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(This article appeared in the Mind and Body column of The Frisky Geezer magazine in May 2011)

           

You Did What? Why the Stories We Tell Ourselves Matter

 

The other day at a party, a gal in the neighborhood was commenting on how our teens were growing up so fast. Thinking of her daughter, who has recently blossomed into this gorgeous goddess-on-earth, I mentioned that my son likes her kid. When she acted surprised, I said something like, “Of course he does; she’s got boobs. What’s not to like?”

 

OOPS.  Can you say TOO MANY MARTINIS?

 

Now, if I’d been able to just laugh it off, apologize in case I offended her and then let it go, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But what did I do? I wasted a good night’s sleep worrying that she might lock her daughter up in a chastity belt, or worse, warn other parents about my son (who, for the record, is a really sweet guy). Then came the self-accusing thoughts: You never think before you speak. You say the stupidest things. And finally, the temptation: I’m never going to one of those parties again. They probably don’t like me anyway.

 

Am I saying we shouldn’t evaluate our choices? Or that introspection is wrong? Absolutely not. However, some of us dwell on these things to excess. No, not dwell—obsess. The problems arise when we let these concerns grow so large that they limit our ability to live our lives to the fullest.

 

In search of strategies for overcoming this tendency (so I can get my beauty rest—which I need, trust me), I interviewed Jennifer Coleman, L.P.C., N.C.C. All those letters mean she has two masters degrees: one in community counseling and one in marriage and family counseling. She works as a therapist at Eastover Psychological and Psychiatric Group of Lake Norman in both Charlotte and Cornelius, North Carolina.

 

Narrative Therapy: What is it Exactly?

Coleman is a proponent of solution-focused and narrative therapy, which means she bases her technique on the idea that “we are all narrating our own life experience, and what we tell ourselves about our future (this moment forward) is very important because we tend to live it out.”

 

What does that mean practically? It means that if we tell ourselves we are stupid, insensitive human beings who can’t be trusted to go to parties, we’re going to live as if we are such, fulfilling the prophesy (and missing out on all the fun). It also means that whatever stories we choose to focus on—positive or negative—have the power to dominate our mental space, define how we view ourselves, and empower (or limit) us as we pursue our dreams.

 

Narrative therapists help us review the stories we are telling ourselves (You always say stupid things; you can’t keep your mouth shut), re-evaluate that narrative from a new perspective (You were just thinking about how beautiful her daughter is, you were joking about hormonal teenagers, which is a funny topic—the thoughts just didn’t come out in a socially appropriate way), and re-story our experiences in a way that helps us move forward positively.

 

Coleman used the example of how narrative therapy can help a woman who has become more forgetful and who is starting to let her forgetfulness affect her self-esteem. She walked me through the steps she would use with this woman. Once you learn these steps, you can use these steps on your own. Of course, you’ll benefit most if you talk it out with a trusted person because you’re probably not the most objective person when it comes to evaluating yourself.

 

1. Externalize the Problem

The first step is to separate the problem from how you define yourself. The woman in this example may feel like she is losing who she is as a person, especially since she has always defined herself with pride as a reliable, conscientious person. Coleman puts a name on the problem and then helps her client realize that, “Forgetfulness is not who this woman is. Forgetfulness is a problem. When this problem shows up, it really annoys her.”

 

I really liked this concept, that the problem “annoys” the person. It made me think of “forgetfulness”, or in my case “foot-in-mouth-edness”, as being an annoying fly I could swat away if only handed a psychological fly swatter. Which is exactly what Coleman hands her clients.

 

2. Map the Problem’s Influence

Coleman asks her clients to answer the question, “When this problem shows up, how does it affect me?” For example, when forgetfulness shows up, it causes this woman to miss out on activities, let others down, and to feel bad about herself.

 

3. Map Your Influence on the Problem

This step is truly empowering, because this is the point where you figure out how to swat away the annoying problem. To determine this, you’ll need to ask yourself, “When does this problem show up? What is different when it doesn’t show up?” Once you identify what conditions are in place when the problem doesn’t show up, or discover tools that help you overcome the problem. For example, this woman may decide that setting alarms on her iPhone or reviewing her schedule helps her. The solution for me? Say no after two martinis. Or at least eat some nachos before having a third.

 

4. Highlight Unique Outcomes

As you experiment with solutions, you’ll notice that some of your efforts will work and some won’t. You’ll want to keep track of when the problem didn’t show up so you can try to repeat those conditions. Also, you can look for ways to refuse to cooperate with the conditions that repeatedly trigger the problem. For example, if being overtired increases this woman’s risk of being forgetful, she’ll want to do her best to get good sleep.

 

Coleman likes to have her clients address the problem directly when it comes up, almost as if it’s a person in the room. (No, not out loud, silly. In your head.)

 

For example, if this woman forgets something, she can say, “I see you, forgetfulness, but you will not ruin my self esteem, because you are just a problem, and I have tools to overcome next time.” It’s a little goofy, but you know what? It actually works. Especially after a few drinks.

 

5. Re-story Your Experience

Whenever the problem reoccurs, the key to re-storying your experience is to keep the focus on the tools and to let go of emotional identification with the problem. You may also want to tell other people that you are conscious of this issue. Perhaps you want to admit to your boss that you know you forgot to turn in that one assignment, but you are taking measures (using you computer calendar, setting alarms) to prevent a recurrence. This way you won’t feel like you are hiding the problem, but rather are taking responsibility for it.

 

Dealing With Regret Through a Life Review

Another aspect of narrative therapy is how we narrate our daily experiences and our memories to ourselves. When in the second half of our lives, we spend a lot of emotional energy doing something Coleman calls “making meaning” of our lives. We figure out what makes us happy, and (hopefully) we spend time doing those things. We sort through memories as we figure out who we are.

 

This can send us on an emotional roller coaster as we remember the good stuff (ha, ha, ha) and the awful stuff (boo, hoo, hoo). Some of us manage to focus on the good, giving ourselves grace about the bad. However, some of us uncover those regrets and get STUCK. Like we’re up to our waist in mucky sludge and we Just. Can’t. Move. On.

 

That’s when Coleman suggests doing a life review, emphasizing character traits instead of focusing on chronological events. When someone comes into her office dealing with regret, she points out that the very fact that a person regrets doing something shows that they have integrity. Regret is evidence of a sensitive conscience.

 

Once you’ve been able to recognize how much integrity you have, you can revisit the story and examine it from an objective point of view. This is where a therapist or good friend can be of great help—someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and who can point out why you made the choices you did at the time.

 

Maybe you were desperate to be popular, and that’s why you put Elmer’s glue in that girl’s shampoo bottle back in junior high. You weren’t mean; you were insecure. Perhaps you were too young and inexperienced to recognize the broom your bride was riding until after you married her. You weren’t stupid; you were trusting and optimistic. Maybe you were tough on your son because you were so afraid of what others might do to him if he grew up to be a sissy. You weren’t trying to hurt him. You thought you were protecting him, which is a form of love.

 

Sometimes Coleman has her clients write out an ad that declares what type of person they are. I know, I know – sounds a bit corny – but stick with me. We narrate negative ads all the time, telling ourselves how we’ve failed, don’t we? We turn too soon at an intersection, someone honks, and we accost ourselves. I’m so stupid. I almost killed us. I’m a bad driver.

 

We need to identify the things we like about ourselves and make sure we’re focusing on the good, not the bad. I’m not saying publish the ad. Just write it for your eyes only. It may look something like this:

 

Rachel Mork is a vibrant artist who charms friends and family alike…

 

I’ll stop there.  You get the point, and besides, I want to keep modest on the list.

 

** If interested in finding a narrative-based therapist, check out www.goodtherapy.com or The Dulwich Centre.

 

 

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