I’ve been reflecting this week on the power of the stories we believe about ourselves and about the things that happen to us. It seems to me they can be very powerful at times.
When you’re having a challenging time, whether it’s difficulties at work, tensions with family or friends, or even home improvement projects not going smoothly, it can be easy to feel knocked. You might experience anger, frustration, fear, sadness; a whole range of emotions will naturally come up. It’s important to know that feeling unpleasant emotions during difficulties is usual; it may be uncomfortable but it is normal.
What makes a difference to our wellbeing is what then happens. While they can be intense and painful, feelings are just feelings, they come and go. They’re fleeting, when we look carefully we see that they don’t last. Feelings can motivate us and escalate until they make us want to do non-sensical things, and also lead us into stress and anxiety.
So often when things go ‘wrong’ we begin to create a story in our mind that doesn’t help us feel better, quite the opposite. It might be we tell ourselves how hard things are, how unfair it is, how unkind people are, how things will never improve, how we’re to blame, we all have our own favourite stories. It can be as if our mind is on the rampage with our thoughts running riot, and our emotions escalating in response. This is painful and can become a cycle that feels hard to escape.
So what can we do? The first step is to recognise that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not solid, fixed, or right, they are just passing thoughts. Stepping back from them, and observing them as if they are passing strangers can help us learn not to react to them or follow where they lead. This mindful approach can be energizing; lessening the grip of thoughts and feelings on us and leaving us more attention to spend on the here and now.
A stepping-stone towards letting thoughts just pass is to take them less seriously. You can challenge them, asking questions like:
What’s my evidence / how do I know?
When is this not the case / what are the exceptions?
How does this x mean y? What else might it mean?
We’re not looking to tell ourselves we are wrong, only to generate more ways of thinking about something so that we have alternative stories, and choice between them. Challenge yourself to come up with five different explanations, and notice how this shifts your thinking. Once we are a little less sure of the explanation we have been giving ourselves, we can choose an interpretation that is more useful for us. This is not about sugar coating; it’s about looking more objectively, with some detachment.
For example, losing your job is hard enough, without adding a story that it happened because you are incompetent, or that you will never work again. Reminding yourself that last time you moved jobs you found a new one quite easily, or recalling all the training you have done in the last few years, or that the economy is picking up, may all be more beneficial narratives.
Learning to let feelings and thoughts pass, not jumping in and adding to them, is a skill that takes practice. We need to be kind to ourselves when feelings hurt, but not indulge them. These are skills well worth developing. As we get more practiced our story is just that, one possible story.