Four coping strategies can help you change the story.

Something happened recently that prompted my friends to ask me if I felt betrayed. I said, “It’s not the story I want to tell.” I knew that if I started telling that story, I would feel unpopular, powerless, paranoid, and self-loathing. So I decided not to do it.

Instead, I reviewed The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, a book well-known for its spiritual wisdom. It helped me change my perspective on the situation. And it turns out that each of the four agreements is an effective coping strategy supported by psychological research. These strategies can be applied to a wide range of scenarios. Whether you feel betrayed by your best friend, a lover, your boss, or a political leader, try these strategies to tell a better story.

Tara Well, Ph.D.,Tara Well, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University. She researches motivation and perception, with a special interest in how people manage their emotions and perceive their relationships. In her current research, she uses mirrors to understand the stress response, self-objectification, narcissism, and self-compassion. She is writing a book called “The Clear Mirror: The Healing Power of Self-Reflection” which introduces a mirror meditation technique that reduces stress and increases self-compassion. Her research has been funded by The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Her research articles appear in leading psychology journals including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Editor: Saad Shaheed

1. Be kind with your words.

Research on spontaneous trait transference shows that when we speak disparagingly about someone else, the person listening to us is more likely to attribute those negative qualities to us and not the person we were complaining about. So, for example, if you are gossiping that someone is a narcissist, the people you’re saying this to will be more likely to think you're a narcissist when they recall the conversation. Speaking kindly about yourself and others lays the groundwork for future trustworthy relationships.

2. Don’t take it personally.

Research on the egocentric bias in memory shows that we tend to see ourselves as more important and relevant to events than we actually are. At first it might be crushing to realize that you’re not the most important player in a turn of events. But eventually it may feel quite liberating to know that you aren’t responsible for everything bad that happens. People are motivated by a wide array of factors that have nothing to do with you.

3. Don’t make assumptions about others.

Believing you know other people’s motives and intentions can lead to a lot of trouble. Without actually asking the people involved, we can spin a variety of stories that have nothing to do with the actual situation, and much more to do with our own negative views of the world and the people in it. If at all possible, ask what people’s intentions are and keep the communication open. If we start believing other people are out to cause us harm as a default assumption, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. Know that you did your best.

When something unexpected happens, it's easy to fall into woulda, coulda, shoulda mode—believing if only you hadn’t said that thing or had done something else differently, this wouldn’t have happened. Research on the hindsight bias shows that we often believe that we have more control over events that we really do. We tend to ruminate on the details of conversations and actions that we believe led up to the event. The hindsight bias shows that we objectively could not have known what was going to transpire, so thinking we should have known can be a source of unnecessary suffering. Remember that you did your best at the time and note what you learned; then cut yourself a break and look to future opportunities.