The Stories We Tell Ourselves

storyofmylifeEver since I was a child I have been fascinated by stories and how we tell them. I would ask to be told fairy stories again and again and as I got a little older would retell them to my younger brother and sisters. I read avidly when I was young and have always loved stories with complicated multiple intertwined plots partly because they reflect life. Our own stories mix with others both dependent and independent of them and the complexity of our lives and the way we tell and retell our own stories thrills and excites me.

Perhaps that’s why I love my work as a therapist and why I am so drawn to writing. Everything and everyone is a story. It is a mixture of the truth, a perception of the truth and of pure invention. And when I say invention I do not necessarily mean lies, although of course some stories are told to deceive and to hide, but I am only too well aware our minds are curious things and when we do not see the full picture of a happening, we are liable for perfection’s sake, to create the rest of it within our head so that the narrative is complete and so that it makes some sort of sense. Stories are how we make sense of our world and we have told them ever since the birth of language over and over again.

In my work I hear many people’s stories. It is my job to help them make sense of them, maybe to help them tell them for one last time before choosing to tell a different story. Very often I don’t hear the full story, just part of it and like everyone else, I am tempted to make sense of it by completing it in my own head just to finish it in some way.  We all do this with the stories we hear from those around us because we tend not to like things unfinished. Stories are complicated and interwoven and rarely, if at all ever, the complete truth.

Stories always change in the retelling. My husband comes from a small town here in Scotland and it is a standing joke that if you tell someone you have a headache at the top of the town that by the time the story gets to the bottom of the town you’re dead and buried. As I have already stated, there really is no such thing as a true story. The details always get changed, some things get magnified, others forgotten and sometimes the essential truth of the story completely disappears. So it is sometimes with our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves about our own lives. We can leave out the good bits about our strengths, about our successes because it is “big-headed” and wrong to boast and the story we tell ourselves, about the person we are, can all too often be full of failure, weakness and tragedy. We become the victim in the story who has things done to them and who is mired in misfortune unable to save themselves and we wait for the knight on his white charger to come along and rescue us. Unfortunately not many stories have knights on white chargers in them and they are seldom to be found anywhere in life.

We are lucky though. One of the great things about stories, is that we can choose at any time to rewrite them. We can be the author of our own destiny and take responsibility for our own outcome. We can change the characters, we can change the plot and most importantly, perhaps, we can change the ending. Even when the story has been told and retold a million times in your head, you can make a choice to say enough is enough, I don’t like that story any more. Right there and then you can change it so that when telling it, you enjoy it more. Even more radically you can, if you wish, create a completely new story. How fantastic might that be? What would you put in it?

When you hear yourself say something along the lines of “I can’t…” or “I’m useless” remember this is just a story. It’s one you have told and retold yourself a million time. As with all stories, some of it or maybe all of it is made up. It simply isn’t true but appears to be because you have heard it again and again and so in your mind it becomes the truth. Perhaps now is the time to rewrite your story, to begin your very own “Once upon a time…” where you are the hero or heroine, where you triumph over adversity and you create your own destiny and even if it’s not yet a happily ever after it still becomes a story that is more satisfying and life-fulfilling.

My challenge to anyone reading this is to pick out a story you tell yourself again and again, to listen to it carefully and decide if it really does help you be the person you want to be. You have the power (and if you don’t you can get help) to retell your story the way you want, to re-create it in a new more exciting and appealing manner. You do not need to listen to the old version ever again if you do not want to and the more you retell your new story, the more it will become your truth and your reality. Your stories are incredibly powerful, so tell yours as you would want to hear them told to you.

 

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Monday Never Comes

september-calendar-2013Much of my work is with people who have weight problems and I often hear the refrain “I’ll do it (my diet) on Monday”. But I guess this is just as relevant for people with alcohol and drug problems, people with more serious eating disorders, with gambling addictions or even for some of us just trying to go to the gym regularly. It’s perhaps true for anyone attempting some sort of positive lifestyle change. In fact, the more I think about it, perhaps it’s true for nearly every one of us – maybe not all the time but at some time in our daily lives.

I wonder what it is about certain behaviours, particularly unhelpful and even unhealthy ones that allows us to put off committing to a change in our life that we know will allow us to feel better both physically and emotionally. And even when we have started making a change, small “failures” as we perceive them get magnified out of all proportion leading us to believe we may as well just give up, at least for now and pick up again next Monday. And next Monday never comes…

The more I think about my own behaviours the more I begin to realise that I do this too. It might not have the Monday idea but perhaps I say Tomorrow instead. That pile of paperwork I don’t feel like dealing with, the awkward phone calls I need to make, the heap of laundry that needs ironing and putting away, the kitchen bin that needs emptying. The putting off until Monday is only an extended version of the same type of thinking and behaviour. Are you now beginning to identify your own “next Monday” gremlins?

And I’d bet that like me you know when  you clear that pile of paperwork, when you make those calls and put your house in order that you feel better. I know that when I do, I am more relaxed, more motivated to do the other things that really do matter to me and I am more capable of being the real, authentic me with the people I love and and care for. My attention is not elsewhere with the things I am promising myself I will do next Monday. I know from somewhere deep inside me that pushing through the discomfort that comes with any task or change is liberating and brings with it a deep sense of satisfaction and well-being.

So what happens when we commit to a change in our lives, like reducing our weight or giving up smoking, and we hit a bump in the road and get diverted from our goal? That moment that a piece of food we are not meant to have gets eaten or that crafty cigarette gets smoked over a conversation with friends, we tell ourselves we have failed utterly, we tell ourselves we are useless and simply not worth it, that our goal was stupid in the first place and why are we bothering? Because we are right back at the very beginning and we have totally messed up!

In that very moment where these hundreds of destructive thoughts run through our heads we are just five or six years old and unable to tie our shoelaces even though we have been shown many, many times how to make bunny ears. So we throw the shoes across the room and say we can’t do it! And maybe mum or dad calls us over and does it for us. Someone else takes charge of the change we are trying to make and tells us it’s OK, we can try again later.

Of course, as a parent there are times to do this but if you do it all the time the lesson about pushing through the discomfort right here and now to learn something new perhaps never gets the importance it should. I’ve often read that if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you and there is a lot of truth in that simple statement.

But as an adult it is rare that someone else is going to take charge and do “it” for us whatever “it” is. More likely we will find that others are happy to sabotage our goals alongside us and tell us it doesn’t matter. Because maybe if we change, they believe, in most cases subconsciously but occasionally in full awareness, that we won’t be the person they want or believe us to be and it is easier to subvert our goals and not let us change and risk losing the person that they know.

All this leads me to ask another question about how we live. Particularly in our affluent western society we seem to have become averse to any form of discomfort. Whereas our grandparents and great-grandparents had an attitude after two world wars of “just getting on with it” we are used in our lives in the early 21st Century of having most of what we need for physical comfort and that sometimes replaces what we need for emotional comfort. We mask emotional discomfort with eating, smoking and other behaviours that actually leave us numb so we do not feel discomfort but also do not permit us to experience real joy and happiness either.

So what do I tell my clients who fall off the wagon and who are tempted to give up until next Monday or even all together? I ask them to remind themselves why they started, to look at what they have already changed and achieved. I suggest that in that moment to do something that takes them a small step forward towards their goal – even if that is just having a drink of water rather than eating more of what they have already had. It’s hard, I’m not pretending it isn’t.

Learning that it’s OK to be uncomfortable with what you have to do to achieve what you really want and that in the process it really is OK to mess up and learn how to put it right is a powerful lesson. So think of your own experiences as you read this. We are often prouder of what we achieve in adversity and through great effort than what happens to come easily to us. Pushing through difficulties and deciding not to leave things until next Monday when you believe you have failed and messed up is amazingly rewarding. You rarely regret trying something, regret is usually about not doing something.

I also ask them to consider this – if you drop your mobile (cell) phone on the floor, do you then jump up and down on it to finish the job off properly? No, you pick it up, brush off the dust and pop it in your pocket. When you begin to treat yourself in the same way, you won’t have to worry about next Monday.

 

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Happy Independence Day

independenceToday is Independence Day in the USA and it set me thinking what independence really means. For me, being independent means being able to make my own decisions and being able to determine what is right for me. It also means being able to recognise when I am not acting independently and when I choose to allow my behaviour to be influenced too much by others around me or by memories from the past.

Making My Own Decisions

Sometimes we have to make decisions about what is right for us even when that may mean upsetting people. This can be difficult if we like pleasing others and when we keep our own wishes and desires secret and don’t share them for fear of being ridiculed. We worry that our family, friends and work-colleagues “might” make adverse comments about our goals in life and about what we really want.  The importance of  living true to yourself disappears and you give away your independence to be you to others.

Independence Does Not Mean Being Alone
Independence for me means being responsible for yourself but it doesn’t mean you have to struggle on your own when things get difficult. It allows you to recognise when the going is tough and to ask for support. Sometimes life throws a curved ball and you need those around you to step up and take charge for a while and if they are unable, for any reason, to do this, being independent allows you to search out and secure the support that is right for you in your time of change.

Self-care, personal change and continued well-being is an Indepencence Day issue. I know from the work that I do, that the people who make great change and come through difficult times in their lives most easily, are the ones that are steadfastly independent and take responsibility for themselves through-out whilst at the same time counting on my support in the work we do together and on the support of others around them. Simply knowing there is someone who believes in you and is fighting your corner can allow you to be independent. And when life isn’t right for you, independence means you act now to start putting it right.

So what are you going to do for Independence Day? What decisions for your future and for your self-care are important today? I urge you all to be independent and celebrate being the person you are!

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When Change Smacks You In The Face

SONY DSCI’ve not written much in the last 10-12 days. I’ve had little inspiration to do so as my thoughts have been elsewhere. 12 days ago, Jason, my husband, took the dogs to our home in South-West Scotland while I stayed in Edinburgh to do some work and to go to my weekly meditation group. I drove down to spend the weekend with them on the Friday and when I got there, our 12 year old black Labrador, Finn, didn’t get up to greet me as he usually does. Jason said he’d been “quiet” since the previous day.

Finn is an old man. He has canine osteo-arthritis and is on daily pain relief medication and to some extent we already knew his time with us was limited. But I guess we were thinking maybe another year or, if we were lucky, perhaps a little more. It was there as a thought but somewhat indistinct. We talked about it between ourselves but the “when” didn’t really have substance. But right there and then it was very apparent that Finn wasn’t the same dog who had left Edinburgh on the Wednesday evening.  He was sitting staring into space and was very quiet and although he wasn’t distressed in any way he must have been in pain.

We decided there and then to increase the dosage of his medication and although that seemed to help, he was quiet all weekend and didn’t want to go on his usual walks. Just a week earlier he had been running in the sea with our dog Skip. Even an early morning trip to the beach didn’t help and he turned and started walking back to the car. Confronted by such a change in our dog, the “when” that we had not really discussed became very clear. Late on the Sunday evening Finn suddenly climbed up on to my knee and snuggled into me. He began to have some sort of seizure and both Jason and I thought he might die there and then. He didn’t but it took about two hours for his breathing to return to normal and for him to go to sleep. On Monday morning I made an appointment to see the vet and drove back to Edinburgh with the dogs while Jason went into the office.

The “when” was now right in front of us –  or so we thought! At 4.00pm it was time to go to see the vet. And Finn pranced into the waiting room like a two year old – somewhat out of breath but wagging his tail, head up and alert. The consultation was much the same, he’s always liked going to see the vet because he knows he gets a treat and she said that although our time together was definitely limited, she did not honestly think his time was up yet. So she prescribed Tramadol and said we should see a definite change within 48 hours and then we would know what to do for the best.

So Finn is now taking Tramadol, a potentially addictive opiate. He’s a bit spaced out at times but that could equally be old age. He is at least pain free, he still enjoys his food and is pleased to be with us for now. His exercise has been much reduced and his breathing is definitely a little laboured at times. I’d guess we have the rest of the summer at best to enjoy his company.

Of course we’ve told friends and family about Finn and some have said how awful and how sad it must be. But honestly it isn’t. In some ways we knew this time would come the very day we brought him home 12 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I will miss him horribly and when the day comes to say goodbye, it won’t be easy – but it will be right. We have had 12 amazing, wonderful years with our doggy friend and shared some of the best and some of the most difficult times in our lives with him. We could spend the next weeks worrying and thinking only of the last day of his life but we don’t. We’ve made a decision to enjoy the time we have and we love him enough that when the time comes to say goodbye, a small injection will be the kindest and most loving thing to do.

All this I have known for a long time but it’s taken me the last 10 days to find the right place for this change in my head. It reminds me that big changes change how you think and how you feel and sometimes bring you to a standstill for a while. But standing still is fine, it really is OK. It gives you a space to gather yourself in and to prepare to move forward again.  I think that’s what I have been doing the last wee while. I feel good with the decisions we have made and I’m very glad that Finn is here for a short time longer.

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Take A Different Route

Another great piece from my colleague Debbie:-

3459302692On the way home from visiting family on Sunday, a sign flashed up on the motorway that there were long delays on our route home. My husband and I looked at each other in frustration. It was already getting late and we were, or so we thought, keen to get home. I mentioned that there was a route we could take if we came off the motorway at an earlier junction, but I was not exactly sure of the way. We had, of course, left our sat nav at home, and had no map book in the car. Taking this diversion would be a real venture into the unknown.

He asked me whether I thought we should sit in the traffic, or take the other route. I thought about it. Sitting in traffic would be safe in one respect. We would know where we were going and would eventually get to our destination, albeit later than we had planned. However, I knew it would also be frustrating and uncomfortable sat in a car on a hot night, not moving or going very slowly.

On the other hand, if we took a different route, we might get lost or end up driving in circles. I was scared thinking about driving along unknown roads and we might still get to our destination later than intended (or worse, not at all!)

After consideration I told him to take the unknown route. It was a pleasant night, we didn’t really have to rush home and at least we would be moving. As I drove, we started to enjoy the scenery and saw places we had never seen before. We laughed and had a pleasant chat as we carried on and suddenly the time we got to our destination became less important. We made the most of the journey and before we knew it, we were home. Roughly at the same time we had originally hoped to be and with higher spirits then we might have been had we been sat in a car not moving for an hour.

As I reflected, I realised that sometimes we do not take a different route on our journeys, whatever they are in our lives, because we are scared of the unknown. Yet, we often get frustrated, uncomfortable and angry with the ‘safe and known’ path. As scared as we might be, if we don’t take a different path, what opportunities are we missing out on? How much more pleasant might our journey be?

So, if you are stuck going nowhere slowly, why not take a different route and who knows what might happen?

deborah.cripps@lighterlifecounsellor.com

 

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The Man Who Lived With Fear

Once upon a time there was a man who lived in a small village. He lived on his own in a large house since he was divorced and his children had grown up and had homes and families of their own. He wasn’t sad or lonely because he had lots of grandchildren who he loved very much and who he showered with affection, more than he had been able to with his own children which was common for a man of his generation and background. In many ways he was happy and content and he lived his life as he wished. He had a close circle of friends and spent a lot of time with them.

But this man had a secret. A secret that only his immediate family really knew about. He kept stuff, lots of stuff. Never got rid of it just in case it might be useful one day. It started after his wife left him. He loved her you see and I guess she loved him too but it was just one of those relationships that didn’t work and they had drifted too far apart for it to be mended. She met someone else who cared for her in ways her husband was unable to do and moved on with her life.

So the stuff started arriving in the house to fill the space that she had left. Spare furniture that no-one wanted, the odd bed, a single armchair and a scratched bookcase that perhaps would go to the salerooms one day. Then books, not shelves of them but boxes of them that people had read, or maybe not read, and didn’t love anymore. The man promised himself he would read them all and he did read many of them. But he returned them to their boxes and piles on the table just in case he decided he might like to read them again one day.

And so it went on. The furniture and stuff continued to arrive and at first he placed it in the attic bedrooms and there was still plenty of space. And as his family visited him, they commented that this stuff was starting to take over. But the man told them that it was his life and that some of his stuff was valuable you know or that it would be one day if he just held onto it long enough. And if pushed by his family he was likely to lose his temper so to avoid any discomfort everyone kept quiet and didn’t talk about the stuff. The stuff that arrived in boxes and bags or that was carried in through the front door and filled the rooms day by day as the years went by.

Before anyone had really realised it, the house was full, not full like you and I might think, but FULL!!! Cupboards full of stuff, ornaments, gadgets, board games, jigsaws, crockery. If it went in a house the man had it – in abundance. Five versions at least. No-one spoke about it. Few people went inside the house so no-one apart from the family really knew. The family were concerned but kept quiet because it was too scary to do something different. The man always said he wanted to get rid of the stuff but still more arrived so that one day there was only a little space left in the main living room and one bedroom of the four that could be used. Even the kitchen was full, and I mean FULL of stuff.

And the man was to all appearances happy and content. But occasionally, in quiet moments, he admitted he was overwhelmed by the stuff and it scared him. It scared him to live with it but it scared him even more to think about letting go of it. Because some of it might be valuable you know, because some of it had strong emotional attachments and brought back happy memories of years long gone. And the family talked amongst themselves and said “Something has to be done” but they didn’t know what.

Because it was scary to think how much work there was to do and how upsetting it would be for the man to have his stuff taken away. Because he had a temper to be reckoned with if he became frightened you were talking about getting rid of his stuff. And so even though it was scary to think about the future with all this stuff, it was easier to keep quiet and do nothing. Over the years fear came to live at the man’s house with all the stuff. The fear of living with it and the fear of losing it grew fatter and fatter as the stuff got more and more.

Then one day the man died. Suddenly and quietly in his sleep surrounded by his stuff.  Even his family who loved him were overwhelmed by just how much stuff there really was. It was hard for them to see the man that they loved had been surrounded by the fear of letting go, fear packed into cupboards and boxes in every corner of the house. They felt sad that they had been unable to chase out the fear because it had been easier to let the man live the way he had chosen but they couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like for the man without the stuff as they finally got rid of it all.

Now I don’t want to leave you with the idea that this man led a sad life. Because in many, many ways he didn’t. He loved and was loved which is perhaps the most important thing of all. He was generous to a fault at times and spent many happy times with the people close to him. But still at night he went home to the house full of stuff and lived with the fear locked away inside all his stuff because the fear of change was just too much to contemplate.

So when you find yourself facing a decision, wondering if you should make a change to your life and it seems a little scary or maybe a lot scary, remember the story of the man with the stuff. Will your decision, frightening though it might be, leave you living a life free of stuff or will it leave you just feeling comfortable with what you have right now but still afraid of the stuff you have not dealt with somewhere in the back of your head or even in boxes in rooms in your house? The decision is yours. Only you can decide. But I suspect the man might have done it differently all those years ago if he had known that fear lived and grew in all that stuff that he kept at home.

Written with much love and affection for the man who is no longer with us.

 

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When Calories Don’t Count

 

Or a weight manager’s guide to miscommunication
By Deborah Cripps

Over the last three years, I have worked with hundreds of clients to help them lose, and maintain, weight through lifestyle change. A lot of the work I do involves getting clients to think about whether the way they communicate with themselves and other people helps them achieve their goals. Often, the answer to this question is no. We are constantly deleting, filtering or editing information that we don’t want to know, choose not to listen to or prefer to ignore. Often the goal is one thing, e.g. to reduce our weight, but we miscommunicate with ourselves so that we either never achieve the goal, or take a long time to get there. Never more do I see this in evidence when I get clients to list all the times they tell themselves calories don’t count. Below is a list I have compiled over the years, I am sure it is not exhausted yet.

  1. It’s Christmas. Clearly all calories are removed from food on Christmas day, in fact food stops containing calories around the 1st December and is not put back into food until around the second or third week in January.

  2. It’s my birthday – the above rules apply, including anywhere from one or two weeks before and after the birthday, depending on the age being celebrated.

  3. The above rules also apply during any other bank holiday, someone else’s birthday, wedding and when away on holiday.

  4. Someone made it for me – no calories, fact.

  5. If you take it from someone else’s plate – the calories belong to them, so aren’t included in your daily allowance (children’s leftovers also fall into this category)

  6. The item is broken (normally relates to biscuits, two halves do not make a whole).

  7. The calories are not printed on the packet, or there is no packet – surely these foods contain no calories at all?

  8. You eat it when no one else is watching – no one can see you, therefore it doesn’t count.

  9. When you are preparing food – it’s all part of the process and included in your daily allowance.

  10. When calories are in liquid form – I’m not just talking about alcohol, but in full fat lattes, cappuccinos, soft drinks etc. These items are not chewed, therefore the calories don’t exist or count.

  11. An hour before and after exercise. Any calories consumed then do not count, regardless of what the exercise is and how long carried out. I run for the bus today, therefore I can eat this muffin.

  12. I skipped breakfast, lunch, mid-morning snack etc. Any food consumed if these conditions apply contain no calorific content at all.

  13. When eating standing up or on the move. Calories are instantly burned off.

  14. You eat it with your hands (i.e. not on a plate or without a knife or fork)

  15. If you have followed what you eat with something healthy, fruit, cottage cheese etc. These items counteract all of the calories in the food you consumed just before.

  16. When eating in front of the television, playing on our phone or during other distractions. Generally the mind doesn’t register these items and therefore only food we sit down to eat at a table counts.

These are just a few I come across every day. Of course the reality is that calories do count in everything we eat. A pound of fat can be gained just by eating an extra 500 calories a day for a week and over the course of a year that adds up to nearly four stone (56lb for our US friends). In fact an extra 100 calories a day can lead to a 10-12 pound gain in a year.

So if you really want to maintain your weight, you really need to start with how you communicate with yourself.

deborah.cripps@lighterlifecounsellor.com

 

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