I learnt a new word: Confabulation.
The concept hadn’t fully formed in my mind of what confabulation was but as soon as I learnt the definition I started seeing it everywhere. It is not something that is just part of a diagnosable disorder but something we all do to some degree.
I came across it reading Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. She beautifully defines confabulation as a lie told honestly and describes how we replace missing information with something false that we believe to be true. So it could be that when you ask your partner to help you clean up after dinner and they say ‘yeah’ but keep sitting on the couch on their phone we can start thinking, ‘he thinks its my job to do all the housework’ - ‘he wishes I was better at doing all the housework and I didn’t have to ask for his help’ - ‘he doesn’t want to spend time with me anymore’ - ‘he’s bored with our marriage’ - ‘he thinks he’ll be happier with someone else.’
It is like a negative, spiralling, mind reading of our partner that can often come from our own vulnerabilities. The more we do this the more we can think these things are true. Imagine how dangerous that can be for a relationship to go from a request for help being ignored to thinking they are bored with the relationship!
Couples who come to counselling finally say some of these confabulations out loud for the first time and it can be a real shock to their partner that that is what they think of them. It is really important to accept that we all do this from time to time. If we are feeling unloved, stressed, haven’t felt that we could communicate with our partners, we can do this more often than not.
The first step of addressing our confabulations is to start noticing that we are doing it internally. Notice the thoughts and the things that trigger them to spiral.
When we get to the point of thinking our partner hates us or wants to leave us or is hurting us intentionally, we will probably be feeling quite stressed in our bodies and have feelings of sadness and hurt.
A) First identify how we feel in our bodies- ‘I feel a tightness in my chest’ - ‘my head feels foggy’
B) Then identify our feelings- ‘I feel so rejected’ ‘I feel so judged’ ‘I feel so hurt’
Then to track back to what is making us feel like that- ‘I feel rejected because I think he is bored with me and the relationship. I thought that because he ignored me when I asked for help to clean the kitchen.’
Once we get to the source then we can check the truth of our confabulation. Brene Brown has a great practice to challenge confabulations by saying to ourselves or our partners, “The story that I tell myself is….” and follow this with our confabulation. This conversation can happen with ourselves or can happen with our partners if we have had a discussion about confabulation and how we do it. It is a great way to untangle the things we make up in our minds and project on our partners from the truth.
So with the example we are using, this step becomes clarifying the thought, ‘The story that I tell myself when I ask my partner to help in the kitchen and they ignore me is that they wish I was better at doing the housework and didn’t ask for help and that they are bored with me and our marriage.’ In this case we may have to ask our partner what was going on for them but other times, slowing our thoughts down like this can help us see things more clearly from our partner’s perspective. We might realise other factors such as our partner being stressed at work, or the fact that our partner is always happy to help etc.
To use this in a discussion with our partner it is important to have a conversation about confabulation first. It can be a very vulnerable thing to do because confabulations are usually made up of our greatest fears and insecurities. If your partner understands this concept you might feel brave enough to share ‘The story I tell myself…’ statement. As this becomes a practice, I have seen couples step into reassurance and comforting one another so beautifully.
In the above example the partner was able to explain that he was reading an email about a colleague who has been fighting cancer and felt so scared about the idea of getting sick himself and not seeing his children grow up and he didn’t actually hear the request for help. It can be so dangerous to assume we know what is going in our partner’s mind. It almost always creates more distance than connection. Always ask yourself, ‘what is the evidence that I have for that?’ before assuming anything is the truth.
I hope you have the same experience as me noticing all the confabulations around you and stopping them in their tracks.