What are the facts? What story are you telling yourself about those facts?

I’ve been thinking recently about perception versus reality, and the way we filter information.  We are bombarded with information through our senses; sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell and if we paid conscious attention to every single piece of information we would rapidly become overwhelmed.  

So the majority of the information is filtered out in various ways and we only pay conscious attention to a small proportion of it.  Those filters might delete information, or they might distort information or they’ll generalise about the information based on our beliefs, values, attitudes, previous experience (memories), decisions we have made or our understanding of language.  

Language is important.  There have been studies which show that only 7% of communication comes from the words we use.  Our body language and the way we use our voice form the greatest part of how we communicate.  However, the words still matter, especially the ones we use to ourselves.

This was really brought home to me a few years ago.  I was asked at fairly short notice to be a steward at an equestrian competition.  This was a Pony Club competition which was also open to adults, so the ages ranged from the 8 year olds to people in their 40s and 50s.  

My job as tack steward was to make the last minute checks that their saddlery was correctly fitted and safe before they set off to jump round the cross-country course.  As tack steward I was the last person they saw before they started, so the adrenaline was kicking in by then.  I saw plenty of white-faced, dry-mouthed and slightly shaky looking individuals come before me.  I would be very bright, breezy and cheerful and chatty.   I would look at the white-faced, slightly clammy competitor in front of me and just ask how they were.  By far the majority of these competitors would tell me they felt sick, or felt nervous or terrified, so I would jolly them along a bit.  Sometimes I would say things like, “How are you feeling?  Bit nervous? You’ll be fine – go out there and enjoy it!”  (Little did I realise at the time that asking whether they were a bit nervous actually would put the idea of being nervous into their heads.) 

So far everyone was responding in much the same way, until a tiny little boy on a tiny grey pony turned up for their tack check.  They were by far the smallest competitors of the day and he looked really pale.  I gave him a big smile and said, “Good morning, how are you today?” He looked at me, smiled back and whispered, “I’m excited!”  

Unlike everyone else I spoke to that morning he was taking the facts (butterflies in his tummy and a dry mouth) and telling himself the story that he was excited.  Every other competitor seemed to be taking those facts and telling themself the story that they were scared.

I’ve never forgotten that little boy and I’m grateful to him for opening my eyes to the importance of the words we use and the stories we tell ourselves.