When we struggle in life, it is often as a result of factors outside our control. Nonetheless, it is easy to assign self-blame and to begin to identify with problematic stories about who we are. When people are told (or tell themselves) the same thing over and over, they tend to believe it and act accordingly. The more this dynamic occurs, the thinner a person’s life descriptions may become.
In my work as a therapist, I have learned that in most situations people have a variety of personal resources, commitments, and hopes which, when accessed, can be a driving force to change their lives.
The following steps can serve people as important starting points to develop richer descriptions of their lives and to live more fulfilling experiences. The goal is to help people reconnect with what is truly important to them, as people often find themselves forced to separate from their values as a consequence of painful experiences and “single stories,” or limited viewpoints, told about them.
What Messages Have You Received?
Many people are unaware of the social messages they have received throughout their lives. These messages may have come from stereotypes, painful experiences, and lack of representation. For instance, a person who has experienced abuse may develop a negative self-image. Because this person did nothing to deserve the abuse, the idea they may have developed a negative view of themselves as a result may seem perplexing. Nonetheless, it happens frequently.
Society can also contribute to people developing a single story about themselves, their communities, or their culture. This may be due to a lack of representation in the media, the reinforcement of stereotypes, and imbalance of power. I suggest paying attention to what messages you have received in life that may influence some of the self-defeating thoughts you have.
Identifying the Evidence (or Lack Thereof)
The second step to challenging self-defeating thoughts or feelings is to identify if there is any evidence supporting these notions.
If you have a thought such as, “I’m worthless,” make a list of any evidence that suggests this is true. Then, make a list of actions and traits that provide evidence to the contrary. More often than not, you’ll find that you are not as “worthless” as you think! It’s all about the evidence.
You Are Not the Problem; the Problem Is the Problem
Whatever the problem may be, you are not it. Problems have a way of attaching themselves to people. It may feel like we are the problem ourselves, but this is rarely the case.
Whatever the problem may be, you are not it. Problems have a way of attaching themselves to people.
In narrative therapy, we refer to the process of separating from the problem as externalization. The person begins to view themselves apart from the problem and therefore feels more in charge of their life and experiences.
This does not mean the person is not responsible for their actions; this is a common misconception of this concept. In therapy, you navigate this idea so you can continue to detach from the influence of problems while still being accountable for your choices and actions.
Identifying Someone Who Truly Knows You
The next step is to think of someone in your life who knows you well. This could be someone presently in your life or someone you knew in the past, perhaps when you were a child. Some examples may include teachers, peers, childhood friends, or family.
Begin by thinking about what they appreciate (or appreciated) about you. Why did they care to know you, for you to be part of their life? It may be helpful to ask them these questions directly, if possible, but it is not necessary; you can try to answer these questions as they would. Some people do this by writing a letter, especially if the person is no longer living. The last questions should be related to the evidence you identified in the previous step (e.g., how would they know about my value of compassion, or what about me tells them I am not worthless?).
Reconnecting with Values
Now that you are beginning to have a clearer understanding of your story, ask yourself what your values are. What is truly important to you in life? Sometimes, I ask people to think of anything that, if lost, would devastate them. This usually leads to a discussion that uncovers those values.
Making a list of your answers may be helpful. For some people, identifying values can take a long time. It is okay if this step takes longer. This is your life; you don’t have to have the answers for everything. Take your time, take it easy, and be kind to yourself here.
For more information, you may want to check out the Narrative Therapy Trauma Manual by John Stillman (2010), in which he explains a hiking metaphor and uses a “compass” to illustrate what values are to people.
Acting in Accordance with Your Values
Once you know what you value in life, you may also have a better idea of what you hope to have in life. You may understand how your story started, where it is now, and where you want it to be in the future.
Take a moment to identify actions you can take that may lead you in a direction of your values. For example, if you identify that you value knowledge, you may begin to read more. This step can overwhelm people. People may feel they have to start taking great actions right away, but small actions are helpful too. Again, take your time. Instead of reading a book because you value knowledge, you may spend a few minutes each day researching books for later.
The key to your success in creating a richer story of your life is to go at your own pace. If you find you are putting pressure on yourself, go back to the first step. There is a good chance this pressure is coming from some of the messages you have received in life. Do more thinking about this, revise your list, and go on with the process. It will not change your life and make it rich immediately, so be patient with yourself. I recommend you see a counselor or therapist to guide and support you in your journey.
Stillman, J. R. (2010). Narrative Therapy Trauma Manual: A Principle-Based Approach. St. Louis Park, MN: Caspersen, LLC.
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