How we feel, how we act and who we are in each moment is affected by many different things: how we felt a second ago, what is happening in our bodies, and our immediate surroundings.
One of the most powerful things that affect us is the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, consciously and unconsciously.
Some of these stories can be helpful, but many of them get in the way of seeing the world and ourselves clearly. If we can’t see the world clearly, we can’t see new ways of moving forward or ways of being that will be more satisfying and bring us more happiness.
Whilst these stories will have served some purpose in the past, they often outlive their usefulness. It can sometimes feel like they take on a life of their own and want to stay alive even when we are ready to let them go.
Imagine a young woman called Kim. She has a story about her own worthlessness and everything she sees in the world supports that story. Where might such a story have come from? Perhaps her Father had his own story about being the best at everything and couldn’t stand other people to have value of their own. Kim’s story that she is worthless protected her from her Father’s anger when she was young.
Maybe at that time developing that story was the best way she could protect herself. But now that Kim is an adult she doesn’t need that story any more, other people don’t need her to be worthless and as an adult she has other options for protecting herself from her Father’s anger.
The story has become so powerfully embedded in her psyche, it appears to be true. It lives on long after its usefulness and continues affecting her life. Because Kim believes she is worthless she struggles to receive praise, or take opportunities for success. She goes around in circles and isn’t able to move forward.
If she is able to see the story for what it is, just a story about the world, rather than an undeniable truth, she can begin the process of letting go and moving on.
Sometimes just to see and identify the story is enough, and sometimes we need to see the roots of the story to begin the letting go process. When Kim realises the story was created in response to her Father, the idea that the story is her seems less true, and letting go becomes easier.
Kim’s story was a big one, and it coloured her whole life. Many of us do have overarching stories like this and some of them serve us well. A story about being a parent might frame the whole of someone’s life in a helpful way… until their children start to grow up. It is when we cling to such stories beyond their usefulness, or see them as the whole truth, rather than one aspect of the truth, that we run into problems.
We are made up of smaller stories too. We prefer one brand of food over another, because that’s what we’ve always done, or because we have bought into the stories advertisers sell us, rather than making a choice based on what actually tastes better.
How we are in each moment is affected by the stories we carry. Some are running all of the time, like Kim’s story. Others are triggered by meeting particular things in the world, or in particular situations. Some stories just run at work, others at home. Sometimes when we go and visit our parents old stories appear, that we thought we had let go of completely, and we find ourselves behaving in old, unhelpful, ways.
Working with a therapist we can begin to notice our own stories. We begin to see what is affecting us in each moment and what beliefs are keeping us going around in circles. We can let go of old stories and adopt new, more helpful ones, or we can learn to live with the stories we have in more compassionate ways.
It can be difficult from inside the centre of the story to see what is true, and what the stories we carry tell us is true but isn’t really the case. Having another person to listen deeply and reflect with us on our situation can be immensely helpful in untangling reality from myth.
As this untangling begins we can start to make different, more fulfilling choices, and begin to live a more satisfied life.
Kaspa Thompson is a Psychotherapist and Buddhist Priest, and sees clients in person in Malvern, Worcestershire, and online via Skype: Book a therapy session now.