Did you know that each of us is an author, a storyteller? Brene Brown tells us that “the most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves — but beware – they’re usually fiction”.
Do you know that we possess an imagination more creative than we believe possible? Best selling author, Caroline Myss is renowned for her work in the field of energy medicine. She offers very powerful examples of how we use our big wild imaginations to create the most anxiety-inducing worst case scenarios but fail to apply that same creativity to hope, best case scenarios and problem-solving.
The recent 21-day Chopra Meditation Program entitled “Getting Unstuck” echoed similar sentiments — that we are the author of every moment we live. What narratives do we tell ourselves about our life history and current experiences that prevent us from moving forward and expanding our perspectives? Are we stuck in the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves?
Here are some examples of places we can be stuck:
- complaining about the same things day in and day out
- self-defeating self talk
- a wild imagination that only amplifies our anxieties
- lost in thoughts about the past or the future
- not accepting reality and relying on magical thinking
A few years ago I was trapped in some serious rumination. I was stuck reviewing a past that could never be changed no matter how much attention I devoted to it. The cycle often distracted me throughout the day and it definitely led to sleepless nights. So, yes I have firsthand experience with being “stuck” and with breaking free.
I credit the psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, for teaching me how the brain develops a “reward system” for these habitual but unhelpful mental loops. While we unconsciously retreat to these mental comfort zones, any peace we find there is short-lived. And then that cycle begins again. As he explains, neurons that fire together, wire together.
People can spend years trapped in those negative thought patterns, stuck not by choice, but by habit. Struggles with self-worth, abandonment issues, co-dependency and PTSD are all rooted in the stories we have written around our past and the natural tendency of the brain to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy on negative thought patterns.
Being stuck, whether it is a small and short term matter, or an over-arching long term life pattern robs us of the present moment, of the love we desperately want but are unable to see or feel, of the connections to others that buoy us through all of life. Unknowingly, our stuck-ness also often creates collateral damage.
From personal experience and both sides of the fence, I can share that others get exhausted from offering support but seeing no real change or break-through from negative patterns. People get tired of hearing the same complaints. Eventually, they are worn down to the point of snapping when they don’t mean to, or growing resentful or even pulling away altogether. These collateral damage responses “feed” the self-fulfilling prophecies of the stories we tell ourselves. They confirm that we are unworthy, that we need to do more, or that we will be abandoned.
Another aspect of collateral damage is the highly contagious effect of negativity. We feed off of each other’s energy. Neurobiologically we are hardwired to find negative energy the stickiest of all. Have you ever noticed how someone’s bad mood can shift an entire family experience? Take a ride in the car with a family when just one member is throwing out some negative vibes and watch what happens. Best real life neuroscience experiment ever.
I recall telling a guy I cared about that I was not going to buy a ticket for the merry-go-round anymore when it was apparent that our relationship was stuck in a pattern of negativity. We just kept having the same conversation over and over. It was every bit as dizzying as an on-going merry go round ride to have the same issue crop up but never change how we handled it. Sometimes we just need to stop. Step back and fully take in the pattern. What is the story that we are telling ourselves and then ask “is it true?” (Thank you Brene for such a great tool.)
Elizabeth Lesser reminds us “tell me where you focus your attention and I will tell you who you are”. In the case of being stuck – either short-term or long term – consider this: “tell me where you focus your attention and let’s figure out where you are stuck.” Surprisingly, sometimes we honestly believe we are not getting what we want or need from others, but we actually are. It is our “stuck-ness” that is blinding us to seeing and receiving the gifts of love, time, attention, and encouragement. Re-writing our narratives can have a powerful transformational effect.
The day I realized that ruminating about the past was never going to produce a different ending to my story, I embraced the breakthrough and began to re-write my narrative. The shift in perspective was the equivalent of moving a giant boulder out of my path. I was free to move on, without dragging the past around. The circumstances could not be changed but my framing of it most certainly could. Yes, I was hurt and yes someone else’s actions caused a lot of pain and suffering. What did I learn from those experiences? Could I have made better choices? Could I have trusted my intuition? Could I have established boundaries? Was I still playing a role I had assumed in my childhood even though I was now decades older? Ah, yes — the answers I got to those questions set me free from rumination. I moved from feeling like a “victim of someone else’s unresolved pain” to a better informed “me”. I committed to regular meditation practice to re-wire my brain and break free from the strong urge to fall back into rumination. This was a gamechanger for me. I began to sleep soundly and I found that I broke the spell of being attached to a very sticky past.
My daughter and I were recently chatting about the day to day routine of life and how especially in the past year of Covid, it all gets so monotonous. The reality is that laundry needs to get done, bills need to get paid and meals need to be cooked and eaten. We can easily get stuck focused only on the boredom. A tool I learned from mindfulness was to “reframe a situation.”
An old memory came to mind and I shared this story with her: I was in my early 40’s and stuck in the hamster wheel of the daily life grind. One morning I realized that on my commute to work, at the very same intersection each and every day, I would rest my head on the steering wheel of my bright blue Achieva and lament “I am soooo tired.”
After several weeks of this, it suddenly dawned on me that I was stuck and I had this little chat with myself:
“You have been saying this very same thing every day for weeks, at this very same place — and girl, it is getting you no where but even more tired. Something’s gotta change!”
The next morning, as I put my foot on the brake pedal of my blue Achieva at that very same intersection,I decided to change my self-messaging. I did not lay my weary head on the steering wheel. I looked out at the sunlight streaming through the canopy of trees. I proclaimed outloud “I love my life and my family.” I made a promise to myself that I would state that positive affirmation every day at that intersection.
Little did I know just how meaningful that shift in attitude and perspective would become. Those ongoing daily tasks were contributing in many positive ways to my family and were my expressions of love for them. My relationship to them changed from draining to rewarding — and my energy got in sync with that positive reframing.
As I shared with my daughter, another trick I would occasionally use back then was to imagine someone else having my life. Would they be grateful for the very things I was complaining about? Often giving myself that kind of perspective was all that I needed to put a little gratitude in my attitude.
What I love about these conversations with my daughter is that it reveals how from one generation to the next, little has essentially changed about building independent adult lives and raising children Babies grow through all their stages the same as they have since the beginning of time.
However, so many aspects of our contemporary daily life has dramatically changed. Technology alone has had a major impact, good and bad. My daughter and I both recognize that we can easily get “stuck” to our phones and get caught up in the drama, energy and emotions of news cycles or the latest post. We’ve had some very good conversations about how even the news cycle gets “stuck” and how we see others getting “stuck” based on their social media feeds. Once you become more enlightened about ways that we get “stuck” you start to see the patterns popping up everywhere.
After more than a year of quarantine, when I see people out for dinner, shopping or having coffee meetups, I’m so surprised to find most folks are staring at their phones — not the faces of their friends and family, not looking around and taking in the music, the conversations, the collective energy of others. They are stuck, held captive by a phone that they can stare at all by themselves at home alone. What do we miss when we are not paying attention to all that is around? What fun things could we be taking in if we turned our attention away from the phone. If you have ever drank your entire cup of coffee and then realized that it was empty but you weren’t even aware that you drank it, then you know just what I am talking about. Remember what you long for about the old “normal” and steep yourself in that when you are out and about.
Deepak Chopra shared another compelling example of where we can get stuck. He termed it a “second hand experience”. In other words, we acquiesce the essence of a present moment to someone else. We let another person become the author of our experience. He offers the ways in which this can happen:
- when we do what someone else tells us to do
- when we live up to someone else’s low expectations
- when we do things that are not really true to who we are
Often in these situations, we will feel unsettled, frustrated and pressured. We feel a sense of relief when we can get out of that kind of influence and can just be ourselves. There have been numerous times in my life when I felt this way and now I am aware that the cause was my strong desire to be accepted, or to ensure someone else’s happiness at my own expense. Having boundaries prevents these experiences from recurring. Paying attention to our internal “warning signs of discomfort” helps us to get back on track and to enjoy life firsthand.
Deepak offered this awesome insight: “One reason people are thrilled to fall in love is it feels new, exciting and original. You should have some flavor of that in your everyday experiences too. If you can say, I love this moment even when nothing big is happening, you are enjoying first hand experience.”
There is no one better at first hand experiences than my brother. He is such a positive guy and extremely grateful for moments that many of us take for granted. Being around my brother is like having a magnifying glass to ensure that you don’t miss one drop of the good stuff that life is doling out. Whenever I need a reminder to change my perspective or reset my vision, I just think of him. I’ve come to realize that the reason he is so resilient to all that he has weathered in his life has come from his continual harvesting of gratitude. Dr. Rick Hanson tells us that if we can just hold onto those moments of joy for 30 seconds — in the moment they are happening, then we create a reservoir of resilience for the future.
So many people are feeling overwhelmed these days with the ongoing uncertainties that we are collectively experiencing with Covid, quarantine, working from home and more than a year of virtual school. We are all feeling the effects of the strain in one way or the other. It is easy to get “stuck” and it is easy to get writer’s block about our life experiences and the stories we tell ourselves. In a recent Dare to Lead podcast, Brene Brown and her guest, Dr. Angela Duckworth, confirmed that there has been a very sharp rise in mental health issues over this past year.
Take heart that we are not alone when we get stuck, struggle or just become listless. So much honest conversation about what we are collectively feeling is supporting our efforts to break free from old stories and mental loops. Take advantage of the many tools, therapy and friendships that support our efforts to reframe experiences and expand our perspectives.
There may never be a better time to revisit our old narratives and give them a “refresh”. We can use this time as a springboard to write a healthier, honest and evolving life story.
Places I find inspiring, encouraging and chock full of good ideas for perspective taking:
TYPOLOGY PODCAST with Ian Cron
Awesome episode with David Nurse, NBA Life & Optimization Coach and author of a new book entitled Pivot & Go. We can all draw from his coaching and learn to “pivot” when we need a new field of vision.
DARE TO LEAD and UNLOCKING US PODCASTS
–Both are hosted by the dynamic Brene Brown, free on Spotify
Check out the latest Dare to Lead Episode with Dr. Angela Duckworth for a relatable conversation about trying new things and perspective taking:
DR. RICK HANSON, Author of Neurodharma is my go-to resource for a rare combination of neuroscience and mindfulness. He’s relatable, informative and encouraging. Here’s an endorsement from Lori Gottlieb that captures the essence of his game-changing book:
LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSELLER • “An easy-to-follow road map for creating day-to-day inner peace in today’s increasingly complex world.”—Lori Gottlieb, MFT, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
In this Youtube video, Dr. Hanson offers the 7 practices that enhance higher levels of happiness in our lives.
Oprah Magazine – Brene Brown, author of Rising Strong https://www.oprah.com/omagazine/brene-brown-rising-strong-excerpt
Greater Good Magazine – How Anxiety Hides in Your Habits https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_anxiety_hides_in_your_habits