Stories We Tell Ourselves

I always tell people that I learn from all of our students and from our clients in the Mesa Healing Center.  I really feel blessed that because of these relationships I have accessed understandings that I may not otherwise have been exposed to in the full expanse of my life.
Just the other day I was given a such a gift in a session with one of my clients, a woman who has come to me consistently for a couple of years.  She is someone who through her own diligence and desire to create a different experience of herself has undergone an amazing transformation.  This was clearly evident just from looking at her face in our most recent session and comparing it to my memory of her from even just six weeks before.  She looked more relaxed and confident, less like a frightened child and more like a capable adult.  Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the change.  My client said that a friend had asked her if she’d had a facelift.  Her face no longer etched in fear and doubt, she looked years younger and less childlike at the same time.
When she came to see me the that day I could tell that she felt down, but it was more of a dip in the road compared to the depths she had sometimes sunk to in the past.  Hers was a heroic story as far as I was concerned.  She had taken a chance and trusted me and my “woo-woo” techniques when they were totally out of her realm of belief or experience, at first because she was desperate, and with time because she knew they actually worked.  I marveled at her progress, and felt compassion for her plight in feeling unable to figure herself out on her own, a source of shame, sorrow, and resignation felt by many.
I have always seen my role as a healer being primarily that of teacher, helping my client-students to learn to heal themselves.  One way I do that is by telling instructive stories; ones I have heard from those who have taught me, tales from my own life experiences, and (anonymously) those of other students and clients I have worked with.  In our latest session, as I groped to find a handle on what I was sensing from my client as she looked for words to describe her most recent malaise, I found myself talking with her once again about stories.
As I listened intently to her on this particular day, what came suddenly clear to me was that her own stories were what were confining her, constraining her way of dealing with the world around her and the process of life.  What made things so hard for her was the difficulty she had in finding real world evidence to back up her bad emotional experience of herself.  It just wasn’t there.
I told her about the concept of how we “story” ourselves and how those stories then shape our way of being.  I shared with her briefly what we’ve learned about this concept from our friend, Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and his approach to healing through story, what he calls “Narrative Medicine”.  “You know… some of the stories you tell yourself may not be true…” I found myself saying to my client.  I could feel some part of myself that had been listening in on the conversation gasp.
On many occasions while working to help this particular person resolve issues, I have found myself stopping and thinking, “Brad…  Listen to yourself.  You might need to look into that about you, too.”  I would often tell my client when it happened and muscle test myself in front of her so that she could see I shared her humanness.  I smiled at my client and announced that I was about to muscle test myself on that very statement as an illustration of the issue.  “I want you to know, the stories you tell yourself may not be true,” I said out loud to myself and pulled on the circle made by my tightly pinched together left thumb and ring finger.  It gave way easily, indicating denial of that possibility.  My stories couldn’t be mistaken.  I laughed out loud, sharing the folly of it with my client.  “See,” I said, “I’ve got it, too!”
We used exactly the same healing prompt for a Guided Head Movement healing for my client after confirming that she also indicated denial that her personal stories could be faulty.  It took two iterations of the no/yes head movement process for her inner paradigm to unlock and shift without emotion or fanfare.  She knew something had changed for her, but could not yet describe it.  I could empathically sense that a deep change had been set in motion for her that would play out over days or weeks.  I’d have to wait and see.  Meanwhile, I planned my own healing for my inner storyteller, hardly able to contain my glee at this insight.
It wasn’t until the next day at our regular morning “meeting” in the living room that I told Kate about my denial about my own inner fairytales.  We found that while we both intellectually understood that our subconscious minds were prone to making things up when they lacked any information or didn’t understand to keep from going insane with fear and confusion, those parts of ourselves couldn’t face the fact that they were fabricating accounts.  We both muscle tested “NO” to the prospect that our personal stories might be erroneous, our inner selves adamant in their rejection of a simple possibility.
For research purposes, we asked me a few muscle testing questions to establish a baseline of obviously false tales I told myself, like what stories I was telling myself about my ability to make money (I couldn’t make any), how I looked (ugly), or whether or not I could succeed (nope).  These answers were opposite to when we just asked outright (without the story angle) if I could make money, etc, showing how Kinesiology depends completely on which questions are asked and how.  It was laughable, pathetic, and the title of my inner operating manual: “Bad Stories About Brad.”
We saw minute differences in the way the two of us dealt with the issue of inner fairytales, and our Guides suggested that we use slightly different spin on our healing prompts.  Mine would be “I want you to know…, the stories you tell yourself may not be true.”  Kate’s would be “I want you to know…, some of the stories you tell yourself aren’t true.”  We set to work with Guided Head Movement, me getting on the floor for the first healing.  Kate said the prompt and moved my head no/yes a couple of times.  Then I saw an incident from thirty-four years ago.
I had been working in downtown DC and taken a walk on my lunch break.  An angry man walked swiftly past between me and the store fronts I was idly looking into, loudly berating me for walking “in the middle of the sidewalk, like you own the place”.  Silently and unconsciously, I just shook my head, scoffing at his anger and possible inebriation.  After he was several feet past me and still moving fast, I felt an overwhelming and irresistible compulsion to say something back, knowing full well that I might be dealing with a powder keg but telling myself he was out of earshot.
Under my breath, I softly hissed a drawn-out, “sh-t”.  He heard my whispered comment, stopped in his tracks, and started ranting at me, arms over his head.  I remember telling myself to just keep walking and ignore him.  (Insert Brad’s mom’s voice here: “Just ignore him and he’ll leave you alone, Honey!”)  When I got next to him, he wheeled and punched me so hard just above my left ear that my whole body vibrated.  I managed to continue on to my destination a couple of doors down where I sat down, stunned, unable to fathom what had just happened to me.  I had told myself he wouldn’t really hurt me, and (after the fact) that he really hadn’t, but he did.  I noted in that recollection that it reminded me of my dad…
Even though I felt activated by the head movements, I could tell that whatever kept the storytelling issue locked down was not budging.  On the third side to side head rocking I felt a queer sensation that I described as being cut down the middle from head to toe, “like a knife cutting a birthday cake.”  I could tell that something else was involved.
As usual, when a prompt and head movements don’t bring a fairly rapid shift, something else deeper presents itself.  Once again I heard something from my inner “parking garage” level, something about whether my stories could be “fixed” rather than simply changed.  We asked my Guides and got that what was needed was a new prompt for this deeper level.  We circled down to the next floor of the garage with “I want you to know…, your broken stories can be fixed.”  Kate said the words to me and barely moved my head when I exploded into tears and wailing, hands covering my face.  I was feeling compressed anguish gushing from my inner underground like a broken water main.
I was feeling old pain I had suppressed and pushed down from being 7 or so years old and watching my family begin to come apart.  I intuitively saw the possibility coming fully 5 or 6 years before it actually ruptured.  Heaped on top of that were subsequent tragedies of teenage rejection, the loss of my first wife to illness, a general lack of success in business, and other disappointments.  I was in total despair within that walled-off part of me because I couldn’t change my epic saga, silently retelling the broken stories about my life to myself every day.  I couldn’t change what actually happened to me back then, but I knew I could change what I told myself about it all.  I could fix the broken stories of loss, low self-worth, and bad luck—whatever that meant inside of me, and “re-story” myself.
The muscle test about fixing my stories shifted as well as the baseline questions about the stories I was telling myself.  The negative answers all had vanished.  Kate’s healing was not emotional, but she also realized that she had been telling herself sad stories about her life, from the puppy she didn’t get, to her parents’ early deaths.  Afterwards she reported feeling a lot lighter, clearer, and less weighed down.
When we were done and had discussed the magnitude of what we had experienced, we got up to go about our day.  Kate stopped me and gave me a big hug, telling me that things would be OK.  In her arms I once again felt a flood of emotion and burst into tears.  “I don’t want our story to break,” I found myself saying in the high, pinched voice of a distraught child, remembering the loss of my first wife.  “I don’t want the Mesa’s story to break, either” I sobbed.  I recognized through my tears that I was habitually telling myself broken stories about the future—not just imagining defeat, but writing the script for it.  Now maybe I could craft a new ending, a “happily ever after” for us and the Mesa.  Kate reassured me that our story would not be broken and I felt better.
Our Western popular culture is not devoid of the art of storytelling.  These days it takes the form of bullet-laden movies, romance novels dripping with sex, rewritten history, and sensationalized news reporting.  Sadly, these stories seem to have little to do with us and our “mundane” lives, but can encourage us to write demeaning internal tomes about ourselves not measuring up to superheroes, fashion models, lucky lottery winners, or gazillionaire politicians.  What is missing is the intentional shaping of personal narrative about individual worth that is intrinsic to indigenous and tribal cultures.  In those societies, children are largely taught how to be adults through stories, rituals, and ceremonies (acted out stories) and are encouraged to tell their own stories so that those who guide them can assess and steer what they are telling themselves.  Our children are often being told that their story is irrelevant, silly, or unfounded; sustaining dismissal without explanation.  (“There’s no one in your bedroom!  Now, go back to sleep!”)  It is often implied that their feelings and what they’re telling themselves doesn’t matter, and that only their parents’, teachers’, or some religious book’s story does.
We create our own personal reality, largely through the stories we tell ourselves.  Many are based on critical anecdotes and short tales we were told about ourselves by the adults in our lives, or overheard in whispers.  We have incorporated them (in-corpore: to bring into the body) in our personal explanations of ourselves to ourselves.  Others are our own immature, irrational, and negative imaginings, slanted that way by steeping in a society based on conflict, separation, and scarcity.
These stories can be about the past, present, or future, and have little to do with the more objective reality of the world around us.  We can be using our personal stories to sooth, reassure and strengthen ourselves, or just to warn us away from more trouble.  They can uplift us, but often tear us down more than any outside detractor.  This is not a logical process—and we can’t make it such.  All we can do is become more aware of what we tell ourselves and do a better job of helping ourselves and our children rewrite our personal stories.  We’re here to help you review and mend your tattered texts, and put band-aids on your broken stories.

About Brad Silberberg

Brad Silberberg, director of The Mesa Creative Arts Center in Burgettstown, PA (Pittsburgh area) is an artist, holistic healer, spiritual leader, and change agent.
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