by Anna Marie Trotman
Growing up I got a Chatty Kathy doll for Christmas. I was almost in my teens and didn’t particularly like the fact that I got a doll, so I gave her to my younger sister. When you pulled a string the doll talked, and my younger sister loved to pull the string! I had to listen to Chatty Kathy say the same eleven or twelve phrases over and over again, and remember yelling at my sister to stop it! Little did I know that one day I would become Chatty Kathy, saying the same things over and over, like one of those old cassette tapes that you would listen to, rewind and listen to over and over again.
Our stories make us who we are, they shape our lives and support the decisions we make. Recognizing our stories and how they influence and relate to others is a hallmark of becoming self-aware, it’s the cornerstone of mindfulness. Next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, washing up the dishes, or waiting in line, stop for a moment and notice your thoughts. Chances are you’ll find yourself knee deep in a story. It may be recounting the news events of the day, concerns about COVID19, or re-hashing a disagreement you had weeks ago. Either way, it’s a story, and it’s likely that there is one running through your mind at this very moment.
How Do You Stop?
Research shows that we not only have the capacity to pay attention to, and stop the chatter, we can reduce stress, rewire our brains, and reinvent our relationships by responding differently. There are narratives that can lead to long term devastating effects. The more you hold to a particular belief or emotion the greater power it has over you. The truth is that it can be very difficult to let go, but you can begin by being mindful.
Becoming Aware of Your Stories
You don’t have to be destined to live out your story as if it were a movie being projected on a screen. Repeating old stories sucks you into toxic emotional reactions as you play them out on autopilot. However, when you begin to pay attention to your mental chatter you will likely discover that the stories you tell seem endless, it’s how the mind works – one incessant stream of commentary after another. For my own healing I learned to pay attention to the voice that would not shut up, it was an essential step to being free from the pain of rehashing the account of an incident that didn’t have much truth to it, after the umpteenth time I told it to myself and others. I would convince myself of the truth of the story, yes, they did that, yes, I was affected, yes, my life was in shambles, it was all true, I would tell myself, and the more I went over things in my mind the more turmoil it created in my life.
I learned that the best way to get free from incessant chatter is to step back and view it objectively. “Don’t think about it; just notice it”, my meditation teacher would say. Easier said than done, right? I wanted to hang on to my story, I wanted to be right. We love to be right, particularly when we’re stressed, tired and overtaxed. The more anxious, fearful and pressured we feel, the louder and more persistent the voice becomes. It’s the equivalent of having a hungry toddler in the candy aisle of a grocery store rattling around in your brain. The more you deny it, the more it protests until it gets your attention.
Taming the Toddler!
Take a few moments to write down your personal identity story. You may use simple descriptive phrases like, “I take care of others before myself”, “My boss picks on me all the time” This isn’t my fault”. You may also choose to write down experiences, family beliefs or other influences that helped to shape how you view yourself now. Once you have listed your beliefs about yourself, and identified a few of your stories, look at each one and ask yourself the following questions:
- Where did this story come from?
- Is this my story or someone else’s?
- Is this story true of me now?
- Is this story contributing to or undermining my happiness?
- Do I choose to continue to live this story or is it time to write a new one?
The most effective strategy for working with your personal stories and readjusting your mindset is to observe your thoughts objectively, and to refrain from getting too attached to them. Most importantly it is essential to remember that you are not your story and that it does not define you. These narratives are one of countless thoughts that go streaming, nonstop, through your mental database. It is part of being human. It is up to you to be mindful and to decide whether to live by them or change how you want the movie to end.
Excerpt from B Grace Bullock, PhD Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success – Integrating the science of mind, body and brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016)