Once upon a time there was a story . . . a story that helped people to change their lives. The story teller was a man made of sand. Depending on how the wind blew, he would take on different shapes. So everyday he had a different appearance.
When I stopped to look at the man made of sand, and asked, “Who are you,” the man made of sand said, “I’m a story teller, just like you.”
After spending time with the man of sand, I came to understand that all of us are storytellers and we tell ourselves stories as a way to make sense of the world and our lives. I also came to understand two valuable lessons of storytelling . . .
- Each of us can become a really good storyteller.
To become a “good” storyteller means that I make meaning of the events in my life in ways that help me live according to my values. For me, this means my stories—the ones I tell myself—encourage me to treat my wife well, take good care of myself, do work that I’m passionate about, and try and make positive contributions to the world. Someone else might tell stories, equally valuable, that lead to very different results—results that feed their values.
- If we remember that our stories are made up then we’re less attached to them.
Remembering that my stories are made up helps me be more flexible, open minded, and less attached to a particular outcome. In addition, the whole notion of being “right” and “wrong” evaporates. I can’t take myself as seriously when I remember that the stories I’m telling are fabricated.
When I say “fabricated,” I don’t mean that the events themselves are fabricated, but rather that the meaning I make of the events—that’s the part that’s made up. In an earlier article I referred to this as The One Truth, the idea that meaning is made up.
So, if I accept this idea that my stories are made up, when I’m upsetting myself with compulsive or hostile thoughts, ongoing ruminations, feelings of jealousy or insecurity . . . I can recognize they are made up and let them go—Poof!
Is Poofing a form of repressing?
What is repressing? It’s pushing down, restraining, subduing my thoughts and emotions. Repressing is not good or bad. There is research demonstrating that repressing is a helpful strategy after receiving a serious medical diagnosis. Apparently, the people who initially repress their emotions after getting this kind of bad news and then later get in touch with and express their feelings; they have higher rates of successful recovery.
But, generally, I think repressing is not the best strategy—except as stated above, when done for a temporary period of time. My concern is that eventually my repressed thoughts and feelings clutter up my system if I don’t acknowledge and release them.
For many years I offered “brief therapy” to my clients, and as part of my training to become a therapist I received a good deal of brief therapy. When I say “brief therapy,” I’m referring to therapeutic approaches that tend not to delve into the deeper recesses of our minds and spirits. Instead, they tend to focus on bringing about a desired outcome in a relatively short period of time.
And I did experience relief from this form of therapy. But years later, many of my feelings—which I never fully dealt with—resurfaced. This happened when I turned forty, actually on my fortieth birthday. When I turned forty I was shocked to find myself feeling the same kind of anxiety I had experienced when I was a child. And as a result of having these feelings reemerge, I shifted my therapeutic approach, with myself and my clients, and I began working at a deeper level.
What is “a deeper level”?
A deeper level involves addressing questions having to do with living in a world of uncertainty, recognizing my own mortality, realizing and accepting my own limitations, facing my aloneness. It is as a result of dealing with these deeper issues that I more fully addressed—and largely alleviated—my anxiety.
Could I have done this kind of deeper work when I was younger? I don’t know for sure. But I wish that I had been given a clearer choice. I wish I had understood that I could push away—repress—some of the causes of my anxiety and unhappiness—knowing I would likely have to deal with them later, or I could do a deeper kind of psychological work.
I suspect that engaging in brief therapy and some repressing is most appropriate during our teen years and in our twenties. This is a time when we need to hold onto our stories, to fill out our narratives. But if we continue holding too tightly onto our stories in our thirties, forties, fifties and beyond, I suspect we’re wasting precious time. There is only so much rummaging around in the past that is necessary—trying to figure out why I did what I did, why my mother and father did what they did, why my first partner did what he or she did. When I realize that my stories are made up, I’m better able to shift my attention from my past to my present.
Back to the question, is Poofing a form of repressing?
When I repress I override my feelings and circumvent some of my thoughts. I go around myself. I take another route to get to my destination.
When I Poof! I acknowledge my thoughts and emotions. I feel myself. I lean into myself instead of away from myself. I own myself. Then, I also acknowledge that my thoughts—which stimulate my emotions—are made up. I see through my own stories. They become transparent. I become transparent. Sometimes when this happens, I sense how malleable I am—like the man made of sand. At these times, I can Poof! with great results.
Other times, I end up wrestling with this idea that meaning is made up. I hear myself saying, “No, this is really the truth.” That’s when I’m attached to my story and Poofing is unlikely to be successful. If the story comes back, or the related emotions continue to coarse through my nervous system, that’s a sign that I’m not ready to Poof! More often than not, when this happens, it’s because I need to say something to another person. I need to renegotiate an agreement. I need to establish new boundaries.
Poofing isn’t always sufficient
And sometimes, the problem resides solely in me, but Poofing is still insufficient. For example, when my mother had recently passed away, and inexplicably didn’t honor an agreement she had with me, I urgently needed to understand why.
Now, isn’t’ this funny? I know that whatever reason I come up with, it will be made up. I know I’m just creating a story, but I so deeply unsettled myself with my mother’s actions that I couldn’t find peace in myself. I needed an explanation. I worked for a few days before I found one that helped me settle down.
So what’s going on there? Why would a made up story help me settle down when I know it’s made up? It’s because my story fits with my values. I come up with an explanation that makes sense to me and is acceptable to me. In my particular case, my solution allowed me to preserve my appreciation of my mother while simultaneously explaining her recent behavior, which I considered to be out of character for her.
My story allows me to hold my world together
But, is it real? Is it true? No, neither. And now, several weeks later, I no longer even need my story. I don’t know why my mother did what she did. I never will. I don’t need to know. I know I loved her. I know she always did what she thought was right. That’s good enough for me. But when I was really upsetting myself, I needed something to help me find my bearings. I needed some way to make sense of what was going on.
And here’s the paradox. Until I make sense of what’s going on—in matters that are really significant to me—I can’t let go of them. I need to create a meaning before I can let go of the meaning.
And this combination of creating meaning and then letting go of the meaning I created is proving to be a powerful combination for me. When I really challenge myself with something, first I make meaning of it, a little bit later I let go—because I realize the meaning is made up.
With the little stuff in life, which is most of what my life consists of, I don’t even bother with step one—making up meaning—I just let go. And since I’ve been doing this, well the ride is getting smoother and smoother. And I’m not making that up!
If you want proof about how valuable it is to Poof!—go ask the man made of sand.