Sunday, September 27, 2009

How to Turn an Old Story into a New Story

It all depends on how you look at it.

How many times have you said this to someone? It's one of those throw-away conversational elements that usually serves as a segue into expressing your own opinion about whatever is being discussed.

And what about when someone says it to you? What feelings does your body register when you hear those words?

My bet is that somewhere--and probably around the area of your solar plexus--you feel a tightening. A slight but perceptible tingling sensation spreads outward from there, and every little wavelength carries this message to your brain: I already know how I look at it. You're welcome to your opinion, but you're not going to change mine.

Think of Babe, the little pig, and her la la la singing voice--that's what your brain is doing to new information once you have made up your mind. You're not going to tell Babe to stop singing--you're too polite to do that. But you're certainly not going to listen. Your fingers are in your ears--la la la.

There is something in the world of counseling called narrative therapy. One of its assumptions is that the person isn't the problem: the problem is the problem. Narrative therapy suggests that this problem can be identified in the story a person tells about her life as much from the way she tells it as from the story itself.

Therefore, the theory goes, it is possible to address the problem by re-writing the story of your life to create a richer, more complex narrative that broadens and enriches your sense of self. In this manner, you build a larger context, a stronger foundation, for the memory you find problematic. You gather more information about yourself, which leads to more clear understanding.

What does this mean? It means that it--your life--really does depend on how you look at it.

I am not talking about retroactively assigning motives to someone who injured you in the past. Nor am I suggesting you redefine the emotional response you had when something happened to you. In fact, to the contrary.

If, for example, you feel overwrought because someone has taken advantage of you, your story to yourself might go something like this:

I have given her everything she has ever asked me for; I've helped her before she even knew she needed help, with my time, my money, my (fill in the blank)--and now instead of thanking me, she's angry at me because this time I won't give her (fill in the blank). I am generous by nature, but it hurts me when she tries to dictate the terms of my generosity: and now when I won't give her what she wants when she wants it, she gets angry at me. After everything I've done for her. I feel stupid. She's been taking advantage of me all these years and I didn't even see it.

You lick your wounds. You question your motivation: was I really just trying to help? Did I have ulterior motives? Was there a little bit of schadenfreude involved that made me feel happy about her pain and my ability to be generous in her time of need? Am I a big fat phony? Is she calling me on my own self-deception?

This is where you can stop the cycle. This is where it depends on how you look at it.

You can see that while you did give and give and give, you did it out of your desire to be helpful. Your desire to be helpful is good; however, you may have acted on it in the past with a limited understanding of how to take care of your own needs at the time. You may have thought that you were obligated to be generous in order to be a good person. You may have felt responsible to help because you always helped in the past, so how could you stop now? Or--did you feel guilty because you had so much more than the person you were trying to help?

You can continue to ask yourself questions about a past behavior in this manner. At some point, you will come to see that there is a more complex story line around the topic than the one you are accustomed to telling yourself. Am I a phony? becomes How can I continue to be generous without hurting myself?

You can, in other words, investigate an incident in your own past the way a good investigative reporter sinks her teeth into a story: follow all leads, don't make assumptions, don't draw conclusions until you have enough evidence to do so.

This can mean looking at your own memories. It can mean going back to your old journals. It can mean asking friends or family members to tell you their memories around an event. Whatever you can do to expand your understanding of something (without putting yourself at risk for further pain--I'm not sure I'd start this process by going to the person directly involved in the memory you're trying to come to terms with) is going to help you weave a larger piece of cloth in which your memories can be embedded. You can come to see that everything you have done in your life was related to everything around it; you can bring that new awareness of interconnectedness into your life today.

You can write a more complex narrative. You can tell yourself a new story about your life, a story that helps you grow in wisdom and compassion, away from self-blame and hostility toward others.

It all depends on how you look at it.

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