If I had to name the two lessons I have learned over the past couple of years that have been the most liberating, reassuring and comforting, it would be these two things:
“My thoughts are not the only things I could be thinking about this particular situation, person or memory.”(More elaborate version of: My thoughts aren’t facts. )
“Just because I have been doing it like this does not mean I have to keep doing it like this.”
These two realisations have made me a lot more relaxed, flexible and even at times…a little more open-minded and less judgemental. I know, gasp.
But it really is true that a lot of our pain and suffering, we bring upon ourselves because of the way we think and the way we (think we) are stuck in certain thought and behavioural patterns. But the great thing is:
You can break free. Or at least loosen the leash a little bit on the things that weigh you down or keep you stuck in one place, making your life a little bit easier and open.
Here’s a trick that might help you do that.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
We tell ourselves stories all day long.
About ourselves (“I’m great at sports! I’m terrible at flirting! I am a good daughter! I have a weird laugh!”), about our friends and family (“She’s never there for me! I have a great connection with him! They are such a flaky friend!”) and about things that happened or are happening (“My parents’ divorce ruined my childhood! I hate the new boss and his methods! I’m still not over my ex!”)
And yes, those stories might be true. But every time we repeat the same story, it grows a little bit stronger, while at the same time all the details and side stories and plots weaken. All these other potential story lines & details grow dimmer. All the different paths you could take in this narrative fade a little bit more into the background. Nothing but your version of the story exists, there’s tunnel vision.
The more we tell ourselves something, the more true and singular it becomes. While this story might have a lot more to it than just the things you keep repeating to yourself over and over.
Which is why it might be interesting from time to time to look at all these things you might be forgetting.
A Trick: 21 Things
A little while ago I had a conversation with someone who had a really hard time at her job because of someone else who works there too. She was very stuck in the narrative of how hard it was for her, how horrible this person was and how long she still had to work there, and I could tell her record was all sorts of stuck on this story.
I asked her if she could tell me 21 things she liked about her job.
(Obviously it is not a helpful or supportive thing to interrupt someone or do this when they clearly still need to vent. I believe you need to be a good listener, show you are following the story. Don’t be impatient with the other person. Make sure you’ve let someone tell their tale, that they feel heard and then see if there’s a lull in your conversation where you can give this a try.)
She was surprised by the question but she took me up on the challenge. I grabbed my notebook, started listening and writing as she came up with 21 things she really liked about her internship. It took her a second to rev up, but it wasn’t as hard as she expected.
Everything about her demeanour had changed. The tremor was gone, her eyes were bright and she was sitting up straighter. You could tell she connected to all the other parts of this story, making it easier to place the hard part in a bigger whole, into context.
Another Trick: 21 Ways
Since the first exercise worked so well, I decided to take it a step further.
“Now, I know you quite well and I know you’re smart, proactive and try to do what you can. So I’m sure you’ve been doing things in order to make it easier to work with this person, to be happy at your job,” I said.
“Can you think of 21 ways to make this easier for yourself?” I asked her.
I made a whole production about grabbing my notebook and pen again, looking at her expectantly. Hesistant but more sure as we moved from point to point, my student started naming all the things she was already doing to deal with the situation — and then she started thinking of new things.
In no time, we were at 21 for this list too. And I could tell it cheered her up that a) she was already doing a really good job dealing with it by doing what she did and b) that she was able to think of even more things she could do.
Why these lists?
List number one (21 Things I Like, 21 About Things About…) is to get some breathing room in a narrative that is not constructive. It literally opens your eyes to the rest of the situation, the story, the other people, the context. Doesn’t mean your story isn’t true, but it creates space, more acceptance and most importantly: More peace.
List number two (21 Things To Do, 21 Ways To Solve This, 21 Ways to Deal With This Situation) is twofold.
One, it gets you thinking creatively about solutions or different approaches. Which, in and of itself makes a situation more interesting and fun, which is half the battle. It becomes more of an experiment and a playground than a battlefield or an obstacle course.
Two, it connects you to your own power. There ARE things you can do, even MORE than you had initially thought! It brings you back into touch with your own responsibility; you can’t change everything, but you can do things differently so it becomes a bit easier.
Give it a try!
You can do this about anything. About a person, a situation, yourself.
A difficult choice, a stressful 6-month period where you gotta finish your thesis, a complicated friendship, a fight with your boyfriend (although: DUMP HIM), your struggle with something.
Give it a go. With it, you might create the space and power you need.
Have a lovely Sunday!