Although I started out January with a general goal of tending to myself better, I quickly honed in on my relationship with perfectionism.
I practiced catching myself before I fell into into perfectionistic tendencies, and I used and developed tools to help me be productive in healthy ways (check out posts 1-5 for some takeaway examples).
As I became much more aware of my tendency to hold myself to unrealistic or unhealthy standards, I came to understand that I was basing my ridiculous expectations in stories I told myself about myself. Some of these stories are positive and motivational (“I try to prioritize actions that align with my values”), but some are negative and don’t promote positive thinking (“I’ll never be good enough”). I figured that examining negative stories and attempting to change them for the better can only help me to achieve my four goals, so I’ll focus February’s tending practices on Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves. I’ll provide takeaway tools in each of the February posts that you can employ to change your own stories, but first I’d like to just acknowledge that we do tell ourselves stories.
What Do We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves?
It’s important to note early on in my Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves month that I don’t think changing stories is an easy or one-size-fits-all method. Especially for those of us with mental illness or chronic health problems, changing our experience is sometimes difficult or impossible. Arian Smith, of Uncover Your Joy, talks about this in his “How to Thrive with Mental Illness” interview with Kate Snowise on her podcast, Here To Thrive. To paraphrase, he reminds us that telling a person who experiences depression to just “be happy” isn’t helpful (or possible), and in fact is harmful and gaslighting. So, I don’t want to just tell you to change your stories to happy or easy ones.
Over my life I have developed a few stories about myself. Sometimes I get the better of these and can change them to a more productive and healthy story, but sometimes they get the better of me and they hinder my productivity and happiness. A few of my stories were or are:
- I am broken. I will never be good enough.
- I am a burden. Who would want to be partnered or friends with me?
- When I struggle, it is because I didn’t work hard enough or am just not good or smart enough.
- If my needs or desires are not met, I should accept that as what I deserve.
There are lots of reasons why I believed and believe these stories. Some were survival tactics that I developed help me me get through experiences of abuse or scarcity. Some were lenses that I adopted to cope with difficult or challenging situations. I thought that if I could blame my painful experiences on my behavior or attribute them to who I inherently was and am, then I could have some control over the situations.
Now, these stories relate to my sense of self worth, but they also influence my productivity, my relationships, my decision making, and the way I treat my body and mind. I don’t like these stories. They don’t feel nice. But it isn’t always easy to redirect my thinking about them.
I Am Broken
The stories I tell myself about my health and wellness are often: I am broken. I will never get better. No one understands. I am alone. These thoughts can rapidly switch over to: no one cares, I should suffer silently so as not to bother anyone, this is just how it is, and my go to: why would I expect anything better, as this is inherently tied to who I am.
I sustained an injury last summer from what I believe was repeatedly using the wrong posture on a spin bike combined with pushing myself too hard at working out. I had multiple examinations (MRI, X-ray, gynecological exam, physical therapy) to try to figure out what was causing my daily, sometimes excruciating pain, and the closest answers I got were a guess that I had bruised my tailbone (from a physical therapist who had experienced similar symptoms after she had fallen and bruised hers) and that my sacrum was stuck (from an acupuncturist and a massage therapist). The prognosis for healing from a bruised tailbone was a few months to a couple years–and the doctors weren’t even sure that it was bruised. Although my pain is manageable with the use of particular pillows and a standing desk, I still experience pain daily. But, my pain is invisible–you only know about it if I share it with you.
While this is the first chronic physical pain I have experienced, the feeling of being broken isn’t new to me. I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder about 5 years ago (interestingly, it corresponded with when I got sober). Most people have heard of PTSD; it’s the body’s reaction to a traumatic experience. Complex PTSD is similar, but slightly different, and it has different symptoms. You can read more about CPTSD here and here.
I am not private about having CPTSD. I write about it in my poetry (it is a recurring theme and sets the mood in my book, Ghosty Boo) and I have mentioned it in interviews. Sometimes, I don’t even remember that I have CPTSD. I can go weeks or months without having flashbacks. I know my particular triggers and I can usually avoid them or ask for trigger warnings, but sometimes flashbacks hit me suddenly and hit me hard, and I can have ones that last from 5 minutes to ones that are on-and-off for days. When this happens, I struggle with registering parts of conversations, such as sarcasm or abstract descriptions. If I am close to having a flashback, in a flashback, or recovering from a flashback, I might need to ask someone to repeat something they just said, to repeat an idea through a metaphor, to break things down into a list, or into a logical “if X, then Y” statement. When my CPTSD is activated, it can feel like people are speaking in a code I just don’t know how to break.
I know neither my injury or mental illness will suddenly go away. I also know that intentional compassion for myself and patience will help me both to learn to live with and will help me to slowly heal both things. I KNOW that I shouldn’t feel shame. But, sometimes the knowing in my brain doesn’t translate to the rest of my body. So, I use therapeutic and self-development tools to help me cope with these stories and to remember that my illness or pain do not define my experience.
Sometimes my stories about myself prevent me from achieving—or even trying for—my goals. Kate Snowise so kindly shared with the Reconnect & Reboot group Russ Harris’s “F.E.A.R. Model,” which really helped me to take a step back and examine my self-limiting beliefs. To briefly summarize Harris’s model, he asks us to list things we believe have held us back from accomplishing what we really want to do. He then asks us to connect each thing on our list to one of the following:
F = Fusion (stuff your mind tells you that gets in the way when you get caught up in it)
E = Excessive goals (your goal is too big, or you lack the skills, or you lack the resources)
A = Avoidance of discomfort (unwillingness to make room for the discomfort this challenge brings)
R = Remoteness from values (losing touch with – or forgetting – what is important or meaningful about this)
Harris also provides four D.A.R.E. tools that we can use to counteract the F.E.A.R. responses: Defusion strategies, Acceptance strategies, Realistic goal-setting, and Embracing values. He asks us to apply the D.A.R.E. tools to our original list of challenges.
If you don’t have time, energy, or interest to fully work through both the F.E.A.R. list and the D.A.R.E. responses, I’ll at least encourage you to check out the link to Harris’s instructions and try out writing a list and labeling it with F, E, A, and/or R to help understand your challenges in a new way. For example, my story “I am a bad traveller and so I will have to miss professional development opportunities” was tied to F (I will never be able to learn how to navigate a new city/fly/use public transportation), E (how will I ever save up $1,000+ for flights, hotels, conference registrations), and A (I am not sure how I will adjust my budget to save money; I don’t want to try new things that require bravery; what if I can’t find food and my food scarcity is triggered). Through this exercise, I was able to realize: I CAN feel comfortable going to conferences if I give myself adequate time to do the following three steps:
- Save up enough money to stay at a hotel close to the conference
- Do pre-research on local restaurants and grocery stores
- Ask for help from people who fly/use cabs more often than me
Remember to Be Kind to Yourself
I’ll spend all of February trying out and reporting back on practical tools you can use to change the stories you tell yourselves. For now, though, let’s acknowledge that simply listing the stories we tell ourselves can feel challenging, painful, or difficult. Here are two things that have helped me to be accepting of myself while I work out how to replace my negative stories with positive stories:
- Sara Blondin’s “Life is Kind” meditation (I accessed this on the free Insight Timer app)
- Sydney Axtell’s podcast, Burnt Out, which features interviews with women on the topics of work, growth, and how they experienced and coped with burn out.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
newsletter and free resources
Sign up below to access six free resources and my newsletter, tending.