Imagine you were given only one book to read as you grew up and it was a story you had to read over and over to the point you knew it inside out.
I wonder how many dedicated bookworms are cringing at the thought? The fortunate among us will have enjoyed books of all different kinds, giving us insights and escapes into exciting worlds, from the time of the dinosaurs to new adventures at Hogwarts.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that the stories we grow up with help to shape us just as our parents, teachers and peers do. I’ll never forget PG Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde bringing the joys of literature to life for me.
Over the past month, I’ve been thinking about how we are also shaped by the less pleasant stories that show up in our minds. You probably have some of your own. They tell you that you’re not good enough; they constantly compare you to others; and no matter if you achieved 95% in the exam, that pesky voice will pop up and make you feel terrible about the 5% you failed to score.
Working with clients, I noticed that encouraging self-compassion can be a difficult challenge, especially for young people fraught with anxiety as they transition into adulthood feeling like they have to get everything right to keep that inner voice quiet.
It dawned on me that the reason self-compassion is difficult for some is because they’ve been told the same “not good enough” story for so many years that they have no idea how to be kind to themselves. “I can’t be kind to myself; I haven’t done enough to deserve it.” It’s heartbreaking to hear their stories. Where I can see so much to appreciate and celebrate in a person, they see only flaws and failure. To address this, I came up with an exercise called, “Change the Story, Live Your Values”.
I realised that for people working towards being kind to themselves, it’s helpful to have a new story to work from – one that they write for themselves, rather than the same old “not good enough” story they’ve been told over the years.
The gist of the exercise is to take five “chapters” that a person has grown up with. These are usually in the form of extreme rules or criticisms they’ve heard repeatedly such as, “You can never fail”, “Everything needs to be perfect”, “You’re always messing things up”.
The person writes their five chapters under the title, “Their Story” or “The Old Story”. From there, he/she rewrites these five chapters under the title, “My Story” or something more creative. So “You can never fail” becomes, “It’s OK to make mistakes – acknowledge, learn, forgive”, and so on.
The person rewrites these in their own words in a style that resonates with them. One client used humour to great effect, reminding me that laughter can play a vital role in healing.
Reframing thoughts isn’t a new idea – it’s been a prominent technique in psychotherapy for a long time. The difference in this exercise is twofold: Firstly, the rewriting needs to resonate with the client personally. I get them to explain what each new chapter means to them before we move on.
Once all the chapters are rewritten, we then work on how they can bring their new story to life, step by step, in a way that honours who they are and what’s important to them. This encourages them to think of their new story as a living, evolving creation rather than simply a few inspiring words on a page.
Like all good stories, there’s a twist. Whenever the person feels that they’re making progress in one of their chapters, they then delete the corresponding chapter from the old story (the one they grew up with) until they find themselves working on their own new story in full. This exercise is helpful because it acknowledges the lifelong thoughts and beliefs that tend to hold us back from living a meaningful life. It doesn’t pretend that everything’s fine if only we’d wish it were so.
It also reminds us that the old story doesn’t go away. It might still crop up from time to time and that’s OK. Physically deleting the old story doesn’t deny its existence; it symbolises that we’re ready to write a new adventure in which we learn who we are and resolve to live courageously in line with how we wish to be and what we want to stand for. Just as we can’t find out what happens to Wilde’s Dorian Gray by reading the same chapter over and over, we have to be willing to move on from the pages of our past and write our new chapters, one line at a time.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.