This past weekend I went to the mountain town, Big Bear, right outside of Los Angeles. I’ve been traveling to Big Bear long before my kids were born and I have a lot of fond memories of this place. One of my favorite things to do in Big Bear is to ride the Alpine Slide, which is a human-made slide that goes right through the mountains. As I was getting in my toboggan last weekend, I struck up a conversation with one of the people working there. As we were talking, I learned that she originally moved to Big Bear with her husband 20 years ago. During that time she divorced her husband and started working at the Alpine Slide. What stuck out to me was how happy she was to be working there, every day.
After my ride, I thought about her situation. This woman had two different ways to view her situation. The first was to remind herself that she was a middle-aged woman, divorced, and not making much money. She chose to tell herself the following: I’m so lucky because I get to live in this beautiful mountain town and work a job where people are happy and full of joy all day. Which story would you rather tell yourself?
A better question is, what stories do you tell yourself each day? Are these stories that build you up, fill you with gratitude and put a smile on your face? Or are they stories that fill you with shame, anger, and guilt?
Many people choose to tell themselves the negative story instead of the positive ones. One of the reasons we do this is jealousy. If we compare ourselves to others, there will always be people above us and below us. So we have to examine if playing the comparison game is helpful. We can always compare ourselves to someone who is more beautiful, more successful, funnier, etc. So wouldn’t it make more sense to simply focus on what we have going for ourselves at this moment?
Let’s look at another example. I know two young adults adopted and raised by the same parents. The boy never talks about or thinks about his birth parents. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the girl has gone through some psychological struggles around feeling rejected by her birth parents. The boy focuses more on his gratitude for his adoptive parents and doesn’t waste his thoughts on his birth parents. The question is, what story is each of these individuals telling themselves, and which story leads to joy and happiness and which story leads to disappointment and suffering?
Here’s one of the tricky parts of telling stories. Sometimes we don’t know why people do the things they do to us. We may be involved in a car accident where the party who caused it drives away. In those situations, we fill in the blanks by creating a story: they were oblivious, they’re a terrible driver, they were malicious, and the list goes on.
Sometimes we do have the answer to our stories, for instance being raised by parents who mistreated us. Even when we have all the information, we still have the power to make decisions about the stories we create. In this example, we can choose to tell the story that our parents were terrible, or we can ask ourselves if these stories are leading to our happiness. Even when we tell stories that are based on facts, they still have the power to be unhelpful and lead us into unhealthy thought patterns.
This is a key piece of storytelling that plagues many of us. We have a tendency to repeat these stories over and over to ourselves. This may be because we are asking for penance or hoping that if we repeat it enough it won’t happen again. In reality, when we repeat things over and over again, sometimes we fall back into the same actions or behaviors we were trying to avoid.
Recently I read a study that looked at war veterans coming back home, and what they found is that most of them have a very hard time reintegrating into society. One of the main reasons they found for this is these veterans were replaying the events that happened overseas, over and over again. This didn’t apply to all veterans, though. The folks who came home and seemed relatively well-adjusted had one thing in common – they weren’t repeating the stories of the war in their head. They let those stories go.
We can always hang onto the stories of our lives, but it’s important to intervene with ourselves when we discover that those stories are hindering our path to happiness. It can be extremely freeing when we give ourselves permission to let go of our own stories. You may find newfound happiness and lightness that wasn’t accessible before.
A few years ago I was go-karting with my son and I got into an accident going around 50mph. I didn’t get seriously injured, but it did take me around six months to fully heal. During that time I didn’t have a story to create, I was only focused on healing my body, which wasn’t injured by somebody else, I injured myself as a result of living my life.
But let’s say someone experiences an injury from their partner or parent, or even from a stranger. In these scenarios, we can create a lot of stories in our heads, over and over again. And again, these stories may be true and it’s normal and okay to remind ourselves of these stories, but the physical pain we endure will most likely be gone well before the pain of the mental suffering we endured. My point here is we may not have power over our physical suffering but we do have some power over our mental suffering. It’s not easy, but there are ways we can recognize when a story we tell ourselves is causing us to suffer.
If we pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves, I believe that our lives will be better. This is because we can choose to focus on stories that build us up, or better yet, cease telling ourselves stories at all, and redirect our attention to simply living in the moment.
Let’s look at one last example of a scenario that may seem negative on the outside, but in reality, presented a beautiful opportunity. I know a few people who lost their jobs and instead of telling themselves a story focused on pity and disappointment, they decided to take that opportunity, sell their belongings, and move into a van and travel the country. They had the option to tell themselves a negative story about their luck and circumstance but instead used their time to create beautiful stories every day as they travel across the US.
I don’t want to underplay the need to heal from things emotionally because that is extremely important to living a happy and fulfilled life. But, if we’re still angry or upset from something that happened years ago, it may be time to examine the stories we’re telling ourselves and see if they are helping us harbor these negative feelings. Once we let go of that anger or hurt, we make so much more room for positive feelings and gratitude.
While it’s important to tell ourselves positive stories, it’s equally, if not more important to simply live our lives and exist in the moment. To recap our journey to releasing these stories, first, we observe our stories, then we ask if they are helpful, we let go of the stories that no longer serve us, and then we can focus on living our lives and appreciating the moment. This takes work and effort, but if we focus our energy on living a beautiful life, we’ll experience magic every day.