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Challenging the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Challenging the narrative in a curious and kind way becomes easier with practice, and you and those around you are worth it!

As a counselor, I see a variety of people and many times, repeating patterns of thought show up in session. I thought I would speak on a few of these and debunk popular thought distortions.

“I am hypercritical of myself and others, and I assume everyone else thinks the same way I do.”

This is not true. There are many ways people think, and often they have very little to do with the way things really are. We are meaning-making machines and we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. It is an important part of learning and discovering our places in the societies and groups that we wish to belong to under normal circumstances. But it is easy to lose our path if our stories are not checked. People fall all along the gradient, but there are four main categories of negative narratives I have encountered as a counselor.

  • You are hypercritical of yourself and others. If this is you, chances are you have had a caregiver or family member that was also critical of you and others. This became a normalized behavior and you believe that most people operate in this hurtful way. This narrative is fed by a steady stream of fear. To you, harsh criticism of yourself motivates you to be better and believing the worst about others protects you from pain and disappointment. You may believe that if you think terrible things about yourself, no one can hurt you with those same things. It is likely that you have suffered mental and emotional abuse. It may also be intergenerational trauma because whoever did this to you probably also had it modeled for them. It is a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned and replaced with a gentler, more tolerant viewpoint of yourself and the world around you. Healed and self-aware, this turns into being able to take inventory of your behaviors without punishing dialogue and the ability to set firm boundaries with others.

  • You are hypercritical of yourself but not others. Do you constantly berate yourself with comparisons or perfectionism? Do you believe that satisfaction or contentment with yourself means you will no longer achieve your goals? Do you live as though all of your value is performative? Look within and ask yourself if you think the people you love are all better than you. What evidence do you have for these thoughts? Maybe you are comparing your insides to others’ outsides. Self-doubt and low self-esteem lurk in the shadows of this negative narrative. Your fear tells you that if you think these terrible things about yourself, it will somehow protect you by motivating you to do better. The truth is, once we become adults and sometimes much sooner, we must parent ourselves. We get to decide if we will be mean and authoritative parents, or kind and nurturing. After processing and learning to love what is, this turns into self-care and self-acceptance.

  • You are not critical of yourself but you are of others. This is the gradient of narcissism and/or control issues. Do people fail you often? Are you typically frustrated by the ineptitude of those around you? Would you be happy if people would just do it your way? People in your life may have told you that you struggle hearing feedback about yourself. You frequently minimize or deflect your part in conflicts and sometimes get lost in power struggles and “winning the argument”. The truth is, we need to know how to “lose” arguments and take educational blows to our ego in order to learn how to better hold our relationships. Growth is painful and every ounce of kindness and goodness with others is earned. After building resilience and self-awareness of your own ego strength, this looks like self-love and finding gratitude in the value of others.

  • You are not critical of others or yourself. It sounds like a wonderful way to be, right? But those who lack self-awareness or the ability to read the intentions of others often struggle with relationships or knowing what is safe. Perhaps you grew up in a permissive/neglectful household or with codependent relationships that taught you little about the mores of social engagement. Were there few consequences for your actions? Conversely, do you believe that life “just happens” to you or you have bad luck? Do you have a strong sense of self? Do you know how to set and maintain boundaries, or read the red flags of people you meet? People who lack self-awareness are often confused by the feelings and behaviors of others because they lack consistent modeling of appropriate behavior or communication. With work on self discovery, values, attachment styles, and boundaries, this individual can have a sense of self and know what they want in relationships.

How do we change our narrative, when perhaps we have had it for many years or even all of our lives? We ask ourselves if these thoughts are true.

If you are unsure, when you can dialogue with yourself, ask for solid evidence to back up the thought. Is the evidence circumstantial or subjective? Would you be so quick to punish others who have made that same mistake? Be curious at the sensations and emotions that accompany the thought. Check in with your body and ask what it thinks of situations and others.

Next, ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts? Don’t try to change or stop the thoughts, just observe. I say that because trying to stop thoughts cold in their tracks is often like trying to compartmentalize the pee in the pool! Can you think of a stress free reason to continue those thoughts?

Challenging the narrative in a curious and kind way becomes easier with practice, and you and those around you are worth it!

Jeanne Wickham

Riverbend Therapist

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