by Rita Gagliano
I grew up in a multigenerational household, which is to say I was fortunate enough to live with both my parents and my maternal grandparents. My childhood was filled with multiple stories which brought my imagination to places and times I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to experience; stories of my grandparents’ struggles in Northern Italy during WWII, stories of how my parents serendipitously met and fell in love, the story of the day I was born.
As we grow older it seems a parent’s duty to rehash some of the most embarrassing stories from your childhood, possibly to be shared at family dinners or – even better – in front of new acquaintances. Similarly, when we meet somebody for the first time we quickly offer up a mashup of the most poignant stories of our lives, possibly editing the awkward bits, and in return we receive a similar treat from the person in front of us.
Identity = The Stories We Tell the Most
Our sense of identity is in large part a product of all those narratives which fill in holes left by our inability to truly know how others see us. Our very anatomy doesn’t allow us to know what we sound like, and we are forever shocked when we hear a digital recording of our voice. What may be even more disconcerting to some is the simple fact that being “embodied” only allows us a partial view of ourselves, and we can only see our own face when reflected in a mirror.
But we’re not just bodies, we are the collection of stories we tell other people, but most importantly the stories we tell ourselves. You see, stories in the latter category are the most insidious. They can be the source of a positive self-image, or they may feed and perpetrate negative beliefs about our abilities. You’ve got to be careful with those ones: don’t believe everything you think!
Have you ever caught yourself saying “I can’t do this because … I’m not smart/strong/skilled enough”? Chances are behind that limiting belief there is a story in support of that conviction; a traumatic event, a mean school teacher, what have you. But remember, stories are just that, stories; tales we made up (or that others made up) to give meaning to events. Stories are not set in stone; you have control over them in a more immediate way than say controlling your dreams.
Rewriting YOUR Story
What if we took on the task of identifying and rewriting those stories that have harmed us, those that have blocked us from achieving our true potential? Would a change in perspective allow us to see ourselves in a new light? Would we be able to defuse those triggers that poison an otherwise healthy life?
I would venture to say you can. If language is the way we give meaning to the world around us, and the way we construct our internal reality, even a minimal shift in language will make all the difference. Take for example the following three statements:
“I am sad.”
“I have sadness.”
“I’m feeling sad, at this moment.”
At first glance they all seem to express the same thing. But look closely: Which one seems to be the strongest statement? Why is that? Which one seems to be the most hopeful? Why is that?
Similarly, every story can be retold in myriad of ways. The experience of breaking an abusive cycle or living with a debilitating condition for example, could give rise to a victim story or a hero story. Either way, it’s your choice how you’re going to spin that story that define you.
So here is a little exercise for your journal (You don’t have one yet? What are you waiting for?)
1. Write a negative narrative you seem to be clinging to as an excuse not to venture out of your comfort zone. You could start with: “I can’t do this “x.” I’m not smart/strong/skilled enough, because … + negative narrative.”
2. Rewrite just the story (whatever follows the “because”), in third person. This time give it a positive spin. Is there something in the story that can lead to an empowering interpretation of the same event? Find the redeeming elements and highlight them, as opposed to minimizing them.
3. Rewrite the third person story in first person. Pay attention to how it feels to see the same event that may have haunted you in a different more empowering perspective. Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it feel like you’re healing part of your past self?
4. Read the resulting empowering story until you truly believe it. I’d advise you to do that early in the morning as a sort of self affirmation.
And remember, you are the person responsible for the quality of your thoughts.