First, let me assure you that I’m not here to suggest that in the face of trauma, you force a smile in the mirror, grit your teeth and mutter “I am happy and fulfilled! I am calm and relaxed!” I don’t advocate for denial of reality or invalidating your own pain.
Far from it.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no value in examining self-talk as a tool for shifting our reality. There’s plenty of evidence that the way we talk to and about ourselves has the power to shape our lives, feelings, self-concepts, and relationships.
Challenging and adjusting our use of language can be a simple and accessible way to improve our mental health and approach life in a self-aware and adaptive way.
The phenomenological perspective
Phenomenology, in psychology, is the study of subjective experience. It holds that no perception can be entirely objective, and that our way of understanding or relating to anything in the world is coloured by our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences.
For example: I see a happy and excited dog running towards me. I am flooded with feelings of warmth and excitement, my involuntary response is to throw my arms open and welcome this dog, and I’m likely to drop whatever I’m doing to play with it. My brain will release the happiness hormones and I’ll laugh and be instantly full of joy.
Someone who has had bad experiences with dogs or has learned they are threatening would obviously have a very different response to me.
The dog does not objectively cause any type of feeling or response. Our response to it depends on our subjective perception of what that dog means.
How do your stories affect you?
We all have stories and ideas that affect our responses to the world. Some are adaptive, others are not, some were necessary once, outlived their usefulness, but stuck around regardless. Some were given to us by others and we inadvertently adopted them as truth.
If you keep telling yourself “Nobody likes me” or “I’m unlovable,” you may avoid people, or find yourself constantly feeling defensive, looking for evidence of attack or dismissal in people’s language.
If you’re holding onto “Men/women can’t be trusted,” your suspicion and negative assumptions will likely continue to make you anxious and ruin your relationships.
Any stories that begin with “I can’t” or “I’m terrible at” may also perpetuate your reality, keeping you stuck in not being able to do those things. Particularly if they lead you to never try.
Shifting your stories
Absolute statements like those above leave no room for alternatives, change, or growth.
What absolute statements do you make about yourself that are limiting you?
Awareness of these as “stories” rather than “truth” is the first step to loosening their grip on you. I like to name my stories according to their general theme, and acknowledge them: Oh look, it’s my “Nobody loves me” story, or, Oh hey, another incarnation of the “Not good enough” story.
The next step is to see if you can replace them with more adaptable, flexible stories. Avoid trying to force them down with their opposites, such as “Everyone loves me! I am amazing!” No part of you is going to believe that.
Instead, could you replace “Nobody loves me” with “I have some challenges with social connection”?
Could you replace “I’m terrible at maths” with “Maths requires a little more work than some of the other things I’m naturally good at”?
Could you replace “Men are all jerks” with “I’ve had some bad experiences with men and am working on improving my intuition and trust”?
These stories create space for healing. They show you where you need to focus your attention and love. They invite you to grow and create a more fulfilling and expansive relationship with yourself and the world.
They remind you that you are a self-actualising human with power to adjust your own reality.
Acting on your new stories
Once you’ve written your new stories, it’s important to ground them in reality to create new patterns and ways of being. After making space for improvement and healing, we need to take concrete steps in the direction we’ve identified as needing love and care.
Can you start a new practice that supports your growth? Listen to an audiobook by an expert on the topic? Talk to friends who seem to have nailed the domain you’re challenged with?
Could you challenge yourself to try the things you believed you couldn’t do?
Could you love the imperfect parts of yourself enough to help them persist through the challenges inherent in any kind of growth?
Gestalt therapists use the phenomenological approach to foster awareness and growth of the individual experience, using attention and experimentation to achieve insight.
If you’d like to talk to us about finding a therapist who can help you understand and heal your own stories, get in touch for a free consultation call today.