The Stories We Tell Ourselves

We have beliefs about ourselves to which we hold on tightly. We build a sense of identity around them as if they are truths set in stone. We tell ourselves stories that support our identity and behave in ways that support what we believe to be true, even if that truth is a dark one.

After high school I left home, embarking on a new journey. Many of my friends did the same, scattering to new places all over the country. The path my friend P took however could not have been more opposite from mine. While freedom and possibilities stretched out before me as I started college, P faced five years of imprisonment in the state penitentiary.

P grew up without much parental guidance. His father was often absent from his life. His mother struggled to make ends meet and to care for P’s much younger sisters. P helped his family out by stealing and selling drugs. He dropped out of school at an early age, opting for a street education instead. His lawless activities gradually escalated in nature, as did his mentality. It shaped who he was, who he believed himself to be.

P was a good and loyal friend, and he had a big heart.  While he was in prison, we corresponded through written letters. He always decorated the envelopes with intricate drawings, often of flowers intertwined together by vines of sharp leaves and thorns. I got one every couple of weeks and wrote him back almost immediately. His stories about life on the inside were minimal, but the darkness and hardness of the place emanated from all of the things he didn’t say.

More importantly though, were our philosophical discussions about human nature and being positive and optimistic. P’s life in prison was exposing him to time and experiences that made him seriously question who he was and who he wanted to become. In every letter I wrote, I poured out an immense bounty of positive messages, energy, and encouragement. I wanted desperately for him to change for the better, to emerge from prison with the intention and the willpower to turn his life in a positive direction, and I knew he wanted that, too.

His letters indicated that he was hearing me, taking our conversations to heart. But then he sent me a letter that woke me to the truth. P got a tattoo while in prison. It was of a demon, and it covered his entire chest. When P looked in the mirror every day, he saw his own face, and then he saw the face of the demon, reinforcing what he believed to be true about himself – that he was a bad person.

Sometimes we believe something to be true about ourselves for so long that it feels too hard to test that certainty and see if our belief is still true. It’s easier to simply go on believing and existing in the reality we have constructed for ourselves in our own minds. I could not change P with a handful of letters. I could not unravel the story he had been telling himself for most of his life. Only he could change that story.

The news of P’s tattoo broke my heart. I felt like I had lost him. I continued my letters of positivity and encouragement, however. Once he was released from prison, he never went back. I’m glad for that, but his internal struggle didn’t end there. After he was out, we talked regularly about his questionable ethics and morality evident by the choices he had made and was still making. Eventually it became too much for me, and as I pushed to keep that darkness out of my life, our friendship faded away.

What are the things about yourself that you “know” to be true? Ask yourself why you believe these things and question their validity. We should always be questioning ourselves and the truths we hold so close. After all, we are the ones that constructed them.

We decide what defines us and what we see when we look in the mirror every day. Some of us see a demon, like P did, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We decide our truths, the things that define who we are, and we can decide to change them. We can change the stories we tell ourselves and be better.

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Be the Change

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”
-Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Some days in this world are harder than others. Some days there is more uncertainty and unrest. We shake our fists at the institutions, at the broken systems, and at each other. We rage against the injustice of it all. We yell and scream, unleashing an exhaustive amount of negative energy that wraps us in a fog and seeps into everything around us.

We draw lines in the sand. We distance ourselves from our family, from people we once called friends.   We subject ourselves to demoralizing media, and we feel isolated, powerless, and scared. We act out, set things on fire, and hurt each other. In our misguided displays of loss, anger, frustration, and fear, we deepen the darkness of the time. We make things worse.

If we want change, if we are inspired to take action, we have to start with ourselves. We have to take a step back and take a long hard look in the mirror. Are we behaving like the people we think others should be? Are we practicing what we preach? After all, we can’t expect others to follow a way of life that we do not follow ourselves.

The key is to set the example. If you want to influence change, do and be all of the things you think others should be. Lead and show others the way by exemplifying the character traits you value the most, such as honesty, integrity, tolerance, and kindness. Hold yourself to the same, if not higher, standards that you hold others.

When we are angry and frustrated, we want to be heard. We want others to listen to us. But when we feel those words and actions swelling up in our chests and rising up ready and desperate to explode out of us, it’s time to take a step back to gain some clarity. If we want others to listen, then we must do the same. Take deep breaths and listen to the wind, to the birds, to the rustling leaves. Listen to the sounds of home and comfort, to life happening around us, and calm your thoughts.

Then open your mind to the thoughts of others. One of the greatest things about being human is our ability to discuss ideas, to share and debate opposing viewpoints rationally and without raging at one another. Wipe away those lines in the sand and reconnect with others. Listen to your loved ones, your teachers. Talk and share your thoughts and ideas, but also listen. In listening, we open our minds to new possibilities.

Attempting to understand the perspectives of others helps us grow and gain insight. We are all walking our own unique paths, trying to follow a way of life that we believe is the best way. We make decisions based on the knowledge and experiences that have contributed to our individual perspectives and that have formed our ideologies.   We cannot all be wrong, and we cannot all be right.

If we believe others should practice tolerance, then we must practice as well. It is important that we look beyond the point immediately in front of us and try to understand the viewpoints of others, their experiences, their passions and belief systems. We then begin to better relate to each other.

We don’t like what we don’t understand. We are scared of the unknown, and we allow fear to push us in whatever direction it wants. Sometimes it pushes us to run away, but no matter how far or long we run, fear will be right behind us. If we want others to be brave and seek to understand, we have to do the same.

We have to face our fears. Fear is a powerful tactic, and throughout history it has been used as a tool of influence and control. We cannot let fear goad us into thoughtless action. We cannot let fear dictate who we are. We cannot let it lead us down a path of hatred and judgment and anger. We must learn about the things that scare us or that we don’t understand, deconstruct them and put them back together.

We are all fallible and must take responsibility for ourselves, even when we feel inclined to blame something or someone else. None of us like to be judged, especially by others who lack the knowledge and proximity to understand us. None of us feel good when we are treated as anything less than what and who we are.

It is the golden rule of human interaction to treat others as you wish to be treated. If we crave more kindness and compassion in this world, then we have to create it. We start by simply being kinder to the people we encounter. Love and kindness have a ripple effect. When we experience it, we are more likely to pass it on to others. The energy we put out into the world increases exponentially and eventually makes its way back to us.

Positive change starts with ourselves, but there are many direct social and community contributions we can make. Rather than let feelings of hate, fear, or self-righteousness control and weaken us, we can share and spread messages of love, kindness, and tolerance. We can teach our children to be tolerant and brave and guide them along the pathways of morality and compassion. We can educate ourselves on the needs of our community and take action, volunteer our time and skill sets to causes we believe in and wish to positively influence.

We must aim high and practice becoming the people that inhabit our visions of an ideal world. Bit by bit we can transform, and all of that love and light will radiate outward and warm the people around us. We have to channel our passion and energy into the things we believe in, and we have to do it in a positive way and productive way. Then we can influence change within our communities, our neighborhoods, our cities. Together, we can influence the world.

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Happiness Is a Risk

“Happiness is a risk. If you’re not a little scared, you’re not doing it right.”
-Sarah Addison Allen, “The Peach Keeper”

I hold my breath as I click “send” on my work email. It is out of my hands now. I have sent my project to the senior leadership of my division. I glance periodically at my email throughout the day, waiting for a response. I reassure myself that I did the best I could, and I remind myself that constructive criticism is not a bad thing. When the response comes, I am both surprised and relieved. The email begins, “Love it!”

At the end of last year, I initiated a serious job search. I had been with a company for 4 ½ years. I was loyal and committed to my team, but I no longer felt I was making effective contributions. My growth had stagnated, and I was simply maintaining my responsibilities. I made decent money and knew what to expect every day at the office, but I was utterly bored. My mom pointed out that there is something good to be said for a cushy job, and while she is right, I was unhappy in my complacency. I had potential to be doing something more, something bigger.

After applying for jobs for a couple of months, I got an interesting offer. I’d only ever worked for small start-ups, but this offer came from a well-established international corporation. I had no experience in this particular industry, and I had little to no experience with some of the responsibilities associated with the position. It was unfamiliar territory.

I spent hours thinking about it and conferring with my husband and my parents. Was the job the right fit for me? Would it be better stay where I am in the realm that I know? Ultimately, I knew what to expect in my current role where I wasn’t happy, and I knew I needed a change. I accepted the job.

I was terrified to submit my resignation. I had anxiety all day, waiting for the moment I could talk with my boss. We were close, and I dreaded telling him I was leaving. It was hard, and there were tears on both sides of the table, but I did it.

The things that excite us are often the things that scare us as well. We change jobs, get married, have kids. We change cities, move out on our own or move in with someone new. All of these things are scary because they involve risk. They change our direction and send us towards the unknown where many things can go wrong. But so many things can also go right.

My job change could have been a disaster, and I was prepared for that outcome. I am now three months into it, and while it has been hard, I am enjoying the challenges. I am setting higher standards for myself and the work I produce. I am developing new skills and abilities that contribute to both my professional and personal growth. I am navigating these new waters and making my way towards a more gratifying professional life.

We take risks in our pursuit of happiness. We consider our options, and when the potential rewards outweighs the potential consequences, we take the plunge, hoping the outcome leads to better quality of living in some way.

The biggest and scariest decisions I’ve made thus far in my life are the ones that have led me down a path to a happier life. None of them were easy. All of them were terrifying. All of them required change. Change is hard, regardless of your willingness or your adaptability, but we do it in pursuit of better lives for ourselves.

We know what our lives are like currently. We can stay complacent or we can pursue happiness.

If it’s worth it, take the risk! Take it and don’t look back.

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Photo credit: aspearing via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Risk

Still Hibernating

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Last year was entirely a season of change. I got married, finished graduate school, bought a house, renovated the house, and got a new job. You could say it was a whirlwind, a tornado even, of change. The turn of the calendars to the New Year was a true time of gratitude for me. Rather than focusing all my reflections on resolutions, I felt almost overwhelmed at times with thankfulness. My heart swelled. I even got a bit teary-eyed once expressing the intensity of my gratitude to my cousin over lunch.

Winter has mostly passed by my city this year. No freeze, no light snow flurries, not even sleet. And yet, I have been hibernating. The excitement of last year caught up with me and converted itself into exhaustion. I am a lark, but I have been sleeping in some mornings. I indulge in fatty comfort foods and desserts after a full meal. I snuggle with my dog on the couch binge watching Netflix. As soon as I get home from work, I trade my slacks for warm, fuzzy pajama pants and slippers. My desire to go out weekend nights is almost nonexistent, scheduling dates with my husband that wrap up early in the evening as I’m eager to get back home and return to my hibernation, even though it’s only 50 degrees outside.

With the coming of Spring also comes longer days filled with bursts of sunshine and then sudden downpours of rain. We free our homes from suffocating clutter and dust to let in more fresh air and space. We free our arms and legs from heavy clothing. We free our thoughts from the overwhelming desire to stay in bed and pull the covers over our heads once we hear the sweet songs of birds outside our windows as daylight dawns. We think about renewal and hope.

I am not yet ready for this. Spring will arrive soon, and I’ll welcome it with open arms. But for now, I wish to stay cozy in the shadows and comfort of hibernation.

 

Seasons