This post first appeared on Psychology Today on April 27, 2012
We all have those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, the ones we've been telling ourselves for years about who we are, why we have the experiences we have, what explains the things that happen to us, and how our pasts have influenced our current lives.
Sometimes these stories are positive, as in "I've been through so much and I've come out the other side a stronger person" or "I'm a really great friend" and others are not so positive, such as 'I've always been lonely" or "I'm not creative."
These stories inevitably stem from actual experiences we've had, whether having our attempts to be creative criticized or from repeatedly being told that we're a good friend, but whether positive or negative, our personal narratives never tell the entire story of who we are. You may be a great friend much of the time, but there are times when you've not been; you may have felt a lot of loneliness in your life but there have been lots of times when you've felt connected, too.
In going through some struggles recently, I've been tuning in to the main negative stories I've developed about myself, which basically fall under the category of "self-pity": "People just don't seem to want to connect with me", "There must be something wrong with me because I haven't been in a relationship that lasted longer than a few years", and "Because I don't have a Grand Passion in my life - a driving desire that outshines everything else - I'm flawed, boring, and/or unworthy."
When I've been in that dark place, I see myself replaying those old stories in my head, and they run like well-oiled machinery, with hardly any effort, just a slight push. It's like watching a movie I've seen a thousand times; I know what the next scene will be, and the next, and the next. Who needs Netflix?
Predictably, when I allow those stories free rein inside my head, they drive my dark mood. Pretty obvious, right?
But these stories can be difficult to stop, even when we want to. They're like old friends, ones who aren't really that good for us but with whom we feel at ease and comfortable, ones we would never consider backing away from, because, after all, we've known them for years.
And the thing about negative self-stories is that even if we ask friends and loved ones for help in debunking them, reassurance only works temporarily. Lots of people have attempted to talk me out of my stories, from friends, to lovers, to therapists, and I just keep going back to them the way an addict will go back to their substance when under stress. There's something oddly comforting about these sad stories, even if they make us feel bad in the long run.
To change our stories, we need to engage with them, to dialogue with them and to gently, consistently, and persistently change the way the narrative goes. In my case, that would mean reminding myself that I do have wonderful, close friends, that I have had a great many adventures and learning experiences on my romantic path, and that my genius might just be that I'm open and flexible the way someone with a Grand Passion may not be. Or maybe that Life is my Grand Passion, rather than a particular, limited calling.
What are some of the harmful stories you tell about yourself, and how could you rewrite those stories to be more supportive and nurturing of who you really are?
Here are some techniques for rewriting your story:
What Is Joy?
Can life really be joyful, even when hard things happen? Maybe not on the surface, but below our pain and fear, below the judgment of ourselves and others, there's a kernel that's an inherent and unstoppable desire to live; to see what happens next. At JATHT, we'll explore life, love, joy, and sorrow and hopefully learn something in the process. Welcome!