hours.

  60. San says...

    This is brilliant.
    It takes the “walking on egg shells”-thing out of the equation and doesn’t sound like you’re “blaming” your partner for anything… but it clearly communicates – without blame – what’s going on in your head! Genius!

  61. Lana says...

    Ha! I listened to the Goop podcast with Brené Brown and she talked about this. I immediately talked about it with my husband and used it during an argument with my mom except I twisted it a bit. I said to her, “I feel like the story you are telling yourself is ________ and that’s completely not true.” It worked wonders! She realized she was making up a scenario and also that I was really listening to her concerns.