Western culture has a bad habit. Well, several actually, but that’s the subject of another blog. Or a Masters level seminar. Anyway, the habit I want to talk about here is our felt need to have a backstory for…well, everything. This often extends to ourselves and how we view ourselves in the context of our daily lives.
We listen to what others say about us, combine that with what we think we want our lives to look like, or what we think we stand for, and voila – we end up with a narrative, often with a side order of low self-esteem and unreasonable expectations for good measure.
And that’s where I want to pick up the story (pun fully intended) – after we’ve built this narrative around these externally derived concepts of ourselves. First, you need to understand that these stories often serve a valid purpose. They can give us the motivation we need to keep going when things get difficult. They can smooth the bumps in life.
However, these narratives can also lead us astray – to a false sense of self that’s based on the story and not on who we truly are.
The tricky part is recognizing when you start telling yourself such a story, then being able to separate your actual, present self from the version in the narrative. Start by realizing that you’re constructing the story around past events. Because that’s all you have to build them around, events you remember and can put yourself back into in order to sort out what’s happening now. You’re telling yourself, “something like this happened once, and here’s how I handled it.” This is often followed by a critical assessment of how you handled it and how your past self failed in some way. Here comes the self-doubt.
Now step back from the story you’ve constructed and realize that this is not who you are. This is an event from your past. Your present self has learned from that past event and is attempting to translate what happened and make it relevant to the present.
Let go of the story and allow yourself to live now.
“Nothing happens for a reason, but everything that happens has purpose.”
– Megan Hollingsworth
Saying that an event happened for a reason shifts accountability (blame) to something that happened before that event – and since that precipitating event is in the past, there’s nothing that can be done. This conveniently shifts any impetus to take action off your present self, since all you can affect is now.
However, saying that “everything that happens has purpose,” now that’s a different story (I know, I know, again with the puns). Now you’re saying that the event happened in order to affect something that hasn’t happened yet. Now the focus is on the future, something that your actions in the present can certainly impact.
Suddenly, your future is firmly in your hands and rests on what you do now, in the present – in reaction to the event in question.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
This follows from the first quote, and Epictetus’ words ring true today – two thousand years after he said them. Granted, he was a Stoic philosopher who believed that all external events happen as a result of fate and should be accepted without fuss. I’m not advocating that extreme a view, I just want to take it far enough to adopt an outsider’s view of events in order to learn from them and carry that lesson forward.
If you can make this perspective shift, even if only when you remember this article, imagine the changes you can affect. Instead of saying, “why did that happen to me?” What you’re saying is, “what can I do with this right now to affect my future positively?”
You’ve just taken the negative experience of dwelling on the past why and turned it into the positive experience of figuring out the future how.