Our stories define what we expect, what we experience and how we engage with our lives.
Your life is not defined by the words that you say, nor are you the sum of your thoughts. What defines you is the stories that you tell yourself and that other people tell about you.
Recovery is about rediscovery
In recovery and in healing, stories are even more important because we are attempting to re-write our stories. Parts of our stories get forgotten as we live our lives, as we age and as we face gripping life events or trauma. As one of my clients recently said, “It’s not about recovery for me. It’s about rediscovery.” Developing a better, and bigger story about ourselves is more about rediscovery more than creating a brand new self.
But how do you rediscover yourself and your better story?
“You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story. That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’”Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering.
Often, we are kind and understanding with other people, but then mean, abusive and harsh towards ourselves. Our stories define what we expect, what we experience and how we engage with our lives. We are wired by our stories. That is how our brains work.
We think in story. It’s hardwired in our brain. Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story
Stories of our Recovery
When you experience a trauma, your self talk will often reflect a lack of trust, anxiety, and self-judgment. Whatever happened to you becomes repeated in your self-talk and in your stories. For a recent article about how to change your powerful thoughts, click here.
Trauma, abuse, neglect or growing up in an unhealthy climate can create powerful, negative images and ideas about yourself that are difficult to change.
Julie Beck, author of Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality writes about how certain stories become hardwired into our culture. These stories meld with our personal stories.
The four stories that you tell yourself
Forgive the metaphor, but it’s like story sex. Our personal stories get together with our culture’s stories and they create new stories that may take us in directions we may not intend. Some examples of these cultural stories include:
1.The get married and live happy every after story. Often we believe that life choices lead us in a straight path to happiness and a positive future. Good marriages and healthy relationships are fraught with twists in the path and occasional dark corners. Our stories can simplify our expectations, leaving us disappointed when our relationships take a (temporary) turn for the worst.
2.Redemption stories. These are heroic and optimistic stories. You have a past that you have overcome. You probably don’t see it as a big deal, but nearly every biography is about a person who overcomes their past and creates a better life. Your biography is no different. You have already overcome many weaknesses, trauma, and past mistakes. In fact, you do it every day when you make better choices than you did the previous day.
3.Hopeless/helplessness stories. These are simple and negative stories: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” The reality is that there is some truth to this story. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed. Some of our choices can wound us, alter our lives, or take us off course. But we can recover and live a new and different life. The risk of this story is that we take it on and see ourselves as victims. You can heal from a victim mentality and if you want to learn more about it, click on this link.
4.Recovery stories. These are unique stories of overcoming drugs, alcohol, pain and rediscovering the life that you want to live. To paraphrase Julie Beck, the recovery story is a chalk story rather than an ink story. The recovery story is a story that gets written and re-written each and every day of your life. Psychologist Carol Dweck (author of Mindset, a highly recommended book) calls these stories a growth mindset (your story is flexible and can change), as opposed to a fixed mindset (your story is like cement and your future is set).
How our self-talk becomes our story
- I am defective; I have to be perfect to be loved.
- I am unlovable.
- No one wants me or wants to be with me.
- I am powerless to change my life.
- I am more special than the next person and if others don’t agree, my life is terrible.
- My needs are not as important as other people’s needs.
The content of your self-talk is the way that you interpret your life events. But this is not the end of it. You not only interpret your life events, but you also weave them into your existing story. You live, tell, rewrite, and retell your story every day. In recovery language, we all live one day at a time. For more about core beliefs, see this excellent article by Dr. Bridgett Ross.
It’s not easy to change your self-talk, but you will change if you persistently work at it. We can make it change too complicated and then later give up because it is too hard, or taking too long. There are three things you can do to change your life-story.
1.Invest time dreaming about the life you prefer to live. Think about it, write about it, paint it, draw it, tell it to others, listen to/read biographies of others who live a story like the one you prefer. Whatever way you can express it, tell your better story. You may need to join a support group, see a therapist, talk to a coach, or meet with a mentor in order to build a story that is rich, detailed and full enough. A better story can lead to a better self, but it takes work.
“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 27:3)
2.Talk to yourself differently. The statements of negative self-talk that were listed above each point to an alternative statement that you can use to challenge your negative self-talk. It works best if you choose one type of negative self-talk at a time and challenge it rather than challenge every negative statement. For example, if your brain automatically tells you that you are a
It works best if you choose one type of negative self-talk at a time. Challenge thoughts that have that theme rather than challenge every negative statement that you think. For example, if your brain automatically tells you that you are a screw-up, challenge that one thought by saying out loud, “I am having the thought that I am a screw-up. Instead, I am becoming a better person, I am learning from my mistakes.” Once it becomes more comfortable, move to the next thought (ie: thoughts about how lovable you are, or that you are a victim, and so on) and challenge it.
3.Nurture your growth mindset. Invest in the book Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck. Remember that you have choices you can make to improve your life. Your choices may seem insignificant, but even one choice per day (to be more healthy and take a walk, to avoid gossip, to challenge a negative thought) to improve yourself will have significant results.
If you liked this article, you may also want to read How to Rebuild Your Trust after Trauma.
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Keep it Real
Photo by Jayel Aheram