- Julius de Jong
How to Update the Story We Tell About Ourselves (Episode 18-39)
A changed narrative leads to a changed life
We all have stories we create and share about ourselves. Some stories we share with others, and some we only play (and repeat) inside of our heads. Typically, these stories about who we are and what defines us, are grounded in our past experiences. When we’re not careful, these stories we create and share about ourselves can end up determining our lives. They can keep us from moving forward and can limit our scope of focus. Colleen Georges call this the self-story, which is the story we tell ourselves moment to moment, about who we are, why we are-, or aren’t good enough, what we are-, or aren’t capable of, and what possibilities the future can hold for us (Georges, 2016).
Author David Grossman calls this story we create and share about ourselves our primal story (Menkveld, 2020). As Grossman stated, ‘every person has a primal story, a story that we always tell about ourselves when we meet new people. Usually this is about our youth; maybe we felt misunderstood, or lonely, or were living in our fantasy because real life was so hard. The problem is that we keep polishing this story, getting better at telling it, but we don't realize how much it has shaped our lives. It paralyzes us, when it may not have much to do with who we are now’ (Menkveld, 2020). As soon as we allow ourselves to approach, share, and shape our stories with more freedom, by shifting emphasis or changing our point of view, we no longer have to remain constrained by the story that once was.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by how our thoughts and perspectives shape our actions, and thereby shape our world and lives. A lot of this stems from our earlier years in life. Impactful experiences at an early age shape our being, and our becoming, if we’re not careful. Our socialization, cultural references, and social circles all influence the image of ourselves, and the story we create and share about who we are. This post is about the story we – often unconsciously – have created about ourselves, and how we can update and change it for the better.
Initially, I was hoping to speak with David Grossman about this topic, as I felt he had articulated this concept very accurately. Unfortunately, my various requests through different publishers remained unanswered. Then, last week when I was finishing up on my post about vulnerability and asking for help, I opened LinkedIn to seek out something Andy Lopata had posted, whom I had interviewed about vulnerability and asking for help. There, at the top of my timeline was a post of Tivania Moodley, someone I wasn’t connected to. It was honest, vulnerable, and powerful. I got curious and checked out her profile. There she’d written about ‘the story that once shaped her, and the creation of a new story’. What this meant for her, she shared with me during our talk that followed.
During my conversation, Tivania Moodley, author of Girl on Fire, shared with me her process of transformation, and how she rewrote the story about herself. The old story of Tivania consisted of a failed suicide attempt after a culmination and succession of traumatic life experiences. She shared about having dealt with rape, intimate-partner violence, three miscarriages, two divorces, and losing everything financially (Moodley, 2021). As Tivania shared, the narrative behind her life story was that she wasn’t good enough. Every decision she made emanated from this narrative of self-deception (Moodley, 2021). What she realized as time passed, was that a lot of her story which she carried forward through life, wasn’t her own. This consequently led her to holding on to beliefs that weren’t her own neither. This finally led to a process of un-becoming, finding her own voice, listening to her truth, and from there establishing a new story (Moodley, 2021). From a story of despair, loneliness, and depression, she changed her story into a story of love, peace, and human tenacity. I’ve tried to break down her process and will share this with you down below for your benefit.
As Tivania believes, we are in our purest form when we are born as babies. From there, we unlearn being ourselves and adapt to what society requires and expects of us (Moodley, 2021). Therefore, it is very important to critically investigate the stories we share about ourselves and keep alive. They might not be our own. We might have taken on the stories of others growing up, or trough our experiences. Also, when we’re not careful and present, it’s easy for us to internalize external events around us. Or we make the consequences of external events mean something about ourselves and our worth.
You can’t change what you don’t see in front of you. Therefore, we need to bring all darkness into the light. ‘That’s the only way you can heal [and become more of yourself]’ (Moodley, 2021). There are many distractions from this process, but ultimately there is only one way to become ourselves. Through embracing all that’s us, without shame or reservation. Tivania described the process of distinguishing between the externally induced story, and her discovering her own story, as a process of awakening.
Truth and experience instead of conformity
According to Tivania, we tend to suppress who we truly are from a desire to conform and fit in (Moodley, 2021). There is a lot of fear attached to owning our truth. In some cases, in certain cultures and environments, for women, owning their truth could get them killed (Moodley, 2021). Tivania shared the example of her rape. Coming from a society where there is no talking about such things, women generally keep silent to avoid the shame and judgment from society. As did she, until she became as sick as her secrets and couldn’t bare hiding this part of her experience from the world any longer. When she started the process of owning up to who she was and what happened to her, she became able to heal herself (Moodley, 2021). This is a very fundamental thing to me. Six elements I’d like to highlight in this regard:
Putting out into the open what is. When things are tough, it’s easy to tuck it away covered by various distractions. This prevents us from an opportunity to move through something and get over it. In order to do this, we must own it, no matter how messy or painful. It’s a part of our experience, and we need to allow it to be seen. This takes some difficult and hard work and facing what needs to be seen. When we bring something into the light, it has to be experienced. We must move through it. Doing so will set us free from the bounds that kept us;
Honesty and truth. When we honestly express what is going on for us in the moment, or what pain we feel because of past events, this will help us get through the experience and with time allows us to let go of it. As Tivania said, ‘speaking and living our truth brings us back to our essence’ (Moodley, 2021). Speaking your truth is for you to experience and get over what you have to get over with. There are no shortcuts here, nor solutions that always look good and clean. Being honest and truthful about what is, is the way to do it. This allows us to move on;
Give yourself permission and space to be who you are, and experience what needs experiencing. Permission is not the same as accepting. It doesn’t involve judgment. Instead, it just grants you the space to be you, and to experience or express what needs experiencing and expressing;
Be curious. I believe everything, no matter how hard or difficult, can teach us something. Instead of being concerned with fixing behaviors, making diagnoses, suppressing symptoms, and judging, instead we need to seek to understand the sources from which troubling behaviors and diseases spring in the wounded human soul (Maté, 2021). When we can become curious about our stress, anxiety and hurt, we can have different eyes for looking at ourselves. Free from judgement then, we can explore what has remained hidden inside of us;
Express yourself. Be it verbally, physically, or in written form, we must express ourselves. This helps us release tension, find our voice, and get to know ourselves. This process should happen outside of our head and thoughts. For Tivania, the process of writing down her experiences and story in her book was healing for herself;
Physically, not only mentally, move through it. We hold trauma in our bodies. We store unprocessed emotions in our physiology in the form of tension and disease. Experiencing these emotions physically helps us release them. As Tivania shared during our talk, it was after her three-day intervention with the Soar Institute that she was able to let go of a lot of old hurt that had kept her locked. These three days brought out everything she had been hiding all her life. From personal experience I know of the immense power of physical release of trauma and tension. It is an indescribable experience, which leaves you with lightness, clarity, and love. As Tivania explained, the three days provided her with the space for her to share and embrace who she truly was, and what had happened to her. Through processing trauma, and having it see the light of day, she could get back into the world with a purpose that was bigger than her.
When we allow ourselves to be seen, and start seeing ourselves, that’s when our new story can be created. After moving though our experiences, and clearing the debris of our past hurts, insecurities and limiting beliefs, the re-building can commence. We cannot find our purpose and change our full story when we’re still engulfed in our blind spots (Moodley, 2021). By going through an experience and allow it to be seen, past hurt can be dissolved. This is the process of self-healing. As Tivania has so articulately stated, ‘[t]he only way out is through’ (Moodley, 2021).
The story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we’re not, determines our happiness, or unhappiness. This story is constructed from a narrative about ourselves, assembled based on our experiences, perspectives on the world around us, and interpretation of facts as we see them (Babauta, 2021). Our perspective shapes our story, and our story shapes our perspective. However, it requires presence and awareness to start seeing our story for what it is, and to shape and craft it so it will serve us. Just because you think a thought, doesn’t make it a fact. It starts with presence. Being in the here and now. From there, we can start noticing what we tell ourselves about everything that happens. We need to develop the awareness to ask ourselves; ‘what do I need to do to change this situation?’ (Moodley, 2021). Like working out our muscles in the gym, we need to exercise the circuitry in our mind (Rogers, 2014). We need to self-soothe, and find the positive version of our stories. Then, we need to reinforce those, and build ourselves from there.
What we need for changing our story
Tivania articulated three points which she believes we need to positively change our story. Find these below:
Acceptance. It all starts with accepting that there is a story to begin with. This requires a lot of examining, as people don’t want to face the truth. It’s too scary, too hard. You cannot deal with-, or heal things, which you do not face (Moodley, 2021);
We have the same fears. Understand that collectively, every single one of us has the same fears. To more or less extent, we all have the same pain. We all face problems with comparison. As humans, we have a need for belonging and safety. The fears one might experience when revisiting his or her story are not uniquely theirs. We all share them. Knowing this can provide us with more self-compassion;
Your legacy might be different. Make peace with the fact that the environment that you we’re brought up in, may not be the legacy that you need to create. Maybe you are here to be the black sheep and break the cycles of disfunction (Moodley, 2021). How will I speak my truth when I know it will devastate my family? How will I speak up when everyone else is silent? You might be the one that gives other people the permission and courage to speak up too. If there’s no one else doing the thing that needs to be done, maybe it is your job (Moodley, 2021).
Not a democracy
During our talk, Tivania said; ‘My life is not a democracy, I have the final say in my life’ (Moodley, 2021). I really like this statement. We are faced with all these whisperings and suggestions of the people around us. But we need to recognize that ultimately, we have our own voice that needs to be heard. We need to learn that we can share who we are, both the light and the dark. We need to learn to embrace the eb and flow of life. Most importantly, we need to learn that we can have our own voice, and create our own story. You never know what impact you can make when you’re in alignment with who you truly are (Moodley, 2021). When we are our full self, there is an unlimited pool of energy and power. Let’s tap into that, okay? And one more thing for you to think about: who are you, before the world told you who you had to be?
One more thing
During our talk about the stories we create about ourselves, and how to update them and make them our own, Tivania also said another thing I don’t want to keep you from reflecting on…
‘Everything that’s missing in your life, give it away’ (Moodley, 2021).
To learn more about the stories we tell ourselves, and how to update them, I’ve talked to Tivania Moodley. How she crossed my path is an interesting anecdote. While I was writing my last post on vulnerability and asking for help, I opened LinkedIn to check on something about Andy Lopata, whom I interviewed for that topic.
There, on my LinkedIn timeline was a picture of Tivania, and a capturing writeup above it. It was honest, vulnerable, and powerful. I got curious and checked out Tivania’s LinkedIn profile. There, I found more what triggered me. Especially her mentioning of the story that once shaped you, and the creation of a new story.
This story we tell ourselves, and others, about who we are, is in many cases based on past events and truths that no longer serve us. It can keep determining our future if we’re not careful. Tivania shared her own experience of transitioning from an old story to a new and updated one. Her process and reflections on this illustrated some very interesting and practical points on truth, acceptance, and more regarding updating the story of who we are. Enjoy! And oh! Who are you, before the world told you who you had to be?
Website of Tivania Moodley: https://www.tivaniamoodley.co.za
Babauta, Leo, 2021, Mental Badassery: Becoming Aware of the Stories We Tell Ourselves. Zenhabits.https://zenhabits.net/narrative/, accessed on 23 November 2021.
Georges, Colleen, 2016. Re-Scripting The Stories We Tell Ourselves. https://youtu.be/0L4Omgo70Rk, accessed on 23 November 2021.
Gornto, Scott, 2014, The Stories We Tell Ourselves. https://amzn.to/32h3jfY
Maté, Gabor, 2021, The Wisdom of Trauma. https://wisdomoftrauma.com, accessed on 16 September 2021.
Menkveld, Emilia, 2020, Ik probeer het harde, versteende deel van onze geest te masseren. Achter het boek David Grossman. De Volkskrant, 31 oktober 2020.
Moodley, Tivania, 2019, Girl on Fire. https://amzn.to/3cAeLp7
Rogers, Jodie, 2014, The stories we tell ourselves. https://youtu.be/PXxBRhYseNY, accessed on 23 November 2021.