Friday, January 16, 2015

Changing Our Storylines (Or Becoming The Author Of Our Own Lives)

If someone were to ask you "Who are you?" or "Describe your life in only a few words," what would you say? For many of us, it is often easier to answer this question with who we are not anymore, rather than who we are today. This can often be due to the fact that we are still caught up in a storyline or narrative which we have lived in for most, if not all of our lives. For example, when one asks another "Who are you?" or "Will you describe your life for me?", one often hears answers such as "I am an alcoholic," "I was a victim of child abuse," "I am a recovering addict," or "I used to believe <insert here>." When we continually see ourselves in a former light, it can become awfully hard to live in the present moment and experience peace, let alone face the future.

At this point you could be saying, "Well, I was abused as a child," or "I used to believe that but now I don't!" I am not suggesting that we somehow try to magically erase what has happened to us in the past, nor regretful actions that we may have taken. This is denial.  What I am learning, and what I am suggesting, is radical acceptance of what is in the here and now, in the present moment. For example, right now at the noon hour, I am sitting in a coffeeshop. I am quite comfortable. Beautiful sunshine is beaming through the windows, I have a calming peppermint tea beside me, and I am listening to beautiful Celtic music. Right now, in this present moment, I am not being abused, I am not abusing alcohol, and none of the beliefs or teachings that I once held or were handed down to me are being pushed on me. It's just me, Tim Hortons, The Sun, and Enya. 

Now, radical acceptance does not mean approval. It does not justify any horrible things that may have happened to you in the past. As my group therapist said this morning, "No one has the right to cause harm to you." Also, radical acceptance does not mean turning a blind eye to injustices that you may see around you, whether it be abuse, hatred, etc. However, if we continually see ourselves as the victims or as the perpetrators, part of us (or even most of us) will always be held back from our potential. For me, even the word "survivor" doesn't sit well. The term may very well empower other people (one size does not fit all!), but for me that term still takes me back to the past. I am finding that pretty much any label is limiting, even stifling. I have used many labels in the past: victim, survivor, warrior, leader, "the strong one," Christian, non-Christian, etc. All of them are limiting. Even labels that I might use today are limiting, such as "a person in therapy," Unitarian, or Quaker, they're all limiting because no words can adequately convey the vastness and mystery of our unique, beautiful selves.

How can we finally exit the endless merry-go-round of our old, worn storylines that keep us from being present and from moving forward? Here are some suggestions:

1)  Realize - You can't move on from something if you haven't admitted that it happened to you. There are many people who have blocked out entire sections of their lives as a protection mechanism, only to realize years later that they were mistreated or that they mistreated someone else. The phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be true, but it's also true that we can't fix something that's broken if we don't realize that it's broken. Often we need professional help to guide us along our healing journey; this may or may not take a very long time. Eventually, though, we can come to the realization that what happened in the past, is, well, in the past.

2) Decide -  After realizing what actually happened to us or what we may have caused, we can realize that we now have choice. Where once we may have been in a situation where we were very vulnerable and powerless (particularly as children), you and I are now adults and we do have a choice on how we are going to live in the present moment. Once we do this, the future doesn't look so dire or grim.

3) Radical Acceptance - Again, acceptance does not mean approval. Rather, acceptance means that "Yes, this happened to me and it was completely abhorrent, but I am no longer going to let the past define my narrative, my life.  I am not just 'the victim' or 'the addict.' I am here, in this moment, and I can now be the author of my own life." Look at your life as a journal, waiting to be filled with whatever you so choose. The pages are blank and full of potential, they are not already covered in ghostly images and shadows.

4) Worthiness -  This, at least for me, is the key, and could very well have been Step 1.  How are we to have a peaceful present or any prospects for a happy future if we don't think that we deserve to be happy and at peace? Some people do not have this problem, but many do. Ask yourself: "Do I deserve to be happy?" and "Do I deserve to be able to change my storyline and be the author of my own life?" Your reaction may surprise you. Many people have lived their lives thinking that they must consider themselves the lowest rung on the ladder, and that others must be placed ahead of them at all costs. In my experience, this only leads to burn-out, self-loathing, and self-doubt. 

My hope is that wherever you are, you can stop, be in the present moment, and realize that no matter what has happened to you or because of you, this moment is new. Each second arrives with new potential and possibilities, and you can become the author of your own, new storyline. After all, you are more than worth it.

Mark Andrew Nouwen