The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash

Nothing makes me look at my life with more distorted judgment than when viewing it through the eyes of a friend, especially a friend I haven’t seen in a while.  Recently I reconnected with an old friend who I met in college.  Over the last 30 plus years, she and I have been the best of friends, and then lost touch completely, and then reconnected…and then lost touch completely.

She’s always in my heart, but not always in my life, and sometimes we go years without connecting.  She is someone who I love and respect and admire.  She is also a player in a story she doesn’t even know about.

If I’m not careful, I will find my brain using her to tell me stories that make me feel really bad about myself.  Stories about how weak or useless I am in comparison to how GREAT she is…and my “self” believes me!  Comparing ourselves to others is NEVER a healthy thing, but comparing my life to hers is particularly counterproductive, because in my stories she is everything I wish that I could be.

More on That Story

The most recent disconnect between my friend and I lasted a long, long time – and during that time we both had major life changes.  She lost her mother, had a son, traveled and worked and moved and loved, etc.  I lost my brother to suicide, started and ended a business, and got sick, causing my previously active and expansive life to get smaller and smaller.

I had been in contact with this friend when I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but lost touch right around that same time.  So most of my struggle with chronic pain happened with only the occasional heartfelt  email between us.  We had lost touch in large part because I was embarrassed by how small my life had become, and because chronic pain and the associated depression and anxiety were taking a stronger hold on my psyche.

As my other more physical issues became more and more debilitating, all of the ways I had developed in the past to deal with depression and anxiety became obsolete.  I couldn’t exercise my way out of it, I couldn’t get manically busy and start a new business or DO DO DO like I used to do.  These are things I’ve only recently realized were coping mechanisms that helped me keep my brain chemistry “in check”.

Learning a New Way of Being and Communicating

I had to let go of old ways, learn new ways, and practice them…a process which is still ongoing.  Because of that my life changed a lot, and “who I am” evolved (or devolved, maybe).  That can be hard for friends to understand, so when they try to connect and help, I try to hear them from THEIR map of the world, and be careful not to create a counter productive fiction out of what they have to say.  I am not always successful in that endeavor.

My true friends are loving, compassionate and wise people.  They want to help, and in trying to do so, sometimes say some of the things many people with chronic pain or mental health issues have heard a lot:  we’re not alone, everyone feels this way sometimes, it’s normal.  All things which come with a lot of love and good intentions, and from a place of not knowing what else to say.

The thing MY brain wants to do with that is not always useful.  For instance, when someone tells me that everyone has felt this way, I sometimes make that mean that I’m a failure and weak.  In my made up story, if EVERYONE has felt this way and all of them get up and go to work and earn money and have friends and DO things, then I must be a weak and cowardly failure when I can’t do that.

In this version of the story that I tell myself, I am less than everyone else, and they are better than me.  I’ve developed strategies for dealing with this, and they take some time and effort, so they do not always dictate my first response to a communication.  My brain often wants to START with the stories that make the biggest, baddest feelings and then I have to work my way back from there.  That, too, is an ongoing process, and is more automatic now than it used to be, for certain.

How ’bout You?

Do you have a particular person in your life that you use to make yourself feel bad?  How about stories that you tell yourself that you might not have examined closely enough.  Maybe a boss or sibling or friend from the past is a particularly effective trigger for you. Whatever the source or trigger, these stories rarely help us be who we want to be.

I think one of the best ways to start creating a different story is to be completely honest with yourself about the story you are telling yourself now.  We have to get well below the surface and extricate the fact from the fiction that we have created.  This can be a challenge, but it can also generate a tremendous amount of freedom.  The next time you catch yourself feeling really bad about something, observe what story you are telling yourself that makes you feel bad.  Try doing the following simple exercise – it has helped me many, many times.

Extricating Fact and Fiction from Our Stories

I first learned a process similar to this from a weekend workshop with “Landmark Forum”.  I won’t go into THAT right now, although wow – talk about mass hypnosis.  However, just because I left feeling a bit manipulated and definitely like they wanted ALL my money…that doesn’t mean I didn’t get some useful stuff out of the weekend.

This exercise evolved out of one of theirs…

Make two columns (or large circles) on a sheet of paper, or in a document on the computer.  Write “Fact” at the top of one, and “Fiction” at the top of the other, or “What Happened”, and “The Story”.

Artboard 1FACTFICTION

Example:

FACT (What Happened – JUST the events):

  • I walked into the room.  My mother said, “Hello”.  I felt sad and frustrated.

FICTION (The Story – in other words everything else):

  • When my mother said “Hello”, she was very sarcastic – like I was some kind of stranger she’s never seen before.  She obviously thinks I’m ruining my life by travelling so much, and now she’s just going to punish me forever for being happy.

Note that the fiction section is usually longer than the fact section.  Also realize that your feelings are facts – but WHY you feel what you feel may very well be fiction.

“I feel sad” is a fact.

“My mother obviously thinks I’m ruining my life and is going to punish me forever for being happy…” is very possibly a story.

Unless the mother in this scenario actually states specifically and directly that this is what she thinks and feels, then it is a made up interpretation of an event.  Once you have separated out the fiction you tell yourself from the facts of what actually happened, you have the opportunity to check it and delve into whether you want to keep telling that particular story to yourself.  Is it useful?  Does it make things better?  Does it make you feel good or behave in ways that you want?  Does it help you create action in your life?

I’ll write more about “Fact vs. Fiction” in another post.  Meanwhile, try moving through your day and noticing when you are creating a tall tale out of simple events.  Sometimes just allowing ourselves to recognize that there is SOME fiction in our stories allows us to let go and feel a wee bit better about things.

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