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Issue 56

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In this issue ~~

* Your Self-Story

* Creative Tip

* Wise Words

* Bookshelf

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Your Self-Story

Many times in life, we find ourselves facing limitations. How often do we stop to consider whether those limitations are ones we placed on ourselves? One of the ways we do that is by adopting a story about who we are, our place in the world, what we as individuals can and cannot do, what "people like us" (family, community, gender, race, etc.) can and cannot do, and then clinging to that story.

Our life story, or personal myth, is a way we make sense of who we are and the circumstances of our lives. We crave coherence, and one way we achieve that is by creating a story that makes sense of the disparate events that we experience and how they impact us. If we can't find a logical explanation, we make one up and then believe it as Truth.

Our beliefs about ourselves have a strong impact on how we behave and even how our bodies respond. Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard professor of psychology, conducted a study in which a group of male volunteers over the age of 70 agreed to live as though it were 1959. They dressed, talked, read newspapers and magazines and watched TV shows from the period. After only 5 days, the men showed improvement in hearing and memory, and many of them even looked 5 years younger!

In her book, Mindfulness, Dr. Langer wrote, "The regular and 'irreversible' cycles of aging that we witness in the later stages of human life may be a product of certain assumptions about how one is supposed to grow old. If we didn't feel compelled to carry out these limiting mindsets, we might have a greater chance of replacing years of decline with years of growth and purpose." Similarly, by releasing our limiting beliefs in other areas, we can free ourselves to grow and develop in new ways. We can take the dreams that formerly seemed out of our grasp and begin taking steps to turn them into realities.

There are many reasons we cling to our stories. Our history is something we can call upon at will. It feels much more controllable and predictable than our future and can be comforting to fall back on. There was a time when I didn't know when my next happy moment would come, so I would dwell on happy moments from the past. Happy to say, the happy moments come more frequently for me now, and I know there will always be more, so I no longer need to dwell in the past.

Our stories give us a sense of history and belonging. We remember who we were and the people we connected with. It helps us define ourselves and create an identity. The trap is that we can get stuck in the safety of that identity and stop ourselves from growing for fear of upsetting the apple cart and having to cope with change and loss.

We use our stories to bond with others. We may have come from similar backgrounds or had similar experiences, and they bring us acceptance from a likeminded group or individual. In Why People Don't Heal and How They Can, Caroline Myss notes that sometimes we hesitate to give up our stories for fear of losing the relationships that come with them.

Our stories may also include the roles we took on early in life. You may have been labeled the achiever or the one who would never amount to anything. You may have been the caregiver or center of attention. These roles translate into our later choices in careers, life partners, friends, which opportunities we'll pursue and so on. Our self-story and its related self-image draw familiar and comfortable boundaries around us that we may be reluctant to move beyond.

We may use our stories as a way of explaining to people who we are and how we got that way. If we have less-than-perfect self-esteem (and who doesn't) or feel different, there may be an element of self-justification or trying to fit into the norm. Parts of our story are told to make us look good, to evoke sympathy, to impress, to bolster our own egos, to give us a sense of purpose and meaning, to make sense of a senseless event, to frame our personal challenges and many other reasons.

Our stories change over time as we give new meaning to the parts of our life. Certain incidences gain or lose importance, like shining or dimming a spotlight on them. We may positively resolve a negative incident, or a happy one may be superseded by a disappointing outcome or even happier times. Our successes and failures will add to the story, as will the new perspectives and deeper understanding we acquire in the process of life.

As you can see, your personal story is an important part of creating identity and coherence in your life. But when you get stuck in it or take it as the gospel truth, it can limit you from growing beyond it. You may be afraid of upsetting people or losing relationships by acting in a totally different way. You may feel uncomfortable that a sudden or radical change in behavior will make people think you've gone off the deep end. Or you may feel that each step you take needs to progress logically out of your past – that you need to be able to explain or justify it to yourself or others – rather than taking a leap into something you know you can do, or passionately want to do, but is a radical departure from what you've done or been before.

It's up to you how quickly or drastically you want to change, and I strongly advocate taking things a step at a time. You can begin to move beyond your limitations by rewriting your personal story. We believe that our futures are determined by the circumstances we were born into and our childhood experiences, but there is ample evidence that many people have squandered the gifts they were given, while others had the strength and determination to transcend dire circumstances.

I was moved by the story of Irene Monroe, a young woman who was abandoned by her mother in a trash can at the age of 6 months. She was placed with a foster mother who constantly told her, "You come from nothing, you are nothing, you'll be nothing." At the age of 6 or 7, she realized that she had an inner strength and that the world was open to her like everybody else. Realizing that education was her ticket out, she worked hard and created opportunities to pursue higher education at Wellesley, Columbia and Harvard. She is now a respected theologian, writer and speaker.

While you can't change the past (although the accuracy of our memories is somewhat questionable anyway), you can always change how you look at the circumstances of your life. You can see them from a different perspective or put them in a different context. For example, several years down the road, you may be able to see how an incident that was painful at the time led you to something better. Or you may come to understand the perspective of someone who hurt you.

And you can change your future. You will grow and have new experiences. You can continue writing your story based on the person you are becoming and reframe the past based on the perspectives you will undoubtedly gain as you move forward and have access to the bigger picture of your life. You always have a choice how you relate to the circumstances of your life, and by rewriting your self-story, you can literally change the direction your life takes.

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Creative Tip

Write your personal story as if it were a myth or fairy tale. Is it a heroic journey or a tale of woe? How do you want it to end? If you don't like the direction it's going, rewrite it now, and then take steps to make your happy ending come true.

 

Wise Words

"Each of us comes to know who he or she is by creating a heroic story of the self."

~ Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By

"Our entire society functions under many shared and sometimes harmful beliefs. . . . So it is that we can be sure the events of our childhood set the stage for our beliefs about ourselves and therefore our experience."

~ Christiane Northrup, MD, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom

"Ancient decisions you made as a young boy or girl about what you can and cannot do, or will and will not do, are keeping you from doing what you most want to do now."

~ Paul & Sarah Edwards, The Practical Dreamer's Handbook

"Although reality can't be erased, it seems only fair that our *thoughts* about things might be erasable. We can change our mind, get new ideas, see things in different ways, and easily move our attention from one thing to another. In other words, it usually seems that we can control what we think."

~ Daniel Wegner, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts

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Bookshelf

(click on the book or CD graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)

The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self . . . Dan P. McAdams

How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves . . . Paul John Eakin

Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence . . . Charlotte Linde

The Book of Self-Acquaintance: A Guided Journal . . . Margaret Tiberio

The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience . . . Mandy Aftel

Myths to Live By . . . Joseph Campbell

Why People Don't Heal and How They Can . . . Caroline Myss, PhD

Mindfulness . . . Ellen J. Langer

Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship With Food Through Myths, Metaphors & Storytelling . . . Anita A. Johnston PhD

Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives . . . Sidonie Smith, Julia Watson

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© 2003 Sharon Good. All rights reserved.

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