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Getting Unstuck From Our Stories

Steven Topper, LCPC

We’ve all seen this Dad before: It’s the 1950’s, he comes home from work where his family is waiting, and everyone follows his orders. That’s because this man demands respect. We could venture to guess that in his constant quest to fulfill the story I Must Be Respected, he probably actually feels respected very little in his life. Constantly reaching to be respected, seldom feeling respected. And yet, this story colors every interaction with his family. This is what stories (or judgments, or rules) do to us, they lead us away from the places we want to go. What happens to many of us is that we become fused – or stuck on- particular components of our lives that need to be a certain way. Some of these may include:

  • I need to be liked
  • Other people only look out for themselves
  • No one ever notices the work that I do

The list could go on, and none of these stories is inherently wrong or bad. In fact, they’re often formed over long periods of time and reinforced by our experiences. Maybe we’ve been in a work environment where our work doesn’t get noticed, and now we worry about getting noticed by higher-ups. What often limits us is not the thoughts and stories themselves, but a strict adherence to them. The stories we create may take the place of our actual experiences. If I hold rigidly the story I need to be liked, I may often seek validation and reassurance from others that they do like me; and then it can feel like I don’t quite believe them. This can lead us down a path of narrower and narrower behaviors, where I seek reassurance more and more frequently, and feel less and less secure that others’ like me. So what can you do if you find yourself stuck in a story like this? One helpful strategy is called Cognitive Defusion.

When we get stuck on these thoughts and stories our brain tells us, it often means we are looking from the thoughts instead of at the thoughts. Cognitive defusion is a practice of taking a step back to look at them instead. The first thing we can do is notice the thought. Sometimes they race by us and we’re off trying to figure out how to solve the problem. Instead we can slow down and notice the thought we are having: “I’m having the thought that no one likes me.” When we say this to ourselves, we are working to create distance between ourselves and our thoughts. All thoughts (all experiences, really) are transient, and treating our thoughts as such gives them far less weight. This is an inherently mindful practice. At times, people will imagine their thoughts as clouds in the sky, and they can watch each one come up, and drift away. This helps us call a thought a thought, nothing more. We have thousands of them each day, and labeling a story as simply a thought can once again take power away. Our brains are arrogant, we need not buy everything our brains are selling! The final thing I can do is ask myself, how do I want to respond here and now? This question pivots us toward making decisions that align with who we are, instead of decisions in response to the stories our brains have told us. Once we’ve given ourselves back the freedom to act in accordance with our values, we give those stories far less power over us. Surely the stories will come back, as that is what our brains do. We can start by noticing those ones as well!

If you’ve found yourself struggling with ruminative and limiting thoughts, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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