Self talk

ALL WE HAVE ARE STORIES: how our life paths have a lot to do with the stories we tell

I first connected with a friend in California who travels to new parts of the world apparently every week (FOMO much?) when I stumbled upon her beautiful Instagram account a couple years ago. Above her contact info, the only words were "We are just visitors, all we have are stories" - words that I totally fell in love with and about which I had to cold-message her.

Every day when I am not immersed in a client session or in restful solitude at home, I am constantly thinking about the overwhelming chaos of human movement. Strangers walking, driving, bussing, stuffing themselves into trains, they all have their own reason for being right there in that exact moment. People driving in traffic are distracted by their unique thoughts and emotions at that time when they nearly hit the car in front of them at a light or they are frustrated enough by their own unique triggers that they express themselves by honking at a pedestrian. 

You know what I see? I see stories. I see thousands of storybooks walking, driving, passing by every day. It overwhelms me because I am equally entranced by my ability to help people tell their stories and daunted by the sheer number of stories out there. So I take a deep breath and remember the quote: All we have are stories, and that is okay.  

It is so true. That is all it is. We are filled with stories and experiences and events and images that have affected the evolution of our personalities. That is great that we acknowledge what makes us unique, but then we have to share those stories in order to learn what to do with it. We build communities through stories, we make friends through them, find love through them. We start religions and businesses because of stories. 

In college, I took a 99% worthless anthropology class that consisted of three months of my professor bragging about her own research, but the 1% value I pulled from the semester was learning for the first time about Ethnography, which is defined as the scientific discipline that "describes the customs of individual peoples and cultures."  A powerfully broad concept I pulled from this section of the class was the way that ethnography studies how history is simply a process of storytelling. In the beginning of civilization in the middle east, tribal elders would gather round a campfire and tell their life stories and the stories of their tribe to the youth in order for the youth to know the significance of their own lives. Even the point of school is to catch us up on what has already happened or that others have learned. 

Stories are all that we have to offer one another. Explaining something at work, telling your spouse about your day, teaching your child how to wipe for the first time are all stories based on stories we have heard and expressed in ways that we have learned to express them. 

This is also true of stories we tell ourselves. You say you rock at cooking, you hate your job, you love your family first above all else, but what do these stories say about your personality? Why are these stories that you tell yourself? And how do they affect your daily life?

If we are only made up of stories, then we are extremely sensitive to them. Emotions underly the stories we tell ourselves. As soon as the stories become verbalized, they are then made real-er and presented to the world for feedback. The way that others react to those stories then close the feedback loop and affect the way we feel about ourselves in the world, new emotions are created, and the cycle starts again. 

Pick a story for yourself that you notice keeps replaying in your head and in conversations. For a lot of people, it is that they hate their job. Whatever that story is that you come up with, how do people react to it? If you keep telling the story and do nothing about it, what does that mean about your life right now? How can you adjust the wording of that story? Or do you not want to change the story?

Every story that comprises us has served a purpose and precedes the many more stories that have come and are still to come. Perhaps you are content with the stories you are telling, good or bad, but all I am saying is think not what your stories can do for you but instead what you can do for them. 

Treat yo'self! A little first step to huge self care

Last week I talked about how important it is to be nice to other people but also that that takes energy. It is not easy to give yourself to others all the time. We need to separate and recharge in order to restock our supply of altruism. I have always been "reservedly extraverted" but it was not until a point in college when I learned the true beauty of introspection and self care (to be covered in a later post).

It is not lost on me that so many people in your lives have told you to be nice to others and you likely hear some version of the instruction every day. Whether or not we follow the instruction, we at least think for a few seconds about what it means to be nice to others.

But holy cannoli, we are not nice to ourselves.

We set such high expectations for ourselves and place undue pressure on responsibilities underneath the pressures that others already assign us. That's a lot!

And I am not just talking about work. This intense self-oppression shows up in play too. How many people do you know have told you how exhausting a family reunion is? How they just want to run away and breathe an hour into the party? Yeah. You do not get paid to attend a family reunion on a much-needed Saturday afternoon with your wife and two infants, but it feels like work.  

My family doesn't do tropical vacations. It simply was never injected into our gene pool. In fact, we opt for the total opposite altitude and go on week long ski trips, shredding as much pow as we can regardless of how long it takes to find our lungs and teach them how to breathe that high above sea level. Even though we have skied all our lives and I would choose the mountains over a beach any day, a week long ski trip is exhausting. It is guaranteed that each member of my family says "Vacation is a lot of work" at some point during the week, immediately followed up with "I need a vacation to recover from our vacation."

I digress. The point is that we put our energy toward a lot of things and a lot of people and it is easy to lose sight of ourselves, our health, and our success. My solution: cut yourself some slack. You do so much. You work so hard. Remind yourself of that.

I know what it's like. You get tangled in the vines of responsibility, focus on work during the day and personal health at night, on repeat, and you do not give yourself enough credit for the effort you put into everything. Let me be the one to thank you for your service.

You are a champion. Sit down on top of the podium and take a long breath. Close your eyes even. 

I am not going to tell you to take a vacation now, don't worry. That would be most hypocritical of me. 

Instead I am telling you that you are awesome. You are really talented and you are working damn hard. Believe it or not, it is okay that you do not know something, too, or are dealing with stress. Yeah, it is. You are allowed to not know something. That is part of the human narrative. 

One of the first things I learned in my career was how to label the most simple thing about someone I am serving simply for what it is. Every client comes to me with thoughts and emotions and stories and hopes and has no idea what to do or where to start.

Before we choose a direction, I label how cool it is that they are at a point where they feel totally stuck. I have said things like:

"It's so impressive that you were able to ask for help."

"You described that with so much enthusiasm."

"I'm proud of you for acknowledging something you do not know."

...just to name a few. I help them pause for a hot second and breathe and reflect on what they have already accomplished just to be in that challenging moment. It brings them down to stable ground upon which we can set goals for their narrative work.

I know what you are thinking and I appreciate the compliment but the answer is no, I am not perfect. Nor am I exempt from extreme self-criticism and perceived directionlessness (but at least I can reflect on how confident I am to make up a word like directionlessness and publish it in a blog post. Go me!).   

I have worked on cutting myself some slack my entire life. I still do. A friend and colleague asked me yesterday "How do you maintain your own narrative? Who does what you do for you?" Um, well, numerous people but mainly myself. I practice the labeling tactic on myself ALL THE TIME. I have to. It is about checking in and reminding myself of the things I have done that led to this moment. For instance, writing this post is a reminder in itself. I have stopped several times throughout the drafting of this to think about what has led me here and why the challenges I currently face make a whole heckuva lotta sense. 

As soon as action is taken toward ambition, you immediately find out where your knowledge gaps are. But UGH, that is okay! I become aware of the gaps in my knowledge because I have never needed the knowledge before.

The challenges I face are unique to the decisions I have made. 

What challenge are you facing today? And how does that challenge indicate the progress you have recently made?

Maybe, just maybe, answering that will help you give yourself some slack. And maybe that slack will give you space for a deep breath. And then suddenly you have a nice moment of alone time, supported by the knowledge that we are never truly alone in all of life's challenges.

 

 

 

 

P.S.  Exhibit A: you kept scrolling. You are a curious person. Keep being amazing.