Know Your Stories
“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”
Many psychologists identify the stories we tell ourselves as the basis for our limiting beliefs. Beliefs that hold us back from experiencing love, joy, and laughter—basically, all the good stuff. The more we tell ourselves that we can’t finish a project, that we’re going to be single with forty cats for the rest of our lives, that good things never happen to us, or that we’re always late, the more we believe the story to be true. And the more we believe it, the more we act and communicate accordingly. The more we practice this kind of negative self-talk, the more permanent our beliefs become. What I have found through teaching people how to be aware of their communication is that most of them are repeating this negative self-talk to themselves throughout the day, often without realizing the impact it has on the way they view themselves and others.
By being mindful of the way you speak to yourself about yourself, you may also notice that some of these negative thoughts and narratives may not actually be yours. In other words, a lot of what we have going on repeat in our minds is someone else’s story or thought. Going back to when we were younger, we were told by our parents and those around us who we were and what was important; and as a result, a lot of what we thought about ourselves and the world was planted in us by others. I see it all the time with parents and their children: “She’s tired all the time.” “He doesn’t like the outdoors.” “She’s anxious.” “He doesn’t like the heat.” “She doesn’t like to dance.” And on, and on, and on. During our formative years, the stories we hear about ourselves can easily be mistaken as fact instead of opinion, and in many cases we absorb these stories as our own.
Stories are always firing in our heads, and when they are negative, they are what prevent us from taking risks; they are what keep us stuck in the same place, saying the same things again and again but hoping for a different result. Based on the examples I gave earlier in the book, it’s not too hard to imagine an internal narrative like this:
Growing up, I never felt like I quite fit in. I did well in school, getting mostly As and Bs, but I was never good at math, where I got mostly Cs and an occasional B. This wasn’t acceptable at all, because both my parents are mathematicians. As a result, I felt like I constantly had to apologize when asked by them, their colleagues, and my teachers as to why my grades in math weren’t better. “It’s just not me,” I would say, “I’m not good at math.” As I got older, I avoided any jobs that required computation or accounting of any kind, because I just knew I couldn’t do it right.
If you told yourself a story like this one over and over, do you think you might feel a little depressed? When you begin to notice how little communication habits of complaining, incessantly apologizing, wishing your life was different, and the countless other ways you can feed yourself a diet of negative self-talk, you can see how these habits can affect yourself perception and, in turn, your perception of others. By definition, a story filled with negative self-talk is not true, kind, or helpful to others or yourself.
Let’s imagine what a story might sound like through the lens of Buddhist right speech:
I was lucky to be born into a family of accomplished mathematicians. Growing up, I preferred English to math, so while I could have worked hard to become a mathematician myself, I found my true passion was for literature and writing. As a result, I was able to share with my family a perspective on these subjects that they might not have received otherwise. At first I thought they wanted me to study math too, but when we discussed it openly I learned that they want me to do whatever makes me happy. I love my parents, and it’s great having people in the family who are so good at math—especially when I have a dollars-and-sense or tax-related question!
While this example is fairly simple, it describes a process of looking at events through the lens of Buddhist right speech instead of the unhealthy communication habits and negative self-talk that was present in the first story. This same process can be applied regardless of the nature of our personal story. We have all experienced challenges in life, difficulties, and even tragedies, but what I have found is that it’s often the conversations we have with ourselves about these events that makes a more lasting impact than the events themselves.
What are some of the themes of negative self-talk and larger negative narratives that you have told yourself over the years? Write them in your journal. For example, here are some examples of the negative thoughts you may experience:
· I’m fat.
· I’m too tall/short.
· I’m too old to . . .
· I’ll never get that job.
· My nose is too big/small.
· I’m not good at . . .
For many of my clients, the larger narratives often begin with the words “should” or “shouldn’t.”
· I shouldn’t have . . . gotten a divorce.
· I shouldn’t have . . . dropped out of college.
· I should have . . . taken that job.
· I should have . . . listened to my parents.
· He shouldn’t have lied to me.
· She shouldn’t have broken up with me.
Now go back and look at those stories and apply these questions: Is this thought or story true? Is it a balanced account of the facts, or do you sometimes exaggerate the details? Are there villains and victims in your story, or is everyone on equal footing? Is your story kind to you and others who make up the narrative? Is there another way you can view this story? What are some of the positives that occurred from it? Is there a way you can view your role and the role of others with kinder, gentler eyes?
Ultimately, Buddhism offers a way out of the stories that cause us suffering, and while a full discussion of that is beyond the scope of this book, the process begins with seeing them for what they are: simply stories. We will continue to work with these stories throughout this section, helping you to improve communication with yourself by learning how to spot and release the negative narratives.
In the next section we will investigate how these stories generate feelings, as paying attention to your feelings is the second step in creating a new and positive communication model with yourself and others.
Cynthia Kane received her BA from Bard College and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a certified meditation and mindfulness instructor and is dedicated to helping men and women change their communication routines so they feel understood at home and at work, in control of their words and reactions, calm in the face of difficult conversations, and confident living with an increased feeling of safety, energy, and appreciation for life. She lives in Washington, DC and offers workshops and personal coaching.
Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, BBC Travel, Yoga Journal, Refinery29, Woman’s Day, Pregnancy Magazine and the Huffington Post.
Her new book, How To Communicate Like A Buddhist, was released in spring of 2016.
Visit her at www.cynthiakane.com