Tales We Tell Ourselves
Our uniquely human ability to make sense of and create meaning from memories defines and shapes the identities we create throughout our lives. As we move through our life's inevitable ups and downs, successes and failures, maturation and aging we continuously construct and reconstruct our identities. A coherent narrative is one that makes sense of our life history and it's impact on our present functioning. Narrative is the comprehensive integration of our life's past experiences with our ongoing awareness of the ways we shape and grow our future.
Our self-concepts form and are formed by the narratives we tell ourselves each and everyday. When we share our life story it can take many forms, depending on which vantage point or perspective we choose. Some self-concepts are expansive and creative while others are limiting, and may have formed to help us survive. If our narrative is saturated with worries, fears, or traumas, other more empowering narratives may be lost from our vision.
In my work with sexual abuse survivors I see many individuals who have developed a deep-rooted negative self-concept in response to the horrific acts perpetrated against them. Some have internalized the violation as a reflection of their worthiness, rather than a reflection of the perpetrators character flaws. "If only I was, or had (fill in the blank) this would not have happened to me." This negative self-concept grew from an unconscious attempt to give meaning or coherence to the inhumane act (while continuing to go on surviving), and takes the form of a belief which in turn shapes ones narrative and is replayed on a daily basis.
Until we unpack this narrative and the ways that it is undermining us we may inadvertently send the message to others that we don't believe we are of value, leading to a self-reinforcing feedback loop resulting in un-conscientious others treating us disrespectfully and worse; in other words a continuous loop of self-concept, belief, narrative and enactment may be played out. It is when we are able to courageously reflect on and restory our narrative, from a place of resilience and strength, that we move from the embodiment of victim to that of survivor.
It takes repetition and perseverance to form new neuropathways, and to be clear, there is other work to be done to support the integration and healing of trauma, yet how we form our narrative is an important aspect and not to be overlooked. If our narrative tells us we are resilient, we are much more likely to be resilient.
Making sense of our narrative goes beyond words and concepts to include the engagement of all of our senses. We are integrating memories with an embodied sense of self while creating a coherent narrative.
The following is an exercise to help bring awareness to how we embody self-concepts and beliefs:
Begin by bringing to mind a limiting belief you hold about yourself. Choose one that is not too painful or the result of a recent and unprocessed trauma.
State the belief out loud.
What do you sense in your body as you hear yourself state the belief?
Is there a feeling of tightening or constriction present anywhere?
A lightness, heaviness, tingling, warmth, coolness... what sensations do you notice? What else is present?
If the sensations are overwhelming stop, feel your connection to the ground, look around and notice that you are safe, then bring focus to an object in your surroundings, or follow your breath.
If you are not overwhelmed, as you continue to bring awareness to these sensations ask yourself how might this narrative be limiting you?
Explore whether this belief is a fixed belief or a fact.
Next, rather than focusing on the limiting aspects of the belief focus on what you have learned by living with these limitations.
Are there any strengths, skills, or knowledge you have gained by surviving the events that formed the belief? This is not to diminish any suffering you experienced, rather to look from another vantage point for any gains.
Now try reframing your belief from the perspective of what you have gained.
These strengths, skills, and knowledge have served you in some way, you might even think of them as your superpowers.
Notice what sensations are present in your body as you state your new belief aloud?
Is there a feeling of tightening or constriction, or perhaps one of expansion?
Is there a lightness, heaviness, tingling, warmth, what other sensations do you notice and how do they differ from those present when you stated the initial belief?
Take some time to reflect on your experience.
"We can move from being a passive recipient of painful events to becoming the empowered authors of our own life stories." - D.J. Siegel, MD
We can't change the past, but we can change how it is impacting us. With practice we can learn to quiet our mind and release our attachment to the narratives we tell ourselves, especially when they are defining and limiting. Expanding our sense of self-concept, rather than adhering to rigid definitions of identity, creates a greater range of possibility and liberation in every moment.