The fullness of our lives is determined not only by what we do and experience but by how we understand it. We’re constantly narrating the stories of our lives, making assumptions, finding or creating patterns. True stories can help us to avoid pitfalls, celebrate triumphs, relate to other people and create meaning. False stories can set us up for repeated disappointments or keep us living narrowly for fear of being disappointed.
Know Your Story
As Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz writes in You Are Not Your Brain, “You cannot change what you are not aware of.” The first step is to become conscious of what you are telling yourself. It ‘s easiest to notice this when you find yourself upset in a way that seems disproportionate–when you respond with tears, anger, or a frozen sense of helplessness to a minor setback in your work or a casual remark by someone you love. Remember that feeling when you have time and space to deal with it. Try answering these questions:
What happened? Describe it clearly and succinctly.
How did you feel? Be specific.
When do you remember feeling that way before? Is this something that happens repeatedly? Can you see any pattern in the things that trigger that feeling in you?
What is your earliest memory of feeling like that? Picture yourself as a child; remember what things looked like when you were closer to the ground, how your body felt when it was still growing fast. Then think of the feeling you’re trying to track down. See if any specific memory surfaces.
What did you tell yourself when you felt this way before? Often a repeated feeling of distress comes from a story we’re repeating to ourselves, a lesson we think we learned from the things that hurt us early on. “I have to be perfect or no one will love me.” “However hard I try, I will fail.” “I can’t trust anyone.”
Rewrite Your Story
You can’t change what has happened, but you can look at it in a new way. Don’t ignore reality. Look clearly at the events you’re remembering and see if they could be explained by a story that is more deeply true and more conducive to joy and growth. The events that might inspire someone to conclude “I have to be perfect or no one will love me” might also fit into a story like “Sometimes I waste my energy trying desperately to win the approval of people who don’t really care about me. There are better uses for my life,” or “Sometimes I frustrate people. Sometimes they frustrate me. We can love each other even though we sometimes let each other down.” These stories suggest possibilities for growth and change.
Practice Your New Story
You’ve probably been telling yourself some distorted stories for years. It will take time and practice to work the new stories deeply into your mind.
Tell them to yourself repeatedly. Think of them when you first get up, or as you’re falling asleep, or while you commute to work.
Notice when you’re telling yourself the old stories. Don’t berate yourself; just think “I’ve decided to change that story,” and consciously tell yourself the new story you wrote. This can be tiring at first. Eventually it becomes habitual.
Keep on revisiting the stories you tell yourself. As you learn and grow you may find that the stories that worked earlier need to be revised. That’s not a problem. You can learn a lot from the process of rewriting.
Staying OK by Amy Harris and Thomas Harris and You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding give in-depth descriptions of techniques for rewriting your story.