A few months ago, I listened to Rising Strong by Brené Brown, wherein she presented a single clause that has changed my life: The story I’m telling myself is . . .
This is in reference to the perceptions that we experience when someone says or reacts or responds to something in a manner we aren’t expecting, and we immediately spin it to mean that we are undesirable, boring, ugly, fat, have bad hair, ugly toes . . . you get the idea. Sometimes the story we tell ourselves is one that has been, unfortunately, repeated to us in one form or another so many times that we believe it is truth. Sometimes, it is a story that we create because we were having a bit of a down day to begin with and then THE THING happened, and so we relive and spin and create and before we even realize it, our self-identity is commandeered by one word: worthless.
But if we can find a confidant – be that a spouse or friend or parent or child – we can put a name on the thing that has diminished our opinions of ourselves. It takes an INCREDIBLE amount of courage, to let someone see our little bit of crazy, to stop hiding and pretending everything is fine, to stop reverting to anger or retaliation, take a step back and say, “The story I’m telling myself is . . .“
But it is so valuable. Let me share an example.
A few months ago, my husband and I were on a date at the store and we saw someone we’ve known since high school (this happens often as we both grew up in the town where we now live). As she was walking toward us, my husband said, “Oh! She has grown her hair out. It looks good on her.” That’s one of the things that I love about him, his ability to see the good in people, to compliment with ease.
But do you know what I heard?
She is pretty. You are not.
I know it’s ridiculous. But I’d cut a lot of my hair a few months before that, and I heard, “Women with long hair are prettier than women with short.”
She also looked like she was more fit than before, and I wasn’t, so now I was fat and ugly and too tall and had bad hair. And that day, I’d been working in the yard and doing housework, so I was nowhere close to my A-game look. What I was certain of was that I’d totally let myself go and my husband was going to want to find someone new. He had every right to, he’s too good to be stuck with me.
This all happened in about 0.7389 seconds. I talked with our friend, we had a lovely conversation, and the echoes of self-deprecation in my mind were reverberating faster and faster and
“Hey,” I said to my husband. “I need you to say something nice about me.”
He’d been listening to Rising Strong as well. He didn’t ask why, he didn’t give me a funny look. He just said, “Because the story you are telling yourself is that because I thought she looked good, I no longer think you do too.”
He started telling me things he loved about me, we finished our trip, and went home to chill on the couch. I wasn’t harboring resentment toward my pretty friend, toward my incredible husband, things weren’t eating me from the inside-out.
This idea of identifying the story we tell ourselves was amplified recently when I read The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White. In it, there are characters who struggle with OCD and one, who has hit rock bottom and climbed back up, has a series of thoughts wherein she has obsessive thoughts running through her mind for several minutes before she can stop and identify what she is thinking, and therefore feeling, as a thought. Thoughts don’t have power, she says, and she can get control over them.
It got me thinking about my own mental health. I’ve known of my constant companion, depression, for about two years and, like Katie in The Promise Between Us, I’m starting to understand when my brain is telling me something that isn’t true, something that wasn’t started, but something that crept in. I am able to say, “This is depression talking. This is not me, this thought is not how I think, these feelings are not my feelings”.
Identifying the story we tell ourselves can be a powerful tool for people who are wrestling with mental health issues, and people who don’t, people who feel hurt or surprised, people who tend to lock themselves away and resent before considering openness. Being honest about when and what we are telling ourselves, though, is essential for our relationships, and our own self-care. It’s a powerful tool that feels big and scary, but through regular practice, will allow us to love others, and ourselves, with a power that only comes from honest transparency.