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.

Optimistic Doesn’t Mean Unrealistic: Defending Pollyanna

“When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.”
Pollyanna, 1960

Perhaps the opposite is also true. When you look for the good, not just in mankind but in all aspects of the world, you will find it. Maybe the message is simple idealistic drivel. But maybe it’s not.

If you haven’t seen Disney’s 1960 film “Pollyanna,” watch it. It’s a feel-good film (originally a book) I loved as a kid and recently watched again when I was feeling a bit drab and needed a boost of happy sustenance. The premise: a young girl recently orphaned comes to stay with her estranged aunt. Her optimism and positive outlook about all things in life rub off on the town’s inhabitants and change the community for the better.

The story of Pollyanna speaks to the cynicism and disillusionment that slowly seeps into our lives throughout adulthood.   Pollyanna experiences hardship but chooses not to dwell on it. She is young and initially seems naive, but she proves to be wiser than her years and ultimately serves as a reminder to the adults around her of a more hopeful and positive perception of life. She is a reminder to us as well.

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Struggle happens. Bad things happen. The doldrums and frustrations of daily life happen. When they do, we have a choice. We can choose to sulk and sink or we can choose to survive and maybe even thrive.

Pollyanna chooses to focus on the good things in life. The film is a positive reminder to me to look for the good. I feel lighter after I watch it, which is why I was surprised to learn that the term “Pollyanna” has gotten a bad rap in some circles. What was I missing?

Various dictionary definitions of Pollyanna include someone with “irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything,” someone who is “excessively or blindly optimistic,” and also “unreasonably or illogically optimistic.”

Since when can someone be TOO optimistic? How can optimism be illogical? This is actually a thing?

Okay, so I admit that sometimes an optimistic person can be annoying in the wrong moment. Sometimes when things are hard, the “bright side” seems ludicrous.

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But the concept of the Pollyanna character is not one of annoyance and illogic. In addition to the misguided definitions above, there are a couple of psychological premises that are responsible for Pollyanna’s tainted reputation. Here is a little more insight.

The Pollyanna Principle is “the tendency for people to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones.” (Wikipedia) It also refers to the tendency we have to remember negative experiences less negatively as time passes. So, we have selective memories and wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to the past.

When I think of Pollyanna however, I’m thinking of the present moment. What are the good things in front of me right now?

Then there is the concept of unrealistic optimism, also known as the Pollyanna Syndrome, in which people believe that negative events are less likely to happen to them than to other people. You are immune to bad luck, maybe a little invincible.

Sometimes people see what they want to see. They avoid the truth of the situation because it serves as an excuse for their behavior and/or shields them from facing a harsh reality. This is denial. This is you not being honest with yourself.

But this is not what I think about when I think of Pollyanna. Pollyanna was realistic. She paid attention to the world around her and never believed she was immune to bad things happening to her. Bad things did happen to her! (Watch the movie.) She was just trying to live her life in the best way she knew, the same as the rest of us.

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I prefer the Urban Dictionary definition of Pollyanna: “An internal optimist in the face of adversity (reality).” Nailed it!

Being optimistic is not the same as being unrealistic. On the flip side, being pessimistic does not equate to being realistic. Looking for the good doesn’t mean ignoring the bad. It is a way of interpreting the world, of dealing with the challenges life presents to you. We may need some time to mentally and emotionally come to terms with the surmounting obstacle in our lives. In those moments and in so many other moments in our lives, we have to look to ourselves for the good, to find strength and faith in ourselves.

Pollyanna represents a perception, a way of thinking, and a choice that we all make every day to look for the good or to focus on the bad. Bad situations happen; the key is to not let them take you down for the count. You look for something else to hold on to and keep you afloat, to make your world less dark and dreary from day to day.

Be present in the world around you. Find comfort in the fact that not everything is bad and falling apart. There is always something good to see and/or feel. I know this is easier said than done. It takes lifelong practice. But why would you want to be any other way?

Look for the good and you will surely find it.