big fat story

Olivia’s Big Fat Story

Human beings create meanings from what happens. We do that constantly! We are meaning creation machines!

There are three steps for creating what I call a “big fat story”:

  1. Something happens. A video camera could record it. What you see and hear on the video is what happened.
  2. We come up with meanings. We interpret what happened.
  3. We merge what happened with our interpretations of what happened. Then it becomes one big fat story! We lug it around for years to come. Maybe lifelong.

The key take home of this Brilliance Nugget:
The pain we feel from less than pleasant stories largely comes from our interpretations rather than from what actually happened.

Meet Olivia

A friend of mine shared this story with me. All identifying details are changed but the gist of the story is accurate.

Oliva grew up in Belgium. In her early twenties, she came to the United States as an exchange student. She ended up liking America and the opportunities she saw. She got a graduate degree, then a green card, and eventually, she became a U.S. citizen.

As the years flew by, Oliva’s parents who still lived in Europe never came to visit her. Her parents cited reasons such as fear of flying (they had never done it) and they couldn’t leave their dogs behind. Her sister came once – which was fun – but didn’t have the money or health to come again. That put the responsibility of seeing her family solely on Oliva. “You were the one who left”, said Olivia’s Mom.

When Olivia was about 35 years old, her parents divorced. Now when Olivia visited her family it involved three people living in three different places. Luckily, her sister agreed to come to the town where their Dad lived. The towns Mom and Dad lived in were about four hours apart by car.

Then Olivia got married. The ceremony was in the U.S. None of her family attended. She invited them but they cited the same reasons as in the past. She was not particularly shocked about it.

Three years later, Olivia and her husband Harry had a baby boy, Jacob. Olivia wanted her parents and Jacob to meet. She planned to fly to Belgium when Jacob was 18 months old.

The “Battle”

Oliva’s Mom thought the plan was completely crazy. How can you take a young baby on such a long flight? Oliva persisted. “In the U.S., people fly with babies all the time.”

Olivia suggested to her parents that they could reduce the travel time for the baby by meeting near Brussels. That was where they would arrive. The travel time for Mom and Dad would have been two hours each. They could come at the same time, or one after the other. Mom declined. Dad was not thrilled about the idea either.

Olivia tried to rescue her plan. She decided to visit Mom first, and then Dad and her sister. Even though she offered to drive to her Mom’s house door, her mom declined! She wouldn’t support such a crazy idea of traveling this far with an infant. Besides her large dogs would jump on Jacob and knock him over. Really??

In the end, Olivia and Jacob still flew to Belgium to see her Dad and sister. They had a great time. Dad showered his only Grandson with gifts and attention.

Olivia’s Interpretations

Olivia tried to suppress her feelings about her Mom declining to see them. It was tough! Her thoughts were

  • “My Mom doesn’t want to see me.”
  • “My Mom doesn’t want to see her only Grandson.”
  • “She doesn’t love me.”
  • “She doesn’t love Jacob.”
  • “I’m not important enough to her.”

Olivia is a high achiever, and she doesn’t let anything stop her. She processed her feelings the best she could and moved on. Or so she thought.

The Relief

Seven years later, she attended a self-development seminar called Landmark Forum. It is not a sit-down-and-take-notes kind of seminar. It is experiential.

“You sit there, watching and listening to the facilitator working with someone. You think, ‘ That is interesting… but that is not me. And why is this guy not getting it? It is so obvious!’ Then all of a sudden, you see something that IS you! That insight changes you!”


Humans create meanings from what happens. We do that constantly! We are meaning creation machines!

  1. Something happens. Mom declines to see Olivia and Jacob. She gives two reasons: it is a crazy idea, and the dogs could topple poor Jacob. That is what actually happened. A video camera could have recorded that.
  2. Oliva’s thoughts about it are her interpretations. “She doesn’t love me/Jacob”; “I’m not important to her” and so on – they are all invented interpretations.
  3. We merge what happened with our interpretations of what happened. Then it becomes one big fat story! We lug it around for years to come. Maybe lifelong.

Pain Largely Comes From Our Interpretations Of What Happened

Yes, what happened was painful for Olivia. But telling herself it was due to lack of love and importance – ouch, that really hurts!

A Landmark coach caused her to take a look at that. Then he urged her to call her Mom. She didn’t want to. But Olivia called her Mom to clear up the impact of the big fat story she had created.

Landmark gave her a “formula” for that. SHE had to take responsibility for her invented interpretations. Why her? Well, she was the one who created them!

Olivia called her Mom and told her what meanings she had created from her mom refusing her visit seven years ago. She said she was sorry for having created these meanings. Oliva’s Mom was shocked. The conversation came out of the blue for her. Mom had met Jacob on their next trip to Belgium. Olivia and her Mom had a decent relationship.

Olivia was shocked, too. Her Mom didn’t even remember the incident! What? But even before the memory of the incident returned to her mind, Olivia’s Mom immediately said, “Of course, you made that up. Of course, I love you and Jacob! Of course, you are important to me! And I thought we have a good relationship.”

The Conclusion

Wow! Olivia carried around these feelings for seven years. There was no visible impact because Olivia had suppressed her feelings about it. But the hurtful interpretations were still sitting inside her. Finally, that was gone.

I still don’t understand why my Mom didn’t see us. When I have grandchildren, I will do anything I can to see them as soon as possible. But I learned that most of my pain about this whole thing was due to my own interpretations. They were not true. But they hurt me. I hurt myself!”


Olivia was no longer a victim of her big fat story.

I’m Curious

How do you feel about this story? Where have you seen big fat stories like this one?

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