We are natural born storymakers, creating meaning out of our experiences and environment from the start. We arrive in the world like little sponges, soaking up what we see, hear and feel, eager to learn: Who am I? What are other people like? What is the world like?
As we grow, we begin to find answers to these questions. For example, we might learn that if we cry, someone comes to feed or comfort us; or perhaps, instead, crying results in being shouted at and told off. We might learn that doing something well makes Mum smile and gives us a lovely warm feeling, but getting something wrong makes her very sad and angry, which feels horrible.
From experiences like these, stories begin to form: “I am loved”, “I am safe”, “I am good at things”; or perhaps “I am unlovable”; “The world is dangerous”, “I must get things right otherwise people won’t like me”. These stories are like a lens through which we see ourselves and the world. Another name for them is “Schemas”.
As we continue to grow, the schemas can gather momentum. Once we have a story in our minds, our brains are really good at noticing and saving all the evidence that fits with the story. For example, if we have a "worthless" story, we might brush off praise and compliments, while clinging on to every tiny scrap of criticism. In this way, the negative and unhelpful stories we learn as children grow and strengthen. They start out as hypotheses, but in time we may come to view them as ABSOLUTE FACT. Although they are damaging to us, the stories can become central to our sense of self. They provide us with feelings of predictability and certainty; they are comfortable and familiar. This is why they are difficult to change. They can also become self-fulfilling prophecies: if we believe the story that we are worthless, we might put up with toxic relationships, or avoid getting close to people – both of which make it more likely that we’ll keep on believing the "worthless" story.
How can we change our stories?
Imagine a brand new bath sponge, soft and pink, taken from its packet and plunged into a bucket of dirty water. The sponge soaks it all up. Its original colour is now hidden behind a coating of dirt. If it could think - (stay with me on this - suspend your disbelief!) – it might decide “I’m dirty. I’m a dirty sponge. Look at me – absolutely filthy. Horrible and hopeless. I must have been like this from the start.”
We could give the sponge a good rinse and put it in some clean water, but even then, it might still feel dirty on the inside. To change its mind, we would have to explain how it was once soft, pink and new - maybe find a picture from the original packaging as proof. We'd discuss how it got so dirty in the first place: consider the water, who put it in there, how it couldn’t help but absorb, because that’s what sponges do; maybe hold up a mirror so it could see how clean it actually looks, now it's been put into clean water...
Another example. I once believed in Father Christmas. I completely believed he flew around the world with his reindeers, delivering presents to millions of children in just a few hours. At that point, if I had been confronted with the truth - if I was told he was not real, even if I actually saw my parents putting the stocking in my room - I would have twisted the evidence in front of me to fit the story: “They are just helping him because he's so busy” “He must be real because the carrots and mince pies have gone.” In order to change a story so well-embedded, I’d need age (a more rational and developed brain), and a consistent and reasonable alternative story: a full explanation with all the details covered. I'd need to check it out with my friends too.
(You will be reassured to know that I did, somewhere along the way, change my belief in that story).
Changing the stories we hold about ourselves and others involves time and persistence.
We will need to:
name our stories
understand how they developed, shining a light on some of the difficult experiences we had along the way
confront the reality and pain of our unmet needs; begin to care for the child we once were, who is still there inside
be open to making new stories that are more helpful and hopeful: a compassionate narrative of our lives
intentionally look for (and store) evidence that fits this new story
listen to what our friends say about us
be ready to notice and change unhelpful behaviours and relationships that we’ve fallen into: our current patterns that keep the old story going
Be patient and persistent: the old stories will keep popping up, especially at times of stress and difficulty. Still, with time and practice we can get better at refocusing our attention on the new story we’ve been building.
In short, we need to be willing to wipe away the dirt, and believe that underneath, there might be something good and true.
“I’m not bad. Bad things happened to me”.