Our brains love stories. We use them to make sense of the world, to make connections, and to find patterns. We use stories to make predictions, and we use them to pass on lessons and wisdom.
Stories are such an important part of being human. One of the most powerful things an individual can do is to share their story with others.
That is why the Life Story Exercise is one of the essential parts of our Phase I of treatment. It is a chance for the clients to actually put to paper what they have been telling themselves about who they are. Their addictions have most likely trapped them into carrying around harmful and unproductive stories about themselves. Oftentimes, people in addiction do this without even realizing it. The First Step Exercise also helps our clients come to terms with the things they have done in their addiction, while also accepting that those actions do not have to define them going forward.
When we share our own stories, we are practicing vulnerability and building connections with the people around us. We are also allowing room for a different perspective to come in. Stories remind us that we are not alone. They help us understand how we got here and imagine where we might go. They form pathways in our brains that help us make decisions and assess what is happening around us.
When Lies Become Truth
When we tell a story over and over again, we begin to believe that it contains truth. Imagine that you are telling a funny story about something that happened a few years ago. You may begin to forget the details of what really happened, and so the way that you tell the story starts to form your memory of the event. The details may shift and change over time, and eventually, you may be telling parts of the story incorrectly, but your brain will actually believe that it’s the truth.
But what happens when we start telling hurtful and damaging stories about ourselves? We begin to believe those, too. When we hear and say the same negative things again and again over time, we start to perceive them as truth even if they are lies. This can start with other people saying negative things about us, but the real danger comes when we begin saying these things to ourselves.
Addiction writes a lot of tragic stories. The negative consequences of our actions begin to pile up and start telling stories about who we think we are: a terrible mother, a disappointing daughter, a horrible son, a bad employee.
When we tell discouraging stories about ourselves over and over again, our negative actions can begin to define our identity, and we miss the good parts of ourselves. These are shame stories. They continue a painful cycle of believing that we are “bad.” And these stories give our addictions more power.
For our clients, sharing the negative stories they’ve been carrying around in the Life Story Exercise can have such a transformative effect. Sharing the shame-ridden stories with people who can identify allows them to open up and have a different experience regarding their past. It doesn’t completely take away the pain of the difficulties of the events of the past, but it allows them to have a different relationship with it.
Velcro & Teflon
We are designed to remember negative things in the world around us. It’s a survival skill. If you use a stove every day for a year and you burn yourself one day, you are going to remember that one bad experience much more easily than the 364 good ones.
Dr. Rick Hanson explains it like this:
In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.
The bad things stick even if we don’t want them to, and good things slide right off like nonstick cookware! We have to work a LOT harder to remember positive things than we do to remember negative ones. This is a big part of what makes a practice of gratitude so important and impactful.
Writing Better Stories
So, what can we do to change these stories? It seems like an uphill battle, but you are far more powerful than in the past. Writing better stories does not mean that we ignore our mistakes or pretend that we are perfect. We accept responsibility for our choices, we own up to our shortcomings, but then we turn our eyes forward – not back.
Here are three practices for creating better stories for ourselves:
- When we recognize a lie, we name it as such. Often this requires the help of somebody else.
- We accept encouragement from others when they offer it.
- We set healthy boundaries with people who have hurt us.
There are no quick fixes here. These are practices that we must repeat for months & years to come. This is not something that we can usually do on our own. We often need the help of a strong community with similar values to help each other make these changes. There are a lot of things in life that we are powerless over, but with the help of others, we have an incredible amount of power to choose the kind of story that we are going to tell.
There is a saying in the recovery community that rings true here: “I am not what I have done; I am what I have overcome.”
Keep overcoming. And tell a better story.