Even before you are born, life begins to teach you. All of these early inputs are sensory — and possibly energetic. At some point in our development as a child, we began to be taught with words and experiences. These words and experiences then form meaning, mindset and mental structures. In turn, these form our narratives; how we see and approach and respond to the world around us. Some call these loops, stories, inner dialogue. I prefer the term “narrative” because these words are carefully crafted by the psyche.
This is all healthy and normal.
Until it is not.
A childhood that is full of intense and/or chronic trauma hijacks the mind’s meaning maker. It produces a set of narratives that secretly govern the lives of trauma survivors. Or as Jung put it, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.”
Trauma is part of my story. I sincerely thought most of it had healed or been addressed — until some recent experiences once again brought the unconscious into the light. I don’t share this for sympathy or necessarily as part of my own healing process. Here’s why I share … for the past 7 years, I’ve realized that part of my role in this life is to share my own learnings from trauma — both in childhood and adulthood. This is why I have “The Mission is in the Suffering” tattooed on my right forearm. In addition, I am not a certified expert in this field. So while I can empathize with your experiences, I can only share what I’ve learned from my experiences.
This weekend, I began to re-examine some of my secret governors; the negative narratives that have influenced much of my thinking and point of view. As I unpacked these negative narratives, I replaced them with a new narrative. I will write more about these new narratives in next week’s essay.
Narrative: Life is inherently negative.
This is a common narrative for survivors of childhood trauma. In essence, our minds are programmed to assume the worst. While every behavioral style has a different response to this narrative, mine has been about proactively protecting myself — primarily through conflict and aggression. In short, if I think something or someone might hurt me, I’d rather unilaterally fight it.
This narrative also taught me what it thought was an important lesson: better plans = better future. If I had a good strategy and executed it properly, then I would not be hurt by the outcome. This taught me to use worst-case-scenario as a planning tool — that if I could avoid that, then I would be safe and happy.
Further, I was heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalism — which is steeped in anti-self negativity. It teaches us that life is already hard, but our humanity makes it harder. So we need a redeemer, a savior — so that we can have a safe life.
New narrative: Life is inherently good.
Narrative: Relationships are about healing, fixing, completing each other.
Through a lot of deep work and outside counsel, I’m learning how an ingrained fear of rejection has governed me in how I approach relationships. (If you are curious about the impact of rejection, check out this article on rejection sensitivity dysphoria.) For me, life’s purpose was to prevent the pain of rejection.
This narrative taught me that the primary purpose of a relationship is to be healed, fixed or completed. This produced a rescuer/tormentor dynamic that affected how I responded in a number of key relationships. It also produced high levels of unconscious codependency.
Finally, this narrative taught me that being alone was a failure; that it was bad. I’m learning right now how untrue that is.
New narrative: Relationships are about conscious partnerships and friendships.
Narrative: Hard work guarantees success
This is where my “make it happen” mindset comes from. This narrative taught me that effort, intelligence, commitment and competitiveness are where success comes from; that if I have enough of these in the right formula, then good things will happen. And if I fail or don’t like the outcome, it’s because I was missing something. And that missing something is a weakness or frailty. This narrative caused me to impose my own will on my life; to shape it and direct it to what I thought would make me happy. This narrative taught me that relaxation is bad, rest is bad, feeling tired is bad.
This narrative taught me to use “make it happen” in the above two areas. What I thought was decisiveness was really just a way of applying hard work to not being hurt.
New narrative: Discipline equals freedom. (Borrowed from Jocko Willink)
These narratives have overtly or subtly produced a set of behaviors that can be summarized as CONTROL. Control …rejection, feelings, image, time, others.
By examining these narratives, I realize that I no longer actually believe ANY of them in my conscious mind and in my soul. But they still influence me. When I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired, they still try to hijack my mind. They will unconsciously cause me to doubt and fear. They erode my trust in God, in my own soul. They weaken my sense of worthiness. They make me suspicious of my masculinity.
What has been most surprising to me is how distant from reality these narratives are. Sure, some elements of life are negative. But that’s part of life. And some relationships bring more joy and self-awareness than others. And hard work is often necessary.
This is the power of awareness; the power of elevating your consciousness. Both produce a sweet aroma of freedom as we begin to release these narratives and the need to control everything. How am I doing that?
#1: Do the inner work of both mind and spirit. For me, this means softening, receiving, responding, waiting, patience. In means discerning between mental anguish and soul yearning. It means speaking up when my soul prompts me to. It means both the faith of perseverance and the faith of imagination.
#2: Bring them to the light here in my writings, on social, on podcasts, in conversations. This is the power of vulnerability that Brene talks about. Ironically, I’m was much more comfortable being vulnerable with strangers and am still learning to be vulnerable in my close relationships.
Thank you for receiving this. I hope that it inspires you to examine your narratives and behaviors. I hope that it opens a doorway of hope. I hope that it reminds you that we all have the power to choose how we respond to life.