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.

High and Low

Sometimes a moment is all we have, and sometimes it’s all we need to bring us back.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the moment in this photo was a turning point. I felt strong and beautiful and free, and that was all that mattered. What came after was really hard.

For the next few years I struggled with a series of events, creating an internal turmoil that made me question much of what I thought I knew about myself. I gradually felt weak and ugly and trapped, and I felt lost.

But I remembered who I once was. I remembered how I felt in the moment of this photo and in millions of other moments in my life, strong and beautiful and free, and I knew I could get that back.

I did get it back.  And if you are lost, know that you can get it back, too.

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In response to the weekly photo challenge: Atop

A Moment to Myself

I enjoy time alone. In fact, I crave it. Solitude is a personal joy that is essential to my wellbeing. In solitude I am free from judgment, obligation, and expectation, aside from the conditions I create for myself. Retreating to a place of solitude renews me.

Only when I am left to focus on my inner most thoughts and ideas do I feel like I know who I am. I have enough peace in those moments to ponder the thoughts that follow me through the days, to replay the memories stored away, to make sense of my emotions, and to find meaning in the array of ideas and wonderment that floats around in my mind.

I often find myself feeling my own pressures to spend solitary time on responsible and productive tasks and begin to feel the weight of guilt as a consequence. Then I look outside and see my dog Sid, lounging in the sun. He watches the birds and squirrels, looks for treasures, smells and nibbles the plants and flowers, takes naps. It does not matter that he is outside alone, that the other dogs have opted to spend their time elsewhere. He is happy in his solitude and often seeks it out when indoors becomes a little too chaotic and disruptive. Sid finds peace in having a few free moments alone, and he reminds me to do the same. He reminds me that being alone with only ourselves for company is necessary and often a saving grace when we crave a little extra peace. For both of us, solitude is source of happiness.

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In response to the Weekly Photo Challenge
Solitude

Imposter

I am not who everyone thinks I am. And it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out.

When my manager told me she is expanding our department and hiring new people, I had a thought that maybe she was planning to fire me.  Maybe she had realized I’m not as good at my job as she previously thought and was hiring my replacement.

Last week I returned to work from vacation to find that my manager submitted my name for an award. Her submission said:

“Although I should be used to it by now as she is so consistent, Jamie is constantly surprising me by how she kicks every project up a notch and follows through with a countless number of requests and projects, completing them better than I would have myself. Jamie, not everyone could be able to handle as much as you do, especially with such poise and high levels of success. Thank you for all you do!”

I read it a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. My internal reaction was:

blog“Does she really believe this about me? My contribution is small, and my work is by no means amazing. If she really knew my work processes and took a closer look at what I’ve produced thus far, I’d probably be in trouble instead of being nominated for an award.”

My immediate reaction was to discredit the kind and complimentary words from my manager about myself and my work ethic. I began trying to reason away the award nomination in my head because what I read could not be the truth.

Does any of this sound familiar? This is Imposter Syndrome.

I first discovered the concept via author Brene Brown. Imposter Syndrome is feeling like a fraud.  You believe others see you as being better than you truly are, and you think that eventually people will find out and realize you are a fraud.

I experience this in both my professional and personal life. Realizing this is a phenomenon that many other people experience left me feeling less alone. During an office book club meeting, I mentioned Imposter Syndrome and everyone perked up, unfamiliar with the term. I explained the meaning and immediately saw the change in their faces. A few people spoke up. “I experience that every day.” “I thought that was just me.”

Imposter Syndrome sounds ludicrous logically, but it’s very real. Recent research suggests that both women and men struggle with this and that people from all walks of life are susceptible. Neil Gaiman, Maya Angelou, and Tina Fey have all opened up publicly about their own fears of “being found out.”

In learning about all of this, I realized I can tackle these thoughts and turn them around. There are a variety of tactics you can use to manage your feelings of being a fraud, but here is what helps me:

  • I remind myself that every day I aim to be the best person that I can be, and I am enough.
  • I remember that people are entitled to their own opinions. If my manager truly believes that I am doing great work, why discredit her? She is smart enough to make her own judgment.
  • I think about all of the compliments I have received in my profession and personal life. Not all of them can be wrong about me, so I aim to internalize those compliments and own my successes.
  • I remind myself to stop comparing myself to others.
  • I remind myself that it is the Imposter Syndrome talking, and I silence the fear-based, self-deprecating thoughts. They are not the real me.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. I am still reacting to the imposter thoughts rather than getting in front of them and heading them off at the pass, but I am making progress.

Do you experience Imposter Syndrome? How do you cope with and manage these thoughts?

 

Photo via VisualHunt.com