What kind of story are you telling yourself?
When people ask you about your past, what story do you tell? What stories do you tell about your past and present?
This is important because as humans, we are unreliable narrators. We think we are telling an accurate version of our life story but we are telling it through our subjective lens. In simple terms, the way we experience life is filtered through the lens through which we see it.
Here is an example of what I mean. Years ago, when I was still in my first marriage, and I took our three sons to an ice cream store. The next day we went to their grandparent’s house and I overheard them retelling the ice cream store visit. One of my sons said it was awesome. One said it wasn’t fair and one was so uncomfortable with his experience that he answered with “I don’t know”. I was intrigued so followed up with my boys as to why they said what they said. The first one said he thought it was awesome because he got the flavor he wanted and that was that. The second one said he was annoyed because when he asked if he could get the double scoop waffle cone, I said no without explaining why. He felt unheard and dismissed (and thus his replay of unfairness). My final son said he wishes it hadn’t happened at all. He said he was so uncomfortable the whole time because he was so worried that his dad and I (his parents) would argue when we got home. Unfortunately, he overheard my then husband say that ice cream was fattening and an expense we didn’t need to incur. My son overheard me say “I disagree” and that I was going to take them because we had been talking about going for a fun treat all school week. Same experience, three very different stories.
We use our personal experiences and thoughts to make meaning out of experiences. In other words, because of our thoughts, we tell ourselves certain stories about our past and present.
Same Circumstance, Different Experience
We can have the same circumstance in our life, the same lived experience, and because of our humanness and our values, we will have different emotional experiences. We know that the thoughts we think, drive the feelings we feel. If I am thinking that it’s unfair that this woman used cloth napkins because that meant that I now had to, I would feel frustrated and possibly irritated. If I was thinking how nice it was to have such a fancy snack in the middle of a mundane day, I would feel grateful and appreciative. The story we tell ourselves influences how we move through life.
Let’s look at the story we are telling ourselves about our past and how that shows up in our present.
Story Telling our Past
What story do you tell yourself about your past? Is it helpful for you? Do you skip over certain parts? Embellish others? How do you portray yourself? Are you the victim or the victor? Let me show you how this makes a difference:
Here’s one story of my past: I grew up with a controlling, manipulative father who wanted sons but got all girls. He was bitter and resentful and I grew up hearing how women weren’t as good as men physically in sports and intellectually in school and in business. He was judgmental, critical, and would openly criticize my mom for her curvy body. As the eldest, nothing I did was good enough for him. And my mother was non-existent. I have no memory of being comforted or cared for. I have many memories of being criticized, yelled at, and shamed. As a child I learned to not trust myself and that I was not as capable as a man in business or life.
Here’s another story of my past.
I grew up in a big house in an affluent suburb with parents who made sure that all of my basic needs of food and clothing were more than cared for. I went to top-notch schools and was encouraged to play any sport or join any club that I wanted to. We frequently traveled to new places and even had a beach house! As a child, I learned to love traveling and exercise.
We want something in between.
It is helpful for me to see all that my parents did provide, travel, house, and clothing. It is imperative that I don’t let those things nullify the real-life experience of emotional connection that did not occur.
Many of us do two things when we look at our past that are not helpful. We engage in what I call comparative Olympics, which means we say things like “there are people who had it a lot worse off than me” and so don’t acknowledge the actual pain and hurts we felt. Yes, there are people who had it a lot worse off than you. And, there are those who had it a lot better off than you. Hurt is hurt. Back to the thought model: feelings feel the same in our body. If I feel sad and neglected, that feels the same in my body as someone my age in a hut in India or a villa in LA. The circumstance may look acutely different but if we are feeling a feeling, that feeling is real and it not only hurts your progress as a human to discredit and disqualify it; it also hurts the others who have it better off than you. Like their tears don’t count as much? It’s not as deep a sadness? Let’s be kind to all of us so we all can heal. Feel it to heal it.
Don’t Shy Away From Actual Reality
The second thing we do is shy away from actual reality because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings (usually our parents or relatives). Here’s the thing: that parent or relative was a very different person then, 10, 20, or 40 years ago. Try to remove your rose-colored glasses to see things as they were so that you can heal and move forward. I like reminding clients and myself that I have yet to meet a parent who set out to intentionally screw up their kid. And, I have yet to meet someone who gets through childhood without some wounds. Our parents did the best they could with the tools they had.
The greatest parents on earth are still going to raise kids with wounds. Take my trip to the ice cream store. Was it my intent to make my one son hugely uncomfortable? Or to lead my other son to feel unheard and dismissed?
And… am I able to talk through incidents and experiences with my kids in a non-defensive way so as to foster their healing? YES! I practice this thought all the time: my parents did the best they could with the tools they had. I also remind myself that I did the best I could with the tools I had.
I am open and honest with my kids. I often remind them that I am doing the best I can yet there is no perfect parent. I encourage them to get a coach so they can learn about themselves and heal their wounds with me while I’m still alive. While I try to do better than the generation before me, I am human and my best effort may create a wound. The more openly and honestly I can look at the generation before me and my own childhood wounding, the better I am able to parent and move forward in my life without hurting others. Hurt people hurt people. We all get hurt in childhood. I could hide from that hurt or avoid it or diminish it, though all that does is further perpetuate the patterns. This is one of my favorite parenting books.
When we can tell a story of our past that releases judgment and fear, we are better able to heal from our past and move on. We can’t leave the wounds from our childhood until we know what they are. That’s part of our human experience here on earth.
What about if you’re not a parent? Or your kids are grown? Or your parents have passed? Warrior, you are here. You have inherited patterns of behavior based on the house you grew up in and the societal structure you were raised in. Gift yourself the ability to look at the story you’re telling yourself about yourself. Is it helpful? Does it set you up for the future you want or keep you stuck in victim mentality and negativity? One thought I love thinking about my parents is I had the exact parents I was meant to have to become the woman I am today. Here’s a fact for you you had the exact past you had to become the woman you are today. How do I know that’s true? Because it is. We can’t argue with the past. It already happened. How do you want to re-tell your past to set yourself up for your best future?
Next week I will look at the story you tell yourself about yourself now, in the present and how you are setting yourself up for a future you want to be living.
For this week do me a favor, set a timer for 5 minutes and write out the story of your life. Allow yourself to write a couple of different versions. Maybe the rose-colored version and then the dark, victim version. Look openly and honestly at stories you tell yourself about your parents and siblings. The things that have happened in your life. What sort of story do you want to remember?
And if you don’t have a life coach yet, I’d love to be yours. I’d love to support you in ways that can fast-track you to that life you love. Yes, you know what to do. But are you doing it? Start with one of these three steps today and your year will be different:
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