The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time. Mark Twain
Not long ago a friend, Rachel, phoned me in tears. She’d spent all day in despair—a Sabbath, and therefore a full, free day to reflect on how useless, worthless, and defective she was, and, how depressed! It’s not unusual. I know people who would not speak to a dog the way they talk to themselves.
From earliest childhood her mentally-ill mother had instilled the message that Rachel was no good, unloved, fated for failure, even wicked, vile. It was probably the same story that had been told the mother (and therefore mentally ill?), passed down from generation to generation since the Middle Ages.
Once years ago in writing group, I remarked how sometimes I fell into depressions that lasted for days.
“What do you do in those low times?” asked my friend Natalie with genuine curiosity.
“Why, I do what anyone would! I scold and whip myself to stop being lazy, to get to work.”
“Oh no!” she cried in horror. “You must never do that! When you are feeling poorly, you must put your arm around your shoulder and talk baby talk to yourself; you hug a teddy bear and kiss and love yourself. Never scold!” I was astonished. No one had ever suggested such a weird idea, but a few weeks later, when I was next feeling blue, I took her advice. . . and to my surprise, my depression lifted instantly.
I was shocked!
This information is as important as the suggestion that I should not allow myself to stray into what I call the Garden of Rejection, with its pretty, white, picket fence and brilliant flowers all calling out to me to enter and play at self-pity. I used to push open the gate, take one step inside – and BINGO! I was Lost! I might wander in Rejection for three days before stumbling through the gate by accident, panting with exhaustion and promising never, never to go inside again. (I wish I could say I kept the promise, but it was easily forgotten, for from early childhood I indulged in the pleasure of eating worms, the comforting self-pity that comes from playing with Rejection. Many tears were happily spent in childhood hugging my knees and thinking of my parents that– “You’ll be sorry when I die!” I would take this vengeance – and then enjoy the poignant bittersweet image of watching myself at my own funeral and the sorrow of the aunts).
But I was talking about the stories we tell. “You are what you think,” wrote the Buddha. “Believe, and all things are possible,” said Christ (or something like that). Think you are weak, pathetic, indecisive, and you will be. Think you are strong, confident, intuitive, guided, successful… and all the forces of the Universe will combine to make it so. I guess this is one of the three or four things I’d want my grandchildren to know.
Our stories can be changed. A friend, Nancy Denig, works with men in prison, offering a ten week course in “Decisional Training,” which teaches prisoners to recognize the stories they tell (“I’m no good; I’m bad”) and to change tit, as well as teaching how to respond to conditions instead of thoughtlessly react.
Not all the prisoners succeed in shifting perceptions, but in a follow-up session one man observed that he’d discovered he wasn’t a bad person. He had done bad things, but he wasn’t bad. Another found that he was deeply loved! My daughter works with vets with PTSD, and she finds this same self-excoriation among the survivors who’ve seen their buddies blown to bits. Is self-hatred the Original Sin?
When we change our story, we change the past. This website, www.thework.com, is worth a look. Byron Katie is brilliant in identifying and questioning the thoughts that cause all the anger, fear, depression, addiction, and violence in the world. So I’m urging Rachel to watch the videos. She’s ready. Even just phoning me that night was a beginning, the recognition that she was doing something wrong—that something had to change—that she was miserable and being invited by her Higher Self , by the Universe Itself, to turn her mind from hatred to its true, awakened, peaceful and creative state.