Poignant, tragic, funny, outrageous—most of us have at least one story we tell to explain our emotional bruises. But there's a big difference between understanding the past and being stuck in it.
If you've ever seen a nervous flier working a set of worry beads through her fingers or Dirk the neighborhood car freak relentlessly buffing his 1982 Mercedes roadster to a high sheen, then you know the exact kind of fevered pitch I've worked myself up to today. I'm so verklempt I can hardly type. But the object of my compulsive fondling isn't a string of beads or a sporty automobile. I'm sickly entranced by a problem from my past, something I cannot stop going over.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about. Maybe, in your idle moments, you mentally replay embarrassing experiences, or chew on the bitter unfairness of a defunct relationship. You might have your very own poverty epic: "You want an iPod, son? Why, when I was a child, all I had to put in my ears was gravel, and I was grateful for it." Personally, I favor anecdotes about my emotional losses and general inadequacy. Give me half a chance, and I'll rattle off dozens of them. (Save yourself: Don't give me half a chance.)
I know that stories have a powerful—and often positive—influence on us humans. The story of someone's struggle, her persistence or fearlessness, can ignite the flame of knowledge and faith we need to light our way. There are circumstances where retelling past problems is not only appropriate but imperative: for example, moments when you are lost in inner darkness and revealing your story will lead you to people of compassion; times when talking about your struggle can help others with the same problem; instances where talking openly can shine a spotlight on injustice or cruelty that flourishes in the dark created by secrets.
These are times for storytelling, and I wish I could say I've encountered any of them today, but I haven't. As I obsess about my ancient problems, I feel more like I'm sinking in quicksand than lighting a torch. I'm creating neither heat nor light, just the icky, perversely pleasurable squish of self-pity between my toes. My only defense is that I'm not the only one down here in the muck—our whole culture is doting on tales of personal tragedy.
Ever since Freud first showed that we could treat psychological ailments by discussing our past, the "talking cure" has trickled its way into every part of society. Today many people (even many therapists) assume that going over the reasons we're unhappy is, in itself, sufficient to create happiness. If this were true, cogitating on our most painful stories would be a cure-all. Unfortunately, there comes a point when talking about our mental block stops being a solution and becomes the problem. That point is marked by a large red flag, on which is written simply: SELF-PITY.
Self-pity, a dominant characteristic of sociopaths, is also the characteristic that differentiates heroic storytelling from psychological rumination. When you talk about your experiences to shed light, you may feel wrenching pain, grief, anger, or shame. Your audience may pity you, but not because you want them to. Obsessing aloud, on the other hand, is a way of fishing for pity, a means of extorting attention. Healthy people instinctively resist this strategy. When you grieve, they will yearn to comfort you. When you demand pity, they will yearn to smack you. Poignant, tragic, funny, outrageous—most of us have at least one story we tell to explain our emotional bruises. But there's a big difference between understanding the past and being stuck in it.
All day I've been telling stories to evoke my own pity, and it's working. Partly. The unhealthy part of me, the world-class codependent, is just mesmerized. "Oh," she cries, "you poor darling! Tell me that sad story again—the first 400 times didn't do it justice!" The healthy part of me finds this annoying: "Oh, for God's sake," she says, rolling her eyes. "Could we please stop the drama and get on with our life?"
The healthy part of me is such a heartless bitch.
On the other hand, she's got a point. Compulsively examining my stories never works for me. I keep sinking into sorrow (self-inflicted though it is) until it occurs to me that I will drown unless I can drag myself out. This can be difficult, but after decades of practice, I've created a sort of verbal tree limb I can grab in a pinch: Am I presently learning the truth about my life's work? If this sentence sounds a little vague, that's because it's actually a mnemonic code. Each phrase reminds me of a concept that helps me escape the marsh: being present, learning continuously, seeking truth, and committing my energy to my real life's work. Here's what I mean:
I just met with a client I'll call Kristin, an energetic self-pitier. We were discussing her desire for a promotion when her gaze dropped and her voice took on a timbre both sorrowful and weirdly practiced, as though she were reciting a very depressing Pledge of Allegiance.
"You know," Kristin said, her eyes welling up, "my mother never let me talk back to her, never really listened to me." Her chest began to heave. "My therapist says she may as well have been deaf." She dissolved into tears.
"Oh," I said. "So, are you going to ask for that promotion?"
"She never listened!" Kristin repeated, sobbing, her hand on her neck. "My astrologer says it totally blocked my throat chakra!"
"Kristin," I said, "Look at me, please."
She didn't want to.
I insisted. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
Reluctantly, like a dog dropping a stolen ham, Kristin raised her eyes and looked. "Three," she said. Her tears dried up. She seemed disappointed. The story-fondling thing had been going so well.
"Kristin, can you see that your mother isn't here? Can you hear that you are able to speak? You're a full-grown woman, with a functioning larynx, who wants a promotion. Full stop."
I call this anchoring, establishing a simple, physical, factual connection with present reality. Try it for yourself, right now. Look around you. Listen. Touch your hair, the floor, this page. Whatever happened ten years ago, whatever happened ten minutes ago, is not your present concern. Neither is what will happen in another ten years, another ten minutes. This moment is all you have to worry about. Narrowing your attention to this point is your reconnection with solid ground. Poignant, tragic, funny, outrageous—most of us have at least one story we tell to explain our emotional bruises. But there's a big difference between understanding the past and being stuck in it.
Never Stop Learning
Getting bogged down in old stories stops the flow of learning by censoring our perceptions, making us functionally deaf and blind to new information. Once the replay button gets pushed, we no longer form new ideas or conclusions—the old ones are so cozy. But becoming present puts us back in reality, where we can rigorously fact-check our own tales.
Try dredging up one of your favorite stories—maybe a classic like "I'm not good enough." Treat it as a hypothesis. Research it. Is there any evidence that contradicts it? Have you ever, in any way, even for an instant, been good enough? You may need to ask someone for coaching at first. Evidence that contradicts your hypothesis will be hard for you to see, while to an objective observer, it's obvious ("Well, you're good enough for me, your dog, and everyone down at the bingo hall, you dumb cluck"). However you get to it, the moment you absorb a fact that disproves your hypothesis, you're half out of the mire.
Insist On The Truth
Whatever terrible things may have happened to you, only one thing allows them to damage your core self, and that is continued belief in them. Kristin's mother may have been Stalin in a bra, but by the time Kristin got to my office, what was silencing her was the conviction she'd formed during interactions with Mom: "It's no good to speak up; no one will ever hear me."
Kristin couldn't redo her past, but she could change that belief. In fact, the loop she replayed in her head was the one thing standing in her way, since evidence disconfirming her hypothesis was everywhere. Lots of people listened to Kristin. Once she acknowledged that, she couldn't be a tiny victim, waiting haplessly for her chakras to open. She was just a woman with a scary job to do. I know how much this realization bummed her out; it always bums me out. But then, it's also the doorway to freedom.
Oh yeah, that.
Put All Your Energy Into Your Life's Work
The moment you lift your gaze from your old stories, you'll see your life's work. I don't mean a gilt-edged proclamation from God, describing every step you are to take for the rest of your existence. I mean the next step, which is usually very small: Ask for the promotion. Pick up the kids. Take a nap. Then take the step that comes after that.
From time to time, as you continue along, a Big Dream will coalesce out of the swamp fog. The way forward is to shake the quicksand off your feet and take one small step toward that dream. Trust me, it will be all you can do. Taking things step-by-step means working—working hard, working scared, working through confusion and embarrassment and failure. I've met many people the world thinks of as "lucky," and all of them operate this way. I've come to think that the main purpose of rumination is work avoidance. Dwelling endlessly on the past keeps us from the wild, exhausting, terrifying tasks that create our right lives.
When I become a little more ruthless with myself and a lot more present in what I have to do, I see that writing a humble column is my next step—and I have writer's block. I'd love to enter therapy and figure out why, but I don't have that kind of time. Instead, I'll focus on a saying from the Ojibwa tradition, one that deserves the attention I customarily lavish on my problems: Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.