Not long ago I was caught up in a temporary funk of self-doubt. I was at a several day event surrounded by incredibly talented people and I found myself slipping back into an old narrative involving social comparison and thoughts of “I’m not good enough.”
In the past, these kinds of thoughts and stories I was telling myself could have spiraled me into a more stuck place. They might have even overtaken me. This time I was able to see what was going on from a more neutral, observing, and even compassionate place. I could recognize this very old story and not give it such power. Eventually it loosened its grip.
The funny thing is, this was a VERY old story. It started when I was four years old and my sister was born. I was jealous, and from my four-year-old eyes, I believed that I must not be good enough since my parents had another baby to shower their attention on. And so this story began, and took on different forms throughout my childhood as other experiences unfolded to reinforce these beliefs. I am well into the seasons of my adulthood and yet these old beliefs can still resurface at times with a strong emotional pull.
As a psychologist working with patients for over twenty years, one of the common sources of suffering that I see is how we can all get hooked into old stories and narratives that grew out of our attempts to make sense of experiences in our childhood, but that are ultimately inaccurate and that no longer serve us. As children, we inevitably experience upsetting things that happen, whether the smaller hurts such as having a parent yell at us, or being called a mean name, or having an embarrassing moment, or the bigger hurts of loss or traumatic events. We do our best to make sense of our world, but because of our limited ability to see things from a more complex perspective, we can internalize inaccurate messages from these early experiences that lead us to believe that there is something wrong with us. The stories we tell ourselves about these situations can become beliefs about the very nature of who we are, about our worthiness, value and “enough-ness”.
Often these stories can become so automatic that we no longer question them, and we may not even realize they are there. But left unchecked, these stories can take a strong emotional toll, and can even limit the choices that we make in our lives and our potential to live our fullest life.
So how do we begin to change these narratives?
The first step is to start to pay attention to the stories that we are telling ourselves as we go through our day. When you experience a disappointment or a hurt, a challenge or a setback, notice what the narrative is that you tell yourself. If it sounds anything like “I could never do that” or “I’m not enough” or “what’s wrong with me” or “I don’t deserve that” ask yourself when you first remember feeling this.
While therapy can be one place to work on rewriting old narratives (and might be especially important for those who have experienced past trauma), we can all work to unhook from the narratives that no longer serve us. Here is a short practice to UNHOOK.
Once you recognize that you are caught in a story that is not serving you, use this acronym:
Understand that this story came from a limited world view. As a child you did the best you could to make sense of your world, but as an adult you now have the opportunity to rewrite this story to reflect a much broader and more complex understanding of things. (In the example above, as an adult I now understand the demands my parents had taking care of an infant in a way I could not have understood at age 4).
Nurture the younger part of you that still experiences the emotional pain. Your inner child can feel things very intensely, but as an adult you now have the opportunity to send compassion to those younger parts. You might even imagine comforting those younger parts of yourself the way you would comfort a scared or sad child. Our inclination is often to do otherwise, to criticize or push away these younger parts of us or the accompanying unwanted feelings. I might instead name what I am feeling (insecurity, worry, etc.) tell myself it’s OK to have these feelings, remind myself I am human, and put a hand on my heart to let my inner child know that the adult me is here.
Hold your story lightly. Recognize that your thoughts are just mental constructs, not absolute truth. You might say to yourself “I notice that this in an old story playing out in my mind.”
Observe your story from a little distance. Ask yourself what happens in your body when you believe these thoughts to be true? Ask yourself how believing this story affects the way you feel and act. (In the above example, I felt a heaviness in my chest and a sinking feeling in my stomach. Believing my old narrative made me feel inadequate and inclined to be closed off from others and less participatory).
Open yourself up to the possibility of a new story, that more accurately reflects your current reality. What might that sound like? Could you experiment with a narrative that feels authentic (not falsely positive) but more supportive of who you truly are? (In the example above, my old story was “I’m not good enough. I can’t measure up to these other people.” My new story sounded something like: “I notice self-doubt showing up when I am surrounded by such talented people. I recognize this is both human to feel this and triggered by very old experiences. While I can be kind with the part of me that feels vulnerable and is experiencing self-doubt, I can at the same time choose to celebrate others’ competencies while also acknowledging and honoring my own unique strengths and contributions.”)
Know that ultimately you have the power to change old narratives — they are not fixed or written in stone. It may take some work, but it is possible. And when we change our narratives, we can profoundly change our lives.