Each of us have familiar and automatic beliefs and reactions that have been with us before we had conscious memory. They tell us how to act and what to feel in response to certain situations. They inform us of who we are and direct our lives.
It never occurs to us to be curious or question these responses because they feel like “who we are.” The idea that these are something we learned in response to
neglect, trauma or less than good enough parenting never occurs to us. We never think that perhaps our ideas are not within the normal range.
I'm Just An Angry Person
Curtis works long hours and an evening at home is a treasured experience. He likes to spend the time with his family being quiet and talking. His teenage daughter invited friends to the house without checking if it fit into the evening plans. In his therapy session, he was talking about how angry he was and feeling guilty because he was irritable. He was giving himself a hard time for being angry because he believed that being angry is “just who I am.” As he told the story of how the evening unfolded, he realized that his anger was telling him that his boundaries had been violated. The visiting friends were being loud and disregarding the rest of the family. With this knowledge he created a plan to have a conversation with his wife and daughter about family planning so that everyone’s needs can be respected.
At first glance, Curtis’ response did not seem related to his past, but upon closer examination, his history revealed that he was the person who carried the family’s anger. His father was away from home working and his mother was a militantly
happy person. His older sister, like mother, was happy and successful. She excelled at everything she did and was given praise and acceptance. Curtis was not successful, and was easily disappointed. When he was not successful, he was not given help and support, and as a preteen found relief in drugs and alcohol. He was a very angry teenager and was identified as the problem in the family. He was given the message that he was an angry person so he believed angry was “just who he was.” His created a separate part of himself that helped him survive what was, for him, an unsafe family where he did not feel understood, supported or attached.
Curtis needed to create a new story of safety, closeness and compassion. Just as our brains are able to create different parts to help us survive, it can create a new story for us now by evoking feelings of well-being, safety and love. These stories are created our of real and imagined experiences.
Learning From Books
Tina loved to read as a child. She would find characters that she could admire and emulate. One of her favorite books was Little House on the Prairie. In the Ingalls family, she saw love and kindness. She read about a family that worked together to survive and treated one another with respect. She was able to imagine being with
that family and being treated with love. She believes that she learned important life lessons from the books she read rather than in her family.
For our brains to create a new story it takes three things. These sound simple but they are not. To do these three things consistently will be one of the hardest things you ever do.
1. Interrupt old habitat emotional, physical and cognitive patterns.
Do you habitually criticize yourself by telling yourself that you are bad or stupid when you make a mistake? Do you get angry with yourself when you find that you are unable to accomplish a task? Do you believe that you are an unworthy person and don't deserve to be happy and have good things in your life? These are old
patterns that keep you trapped in the past.
2. Create a new pattern to replace the old one.
When you make a mistake, tell yourself that it is human to make mistakes and encourage yourself to learn from it. If you are unable to accomplish something, encourage yourself to get help and reassure yourself that it takes time to grow. Confront the voice that tells you that you are not worthy with examples of worthwhile things you have done. Imagine something that you can do to make yourself feel better.
3. Practice the new pattern over and over.
Write a note reminding yourself that you are human, therefore, you deserve to have a good life. Put it on the bathroom mirror, the kitchen cabinet or closet door – anywhere that you will see it daily. Put your hand over your heart and tell yourself that you are here to help all your parts.
Wanda wrote a new story for herself that went like this: “As a child I was alone with no one to help me. I now have friends that like me and will help me when I need them. Anna thinks I’m smart and asks my advice, Joe asks me to go out to the movies because we laugh and have fun. Thomas enjoys talking about books with me because we help one another think about the meaning of the plot. I
was powerless as a child to take care of myself but now I am able to think about what I need and care enough about myself to meet my needs. I am curious about myself and want to know more. I am not perfect but I am a good enough person. I can be interesting and entertaining.”
By listening to the old messages from her past, Wanda was able to create a new story in which she addressed the old pain. She wrote a new story with a positive message about herself and the people in her life. It is a story that soothes her and
comforts her. She has learned that she does not need to numb herself in order to tolerate bad feelings or to use excitement to push out painful feelings. She can now comfort herself with positive messages.
What is your new story?