The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Reframing Our Thinking

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You may or may not have heard of Derren Brown. He's an English mentalist and illusionist who draws upon psychology in his stage and television shows. In one of his stage shows, Miracle, Derren talks about "the stories we tell ourselves" and the power of the mind to evoke change when we make the choice to change those stories.

He explains that we often carry negative stories around with us, likening them to a suitcase full of bricks, and that they can have a lot of power over us if we allow them to.

What's happened can't be changed

We're not suggesting that you should try and convince yourself that whatever experiences you've had haven't happened. Far from it. They have happened, and that is your starting point.

You cannot change what's happened, but we've talked before about how changing your thinking can impact on how you feel. Therefore, if you change how you think about your experiences it's highly likely that you can change how you feel about them.

Changing your thinking

We should start by saying that we're not trivialising people's experiences and we recognise that this approach isn't appropriate for everyone. For example, if you've experienced a significant trauma then you may need specific forms of therapy to address these difficulties.

Some people might need to work through their experiences and the feelings associated with them before they're ready to change how they think. It might be that counselling can help you to do this.

So let's assume you're at a stage where you're ready to consider changing  your thinking. Whilst this might sound overly simplistic, you do have a choice about whether you change your thinking; we all do. Essentially, you can choose to think of events in ways which are helpful or unhelpful to you in the present.

Below we've given a brief example of a client where we've seen a shift in their thinking. This person is a fictional client who has been made up from the details of a number of different clients we've worked with. However, the change in thinking relating to past life events is something we've witnessed in many of our clients.

An example: Lauren

Lauren was a woman in her mid-30s. She was married with two children and worked as a secretary in an accountants' office. She was reasonably happy in her marriage, but often felt distant from her husband and children.

Lauren came to therapy because she'd been physically and psychologically abused by her mother as a child. Her mother had long since passed away, but Lauren felt unable to let go of what had happened and had carried the abuse with her.

Part of therapy involved Lauren exploring her experiences and her feelings about them; something she'd not done before. There were also discussions of what she wanted for her life in the present and for her future. Lauren said she wanted to be able to let go of what had happened and enjoy her life in the here and now.

Towards the end of the therapy, Lauren reported that she felt "lighter". Whilst she acknowledged that her mother's actions were wrong, she now viewed her mother as someone who'd had her own struggles and wasn't capable of demonstrating love to herself let alone to Lauren and her siblings.

It's worth emphasising that Lauren's acknowledgment of her mother's difficulties was not her way of making excuses for what her mother had done. It was the start of a shift in Lauren's thoughts about those events and it enabled her to begin re-writing her story.

The shift in thinking

The story Lauren had told herself for many years had been one where her mother was "cruel" and unloving, and that she (Lauren) was the victim of that cruelty.

Lauren acknowledged that she had gone through a terrible experience; there was nothing that could change that. However, instead of viewing herself as a victim of her mother's abuse Lauren now saw herself as a strong resilient woman. One who was able to demonstrate love to her own children despite the negative experiences she'd gone through because of her mother.

Through her therapy, Lauren had processed what had happened to her. She'd then made the choice to let go of her "old" story and reframe it in a way which empowered her to appreciate and enjoy her life in the here and now.

If it's so beneficial to change our stories, why don't more people do it?

Change is difficult; even if it's change which moves us into a more positive place. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are comfortable, even if they're painful, because they're what we know and changing them means moving into the unknown.

Also, we often attach our identity to our stories so if we change them we may feel we'll lose our identity. However, we're more than just those stories or experiences, and we can choose not to allow them to define us.

To slightly rephrase a quote from Confucius:

"The man who says he is, and the man who says he isn't...both are correct".

Our minds are powerful and are good at keeping us in a place where we feel helpless; however, we can choose how to use the power of our minds. Therefore, why not use them to move us to a place where we stop the past from holding us back and move forward in the present?

Like we've said, it's not always easy and it's not always simple. But, it can be done because we've seen many clients do exactly that.

Have you managed to change your mindset about something? What impact did that have? Comment below.


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