- Sara Johnson
Rewriting our Stories
I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell about ourselves. The stories we craft about our lives that roll off the tongue with ease and - because we tell them so much - a certain lack of contemplation. The stories that feel comfortable and familiar, until one day they don’t.
Over the years I’ve told many stories about myself including:
Because I bought a house I have to be a homeowner forever.
I couldn’t possibly start a new career so late in life.
I’m selfish for not wanting kids.
Though I want to work for myself, there’s no way I could be successful doing so.
With most of these stories, it took me saying them out loud many times to eventually hear myself and realize something felt off: the story no longer fit. Sometimes the realization was sudden - like a pinch on the arm. Ouch! This isn’t me anymore, why am I still centering this story in my life? Other times, awareness that the story was no longer relevant grew slowly and quietly, until one day I heard a whisper that my narrative needed updating.
How do we avoid limiting ourselves through the stories we tell about our life and what we believe? How do we keep space for evolution and editing? And what could help us find more ease in letting go of certain stories or changing them?
In coaching I encourage clients to practice saying difficult or new things out loud. And I tell them: “It’s okay, you get to try things here, it doesn’t have to be exactly right.”
I say this, even though I’m coming to recognize how much we can feel held to our word and thus pressured to “get it right” the first and every time. I recognize how hard it is for many of us to say things out loud - or write things for public consumption - and allow them to be in process in real time.
I wonder if our stories become so definitive and inflexible as a way to protect ourselves from some of the vulnerability of not having everything figured out. Is it easier to stay with a story that doesn't quite fit, than one that is still a work-in-progress?
Coaching encourages us to make space for things to be ever in process. Yet feeling unfinished or unresolved can be highly uncomfortable for many people. Thus, getting more comfortable with outgrowing, rewriting, or shifting narratives feels like some of "the work." And, for many, comfort grows with practice.
Recently I got a chance to practice this. In last month’s newsletter I wrote about the impact I’ve felt focusing on being more present. I talked about not leaning on the future or the past to escape the power and possibility of the present.
Staying present is a story that is quite loud in my life right now. It sounds a bit like:
A lot of your difficulties will be resolved if you can just master presence.
Your suffering increases when you retreat to a future fantasy or focus on the past.
Because the importance of being present is a really powerful story in my life right now, in my newsletter I centered that message and left a lot out.
For instance, journaling and therapy are amazing ways to access and process the past. And I have - and support - practices including tarot, astrology, creating altars, and collaging that connect us to our visions and dreams of the future. In addition to being a big fan of not escaping to the past or future to avoid the present, I am also someone who quite believes in the power of the past and future in our self-work.
Shortly after sending my March newsletter, I was reading Chani Nicholas’ April 4 horoscopes. I was checking out the Virgo horoscope (as I do - having many, many Virgo beloveds in my life). It said: "Notice whether your intuitive powers strengthen the more grounded you become. A cosmic paradox is that the more anchored you are in the present, the more receptive you become to wisdom from the past and the future. Root into the “now,” and receive the brilliance of the ages."
This paradox really spoke to me and made me reflect on what I left out of my message about presence. Chani introduced something I love: some major "both, and" energy. It made me worry that my writing was simplistic and limiting. Given what I wrote about presence was I still allowed to talk authentically about other supportive rituals and practices, rooted in the past and future?
Of course I can! Yet, it amazed me to realize how quickly I found myself trapped in my own story. Or rather, how I trapped myself and created limits for myself because of what I'd shared - what I said I believed.
There’s no singular narrative that can capture the sheer enormity and complexity of being a person. Of course we make things simple, because things are in reality extremely complex and multifaceted! There is always more to the story than the one we tell.
Given the complexity of everything, instead of feeling restricted by the stories we craft, can our stories have more lightness, flexibility and space for edits?
When we get too invested in the stories we are telling, we can keep ourselves stuck in something we’ve outgrown. We can ignore our longings because they challenge the familiar. We can silence an important message that’s trying to reach us, simply because it’s in contradiction to a long held narrative.
I wonder what is possible when we relax the grip on our personal narratives. Let's lift up the following phrases and make them cool:
I don’t feel that anymore.
My thinking has changed on that topic.
That was important to me once and isn’t now.
Yes, I said that, and I left something out.
These - and similar sentiments about shifting stories - don't need to bring shame, embarrassment, or distress. With practice, I suspect these sentiments could actually feel liberating.
Maybe everyone reading this is incredibly flexible with their personal narratives and finds ease in shifting a long held belief or storyline. (Let me know about that, please!) For the rest of us: I invite us to practice finding pleasure in the ways we tell the story of our lives. And by story I of course mean stories.
Permission to explore what is and isn’t being said. Permission to question ourselves. Permission to edit in real time. Permission to be forever rewriting. Permission to change and change again.