I grew up loving stories. Before bed, I would always be cuddled up with a book that transported me to a different world. Tales of phoenixes, time travel, magic, and kids who survived and learned to love with the help of animals gave me hope and comfort. Stories gave me a framework to view the world and allowed me to use my imagination to relate to other possibilities. Stories helped me survive the most difficult times in my childhood.
When I became an adult, I recognized that everyone forms stories to make sense of this life. While the stories I absorbed as a girl opened me up to connection and expanded my mind, I recognized another set of stories that kept me small and disconnected. These stories were ones of unworthiness. I often found myself believing that I needed to do something in order to be an OK person who was worthy of love, survival, comfort, and relaxation.
In Philosophy grad school, I thought that this meant I needed to live ‘the best’ life in order to be OK (in fact, my Master’s thesis was titled “Happiness is a Warm Nun”). In this life, I donated all my money, time, and energy to helping others, but was also incredibly connected to those around me, hiked all of Colorado’s 14ers, and wrote books that helped people convert to veganism. As a therapist, I felt at first like I needed to be available on weekends and evenings, and work incredibly hard at jobs that didn’t fulfill me in order to be OK.
Though these stories didn’t serve me, the fact that we form stories isn’t negative in itself. Our brains love to make sense of the world—they are narrative junkies. We want to understand our relationship with the universe, and we want to understand others so we can relate to them and thrive. So much great art comes from this desire to organize and understand our human experience. Productive self-knowledge also comes from our ability to inquire and be curious.
But our stories can also limit us. As we try to explain to ourselves why we are in the situations we’re in, why others are treating us as they are, and why we feel negative emotions, we can get stuck in destructive narratives. Stories can be adaptive mechanisms to help us avoid feeling emotions that seem dangerous to us. They can serve to justify our separation us from others—we make others into ‘bad people’ and we paint ourselves as a hero. By the same coin, we paint ourselves as deficient and put others on pedestals.
Whenever we’re running these narrative lines that put us into a different category—as being better than others, as not being worthy, as being a victim—we reinforce our negative beliefs that we are different. Our behavior then follows suit; we act superior and shut others out, or we focus on evidence that confirms that others are mistreating us.
Our stories are mental control strategies. We all want to be seen and understood, and we fear not having these things. Stories help us feel in control. But they can also keep us from really living and relating.
As a kid, I loved the possibilities that stories gave me. As an adult, my job is to listen to and help others make sense of their stories. I help people challenge stories that are negative, unrealistic, or shut down possibility and connection.
The question becomes, what’s the difference between a helpful story, and one that keeps us limited? For me, this poem by Rilke sums up the answer:
Buddha in Glory by Rainer Maria Rilke
Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.
Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,
a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.
The truest part of ourselves is presence, connection, and possibility. We all know this in our core of cores.
Take a moment to reflect on your own experience. In the moments when you’ve felt separate, what was your conception of yourself? Did you like yourself? Did you like others? Was your conception of the universe small and limited, or open and expansive?
Conversely, think of the times when you have felt happiest and most in tune with yourself. What were you doing? Were you connected with others, or did you feel different from them (better or worse)? Were you distracted or thinking about the future, or were you engaged in the moment?
At times in my life, I’ve gotten lost in compulsions that perpetuated my harmful stories in order to avoid feeling loss, sadness, fear and anger. But people I love always help remind me that I’m more than this story.
This connected, present self is the essence of who we are. The times when we feel happiest are the times when our destructive stories aren’t playing. Instead, we are living the story of our vast shell reaching into endless space.
When we come home to ourselves, we can be with the present moment. We are able to let love in. We can approach the world with an open mind because we aren’t focusing on rationalizing how different and alone we feel. Love reminds us that we are more than our stories. And that there is a fascinating other world, full of possibility, underneath them.
‘The universe and the light of the stars come through me. I am the crescent moon put up over the gate to the festival.’ –Rumi
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.