Letting go of negative self-stories

Christina ReynoldsAcceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Mindfulness and ACT for Beginners Group, Mindfulness Meditation, positive psychology

Do you sometimes find yourself stuck when you want to make changes in your life? Do you find that you talk yourself out of trying new things? Maybe you are stuck in a negative belief about your self or a negative-self story.

Most of the time when I meet new clients for the first session and we discuss their expectations and hopes for therapy they will tell me what they want to get rid of. For example, they want to get rid of their depression, their anger, the difficulties in their relationships with others or their self-doubt. Often I find that clients are much better at knowing what they don’t want, than at knowing what they do want. Often they are very good at knowing who or how they do not want to be, but unsure about how or who they do want to be instead.

I think this tendency to know what we want to get rid of but not knowing what should replace it makes sense because when we suffer, or encounter difficulties, our mind automatically switches into ‘problem solving’ mode to try and ‘figure this out’. Most likely however, when it comes to issues inside our skin such as thoughts or emotions or memories of past events this approach does not work. We cannot get rid of emotions, thoughts or memories. However, by staying on this path of problem solving we become more and more caught up in all the things that are wrong with us or the world around us. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our ‘problem self’ that it starts to look as if it was our real self. Particularly if we have found ourselves trying a variety of strategies to eliminate our difficulties to no avail it’s tempting to say “I am just no good as a mother.”, or “I just can’t get anything right.” or “I’m always going to be a failure.”.

Our mind also likes to confirm things and thus will easily find plenty of examples to confirm thoughts like the one’s above. In this way we then learn to create an identify around our suffering and often, even though we do not like this identity it can be very difficult for us to let go of it. We can find ourselves trapped in a believe about ourselves that we do not like and that we would like to get rid of, but not knowing any alternative options and being so familiar with this story, we get caught up in this identity over and over again.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we call this ‘self-as content’. This is the part of ourselves that contains all of our stories, memories and believes about ourselves. The issue is not that we have a ‘self-as content’ but that we get too caught up in its believes and stories about ourselves. Because our mind also likes to be right, it will also eliminate any alternative stories for which we have less evidence. Maybe we have been successful once. However, our mind will come up with a reason why this example does not discount the dominant story or believe of failure we have been holding on to for a long time.

Our believe then often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy as we stop challenging ourselves to be different, or act differently and swim against the tide of our negative self-belief, thus confirming again and again that we cannot change.

So, what can we do to get out of this vicious cycle? One ‘simple’ (yet difficult) way to get out of this pattern is to mindfully step back and step into our observer self or our ‘self-as-context’. Practicing mindful awareness of our present moment experience is exactly this – stepping back to notice what is going on in our mind, body, emotions. Once we have stepped back we can no longer be what we look at. We have just separated ourselves from our negative story. It is still a part of us, but no longer all of us. Stepping back, particularly if done without judgement, allows us to see the bigger story of ourselves and our lives. There, we can see our success and our failure, our joys and our sorrows, our highs and our lows. And since we are no longer any of these but just observing these, we can let them just be as they are without the need to make sense of them or discount one to make the other truer. Stepping back also loosens the hold our negative self-story has on us and this can allow us to make the changes we want to make.

Do you want to test this idea on yourself?

Take a moment to sit quietly and bring to mind an important idea, wish, task that you have been thinking about tackling or completing for some time. Maybe it is a change in career. Maybe it is to go back to university. Maybe it is to start a new hobby. Maybe it is about getting out there and trying to meet new people or to get back into exercising.

As you envision tackling this task, see if you can notice a negative belief about yourself or your ability to manage this task or change coming up. What is your mind telling you about doing what you want to do?

Notice how your mind tries to talk you out of this. Notice how old this story about yourself is. Has it been around for a long time? Has this story come up in other situations as well?

Now I’d like you to imagine that these thoughts, these negative believes are written on the carriages of a very long train. Each thought is a carriage of this moving train that drives past you without stopping. Just keep sitting there and put your thoughts on each carriage and let it drive past you. Just keep sitting and watching your thoughts drive by.

After a while just notice how it feels to look at your thoughts in this way. Is your negative self-story still as powerful or has its hold on you decreased a bit? Is there space for an alternative story now?

If you want to know more about how to step back from your mind and practice observing your thoughts, emotions and experiences in a mindfulness meditation session join us for our monthly meditation session. To book call us on 07 28229983.

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