Filling in the Blanks
October17, 2022
In this article, I’ll be reaching into my big bag of emotional intelligence tricks to pull out a Knowledge Nugget called Filling in the Blanks.  This explains how your mind responds when you don’t have complete information and in return, how this impacts your emotions.  Then, I’m going to pull out a Tiny Tweak called Inventory the Story to strengthen your ability to work with your emotions rather than working against them by learning how to practice a little thought management.

Let’s get started with a true-to-life story.

The Story
Martha is a mother who has an adolescent son.  His name is Freddie.  Freddie plays on the high school football team and usually starts each game as quarterback.  It’s game day and the Coach just made a last-minute decision to start a different player in the QB position.  To her knowledge, Martha’s son isn’t injured, and she does not know why the Coach made this decision.  (In other words, she does not have complete information…)

Our human brains require complete information.  That’s a fact.  Here’s an even more interesting fact.  In the absence of complete information, your brain will Fill in the Blanks.  If your loved one is late for dinner and you don’t know why, you will Fill in the Blank.  “She’s not home because she must be running late at work.”  Or “She’s not home because I bet she’s picking up groceries.”  Or “She’s not home because something bad must have happened.”  The number of way you can Fill in the Blanks is endless.

That’s how the brain works.  In the absence of complete information- your brain will Fill in the Blanks.  Martha doesn’t know why the Coach decided not to start her son in today’s game.  But because her brain is wired for complete information, she will automatically start speculating in an attempt to Filling in the Blanks. 

  • Martha might think “The Coach isn’t starting my son in today’s game because the coach likes the new player more.”

These examples demonstrate three different thoughts Martha might think in the absence of the complete information.  In other words, three different ways of Filling in the Blanks because Martha really doesn’t know why the Coach is starting a different quarterback.

The “story she’s telling herself” is another way of referring to the thoughts Martha is thinking.

These are 3 examples of pessimistic “stories” Martha might tell herself, but it’s equally as possible she could think optimistic thoughts as well.  For example:

  • “The Coach isn’t starting my son in today’s game because he recognizes the importance of giving Freddie’s body a rest from time to time.”

That’s how your brain works.  Regardless of whether the thought is pessimistic or optimistic, in the absence of complete information, your mind is always going to Fill in the Blanks.

Filling in the Blanks and Emotions
Let’s take this a step further and examine the impact this has on Martha’s emotions.  These different stories demonstrate how the different thoughts Martha might be thinking, can lead to different emotions.  This is because there is a thought behind every emotion that activates.

  • If Martha thinks The coach likes the new player more her Jealousy might activate.

  • Or if she thinks my son must have misbehaved and gotten himself into trouble her Anger might activate.

  • Or if Martha thinks my son must have an injury he doesn’t want me to know about her Fear might activate.

  • And lastly, if Martha thinks he recognizes the importance of giving Freddie’s body a rest from time to time her Happiness might activate.

Depending on the thought, a different emotion will activate.

But here’s the thing though… Your brain doesn’t require accurate information.  It simply requires complete information.  This is where we can get ourselves into trouble if we don’t keep an eye on the thoughts we are thinking and the impact these thoughts have on our emotions.

Self-awareness is a huge part of becoming emotionally intelligent.  Plain and simple, you can’t become emotionally intelligent without self-awareness.  That would be like trying to bake a pie without flour.  Or trying to drive a car without wheels.  Self-awareness is an essential part of becoming emotionally intelligent.

Filling in the Blanks is something everyone does.  It’s a fact based on neuroscience.  But not everyone is aware of their neurological need to Fill in the Blanks.  This lack of self-awareness limits their ability to think objectively and routinely limits the extent to which they can effectively engage with their emotions.

On the other hand, when you are aware of your brain’s need to Fill in the Blanks, you are empowered to pause and Think about your Thinking which can lead to greater objectivity.

This is where the Tiny Tweak called Inventory Your Story comes into play.

Tiny Tweak:  Inventory Your Story
When you Inventory Your Story, you’re taking the time to pause and Think about your Thinking.  That’s one of the perks that comes along with being a human being.  We have the incredible ability to Think about our Thinking.  When you Inventory Your Story, it’s an opportunity to increase your self-awareness related to the way you are interpreting a situation and the reason why certain emotions are active.  Empowered with this increased self-awareness, you can engage with a greater degree of objectivity.

To Inventory Your Story you simply answer two questions.

What information is missing? and How am I Filling in the Blanks?

In Martha’s example, she doesn’t know why the Coach has decided not to start Freddie in today’s game.  That’s the information that’s missing.  As mentioned in the previous examples, one of the stories she is telling herself is this is because “Freddie must have misbehaved and is in trouble.”  That’s how she is Filling in the Blanks and that’s why her Anger is active.

When you Inventory Your Story, it’s like taking yourself off autopilot.  If Martha takes a couple of minutes to Inventory her Story, she will gain a better understanding of why Anger is active and she may even determine her thinking is flawed.  That’s what happens sometimes when you come off autopilot.  She may come to recognize the way she is Filling in a Blank is simply a guess that isn’t substantiated by any facts.  Based on this increased self-awareness, Martha may end up re-thinking her thinking.

Alternatively, although Martha doesn’t have proof her son misbehaved and is in trouble, she may feel confident this is likely to be the case.  Because she is aware of the way she is Filling in the Blanks and she can choose to ask Freddie or the Coach the direct question to gain clarification.

When you Inventory Your Story and increase your self-awareness around the thoughts you are thinking that are causing your emotions to activate, you may identify flaws in your thinking.

When you know your mind requires complete information, but it doesn’t require accurate information, it may motivate you to check in and Think about Your Thinking.  Remember, your emotions activate in response to your thoughts.  This is why self-awareness around the thoughts you are thinking is essential to emotional intelligence.

This week, as you navigate the circumstances that emerge as part of your day-to-day living, consider exercising the self-discipline to try out the Inventory Your Story tiny tweak.

  • If someone doesn’t promptly return your call or respond to a text you send, what’s the story you tell yourself?

  • If you’re on a Zoom call with someone who isn’t looking directly at you during the conversation, what’s the story you tell yourself?

  • Or if a package doesn’t arrive on time, what’s the story you tell yourself?

The opportunities to Inventory Your Story are endless.  The idea is to slow down and Think about Your Thinking to see if there are any flaws in the way you are Filling in the Blanks!