My therapist has a mantra: The story I tell myself creates the reality I experience (click to tweet.)
It means that my life circumstances are “bad” only because that’s what I’m calling them; that’s the story I tell myself about what I’m going through.
The first time he said this to me I resisted. How could those things be anything but bad and hard and frustrating and depressing?
Seriously, I call things “bad” only if they are bad. Like getting laid off from my job, filing for bankruptcy, my church shuttering. Like getting engaged and having a fallout with my family. Like an episode of optic neuritis, which meant a string of MRIs to monitor for multiple sclerosis.
When those things happened to me within the span six months, I would say that’s pretty…bad.
I had to work through that resistance by writing.
Writing helped me review the story I was telling myself.
Writing has always been a regular practice of mine, but it wasn’t a daily practice until I began to struggle with depression. Even before I started seeing a therapist, I was writing. I knew that, if nothing else, writing allowed me to get the negativity out of my mind and body.
I don’t usually re-read what I write while depressed—because I don’t want to sink deeper into that black hole. But once I was seeing a therapist and working on my personal narrative, writing is the thing that allowed me to become aware of the story I was telling myself.
It’s so easy to go about my day, going through the motions of getting up, getting ready, putting my bag together, driving off to class, all without even realizing the internal monologue that’s playing in my head. The story that says, “Man, it’s so cold out. I hate the cold. I hate getting up when it’s this cold. I’m depressed. Look at me, I’m so fat. These clothes are hideous and I hate them. But I don’t have anything else to wear, so oh well, I’ll just be ugly today. I’m depressed.”
But that was the easy part. After that I felt compelled to understand the why behind the story. Where did the stories come from? Why did I tell myself negative stories without even thinking twice about it?
Again I turned to writing. When I come upon a question that I don’t know the answer to, I write. I will type the question at the top of a blank page in all caps and write and write until I have a break through. And it always comes. Sometimes it comes faster than others, but it always comes.
In one session my therapist asked me, “What do you want?”
It was after I had been talking through one particularly challenging story about feeling like I was on a hamster wheel making no progress with my health.
“Do you want to be on the hamster wheel,” my therapist asked?
“No,” I said.
“Well what do you want?” he asked.
In the moment I didn’t know and I couldn’t answer the question. So I went home, opened up my computer and a blank document. I typed “WHAT DO I WANT?” in all caps at the top of the page and wrote and wrote. I wrote about wanting to feel better; I wrote about wanting to see results; I wrote about wanting to have more energy; I wrote about wanting to be back to my normal self.
At the end of about 1,000 words I wrote, “I want to be healthy. I want to be strong.” Instantly I knew why I was doing the work I was doing. I knew why I had to keep going.
Writing helped me revise the story I was telling myself (click to tweet.)
After realizing the story I tell myself and processing it, I then had to revise that story. It’s one thing to be aware of the story and to understand it, but changing it is another thing all together.
Revising is the hardest part because once I was aware of the “I’m depressed, I’m depressed” story in my head, it was ingrained in me. I didn’t wonder about how I was feeling and come to the conclusion that I was depressed—it was my default mode. It was like driving to work taking the same route every day. You don’t even think about the turns; you’re on autopilot and before you know it you’ve arrived and maybe you don’t even remember getting off the freeway.
In my professional work as an editor there are times when changing just one word makes all the difference in the meaning or clarity of a sentence. So I started revising my story with one-word changes. I revised “I am depressed” to “I have depressive tendencies.” I revised “I want to be healthy; I want to be strong” to “I choose health; I choose strength.”
I was able to revise the story I told myself because I was able to process it through writing.
Writing helped me choose the story I tell myself.
Revising the story I tell myself gave me multiple versions of the story to choose from. There was the depression story versus the healthy and strong story. Which one did I want? It was my choice. I could keep telling myself “I am depressed.” Or I could tell myself “I am healthy; I am strong.”
The problem at the time was I didn’t feel healthy or strong and I wasn’t ready to tell myself “I am healthy; I am strong.” But I wanted it, and I knew the story had to be something more than “wanting.” So I revised one more time and selected a story more appropriate for where I was: “I choose health; I choose strength.” Using the word “choose” in this story also helps reinforce that I do have a choice and that choice is powerful.
I would not have multiple versions of my story to choose from if it weren’t for writing.
I write to continue this work of realizing, processing, revising and choosing the story I tell myself. I keep writing every day because writing helps me be the healthy and strong person I know that I am.
But there is another reason I write: I write to share my story so that it might inspire and encourage others to do the work they need to do to also be healthy and strong.
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