Why it’s worth trying your hardest to see things in a new way.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about modern spirituality and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. To get more content about how to infuse your life with thoughtfulness, reflection, and meaning, subscribe here.
I was reading an article over at The Atlantic last week (their column where people write in looking for advice from a therapist) when I was punched in the face by this paragraph:
Often when people come to therapy, I’m listening not just to their story, but to their flexibility with their story. Is this version of the story the only version — the so-called accurate one? Or might the person’s way of telling the story be protective, a way of not having to look at something shameful or anxiety-provoking, of not having to look at oneself clearly? Being flexible with one’s story is where growth begins, where the possibility of a better way to live one’s life is revealed. I can’t tell you whether you’re wrong to leave your wife, but I can help you understand your decision better by examining the story you’re telling yourself.
It made me think immediately of a story I’d long told myself for most of the past decade: That I simply didn’t have the willpower it took to stick to meaningful routines that would allow me to do the work or activities I found fulfilling.
Primarily, this work was writing. I was a stunted blogger — had had some success in the early and mid-aughts with personal writing, but had abandoned it in a flailing manner for the last ten years. Every time I stared at the backend of my blog, nothing came to mind. I tried a lot of stuff — waking up earlier, reading books on how to write, putting new routine-forming systems into place — but nothing stuck. (I will note, lol, that the one thing I simply did not try was forcing myself to just write daily. Interesting, that.)
“Hmm, time to accept it,” I finally told myself. “I’m horrible at routines and willpower, and therefore will never accomplish anything of significance, and I better just get used to that fact!” The people who know me would scoff at this, but for a long time I believed it to be true: I am horrible at sticking to routines. I have things I like to do and stuff I’ve accomplished, for sure. I’ve run a few marathons and work out regularly. I’m in a job I like and have traveled. Friends and family are abundant. My life is good and I do things I enjoy.
But the story I’ve always told myself is that most of this came out of spontaneous luck and situational stuff, not because I dedicated myself in any way to it. And in a way, I really believe this is true. I have a knack for sensing opportunities and connecting with people who may have a meaningful effect down the road in my life, and while I don’t exploit that consciously, I think it’s been a big driver in my life and any success I have.
Meaningful routines, though, like a routine that would have benefited my writing, for a long time — seriously, like nearly a decade — eluded me Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought.
“Oh well,” I’d think, sleeping in late another morning instead of getting up to run or write or meditate, “this is just who I am, better accept it!”
The thing is, I totally logically understood that if I could set up a daily routine where I made myself write more, it would probably work. But I could not get it done. And I chalked it up, once again, to an inherent failing on my part. “Guess I’m just lazy and not meant to be a writer!” I’d tell myself, flicking mindlessly through the internet for the billionth time. “If I were meant to be I’d have created to and stuck to a routine by now. Too bad I’m not good at routines, so I guess this will never happen.”
What a sad story to sell yourself. This was my story. I lacked willpower. I couldn’t create routines. And therefore I would never be able to really write in a meaningful way again.
But I suspect it’s more common than not. That I couldn’t stick to a writing routine was a convenient narrative for me, something that allowed me to escape doing something that I desperately wanted to do again, to find joy in again, to have success from again… but was totally, wildly afraid of.
Through a lot of self-reflection (in particular, Morning Pages really jumpstarted this for me), I realized I actually have a creepy amount of willpower.
I just wasn’t able to direct it at something I was truly passionate about — and therefore truly vulnerable about.
My story, or narrative that I was bad at sticking to a routine that would enable my writing was a weak cover for a woman who had become insecure, powerfully afraid of putting herself out there for risk, for criticism, for vulnerability — even for joy.
Let’s go back to that line from the article above: Being flexible with one’s story is where growth begins, where the possibility of a better way to live one’s life is revealed.
I think all of us have some version of a story that we’re not flexible with, that may be holding us back or protecting us in some way.
How do you know if you have a story that you tell yourself like that? Well, chances are it starts with one of these phrases:
My challenge to you this week is to identify one of those stories, write it down, and look at it. Really look at it. Ask yourself: For the sake of what do I tell myself this story? Is there fear behind it? Am I protecting myself from something? And is there a way I could move forward past this story? Can I be flexible with it? Can I try something new?
If you’re able to identify how your story may be protecting you, just muse on that a while. You don’t have to immediately jump into a new way of being or trying. You don’t have to immediately do a thing you’ve been avoiding or strive to become good at it. Just let this new knowledge sit there, acknowledged.
What you’re doing by observing this version of your story is peering open through a newly-ajar door in a new room in your house of life.
It’s going to be fun to explore.
What’s your story that you’ve not been flexible with? Email me, and I’ll share with the community in an upcoming newsletter.