Before you read this post, pause for a moment and think about your life. Imagine that you were beginning e-mail counselling or therapy with me today, and you were to send me an e-mail with an outline of your current difficulties, what caused them, and the effects they have on your life. What information would you include in that initial e-mail contact?
Next, think about your family and friends. Consider what they might include in their initial e-mails to me. Then think of the people who you used to have significant relationships with, yet for whatever reason no longer do. What do you imagine their initial e-mail might be about? Or should be about?
Now think of your favourite tv shows, movies, or books. Think of the most memorable characters and consider what information their initial therapy e-mails might include. Do this until you have a general idea of each person’s “story”. All you need is a general idea, then continue with the post.
Take a moment now and notice how you were able to think up a basic explanation, summary, or ‘story” for each of these individuals. It probably wasn’t very difficult either. Gathering information and analyzing it into explanations is something we all tend to do. This is especially true when we’re searching for a satisfactory answer to any variant of the question Why?
It seems paradoxical that we are often initially attracted to an air of mystery yet are unsettled by mystery at the same time. We find comfort in a sense of understanding and predictability. We find comfort in our stories and explanations, in our roles, and our conceptualized self. This isn’t a significant problem when we can hold our stories lightly. However, we are limited when we identify with our stories and explanations to the extent that being right is given higher priority than being effective.
The problem with our stories, even when they’re true, is that they can be self-limiting in the sense that the options to a more meaningful existence often do not exist within the story. Somehow these options partially invalidate the story, and for that reason they are overlooked or disregarded.
Lets consider a common example that we can all agree is a very painful story. This is the story where a child is abandoned by a parent at a young age. Having little to no ability to understand what would make an adult leave their family, children easily draw the conclusion that it must have something to do with them. So this child grows up believing the story that they are unworthy of love. It is true that they were abandoned by someone who supposedly loved them. It is also true that they experience feelings of being rejected and unloved. It is true that they have beliefs that they are unlovable. On some level perhaps we can even agree that the parent who abandoned them didn’t love them enough to stay, and in that sense this explanation is socially supported or reinforced. This story dictates this person’s conceptualized self as someone who is unloveable, or someone who will ultimately be abandoned.
We can see which elements of this story are true. We can also understand why someone would come to the conclusions about themselves that they have after experiencing this sort of childhood. And we can sympathize with how painful believing in this story must be for them. It all fits, it’s all true, but does this story work for them or against them?
When you are stuck on making progress in your life, and particularly when you are stuck by your beliefs, it is wise to return to the question: Which will you believe, your mind or your experience? (This is a fundamental strategy used by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – ACT)
If we look for solutions to finding love within this story, things aren’t looking very good. However if we look outside the story, where the story is just a set of facts that have no real bearing on what happens next, we see plenty of options for pursuing and finding loving relationships. If we look outside of the story, we see that there are plenty of people who have had a parent leave them at a young age, who are now in healthy and loving relationships.
Return to your story now and consider what it has done for you. Is it working for you or against you? How many of what you have been lead to believe were excuses, are really just reasons?
More on the difference between reasons and excuses next post, until then keep well…