“Who would you be without your story?”
~ Byron Katie
Mom tapped the side of the spoon on the edge of the saucepan, knocking off excess tomato paste and said, “Well, you know, Susie, you are a survivor.”
I was 16, and I took this as a supreme compliment—a badge of honor. I didn’t know what to say, so I remained silent, eyes on the little volcanoes of red sauce bubbling up from the bottom of the pan and popping in rhythm.
She added in a few bay leaves and folded the oval, green canoes under the lava. My heart was beating quickly with the exhilaration of having a powerful secret being revealed to me. I leaned back against the Formica countertop, eyes now fixed on her, waiting on her to divulge more clues.
“Time to set the table,” she said.
Thirty years later, in a room looking out onto the calm waters of Stamford Harbor, I stared down at the journal page. Soft music was playing, and everyone at my table was writing away. I watched the flame dancing on the candle wick in the center of the table arrangement and then glanced back out to the water. And then back down to my journal.
Rewriting Your Story
The assignment was to write down an outline of a strategic plan for the next 90 days, as well as note where I anticipated I would get stuck and the resources I needed. Instead, I was preoccupied with what a woman across the room had said in passing…something that had held up a mirror to me and showed me a reflection of one helluva limiting lie I had been living.
A fragment of a story that I had misinterpreted and reshaped into an ethos of how to live.
I don’t even remember now precisely what the woman had said, but the moment her words were airborne, they sailed right through me like tiny truth hammers…exploding into dust ancient boulders of my falsely-constructed sense of self.
I picked up my fountain pen and wrote across the top of the page: “I am a THRIVER, not a SURVIVOR.” My vision blurred with tears, and I leaned back, exhaling. Like a painter stepping back for perspective, I studied the words and began mentally hanging life choices, decisions, approaches to how I had moved through the world over three decades…my entire world view…on what had been the branches of my evergreen, Survivor Tree.
Shifting Your Story
I hovered over the page and wrote, “Looking through the lens of thriving shifts my life in what ways?”
“Well, in every way possible,” I said aloud. My table mates looked up from their assignments. I smiled. “Sorry. Just figured out something.” My neighbor’s hand reached across my back and gave it a pat, offering comfort and marking the moment.
Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
If you believe you are a survivor, it stands to reason that you would treat everything as if it were something to survive. And if I’m being totally honest, would I have also co-created challenging conditions/scenarios knowingly or unknowingly to hone and/or prove my Survivor muscles?
If I were to shift to a new world view and persona as a thriver, I would begin creating my life and my experience of it, rather than passively accepting and surviving whatever floated downstream to me.
I believe we all carry these mini traumas in our pockets, noticing their weight and cumbersome shapes without ever questioning why they are there (or even allowing into our awareness that they are there). They begin as seeds sprouting in a particular point of time, lodging into consciousness and taking root.
A New True Self
The mind begins to seek evidence for what it believes to be true…what the seeds are telling us…and then, the green shoots ignite like hungry vines devouring the trunk of our true selves.
These stories can become our bedrock. Our perceived shawls against the wind of uncertainty. Instead of actually offering us protection, though, they are shackles…invisible to us…leaving marks in our flesh while their heft makes us sore.
How do we seek out and untangle these viny story threads that choke off our true self’s oxygen supply?
Begin with a gentle inquiry when you have a quiet, private moment. Ask yourself: What do I believe/think I know for sure about myself that makes me feel bad?
Without trying to force answers, just let the stream of consciousness flow from your pen to paper. Perhaps you might write a letter to your true self and simply ask it where the false stories in your life reside.
Prod around in the embers of childhood, times when your heart was heavy and you didn’t fully understand why. Peer inside the glass dome of the self you have constructed that feels like safety and sadness simultaneously.
Where do you have a hunch about a truth…something that may even have been calling to you recently? Something that feels like a knowing you forgot, like a bike in the rain, rusting over with what others said was the right way to get approval, love, or control.
If something flies into your heart and/or awareness like the words spoken in that room on the water did for me, get it all down. Don’t edit. Don’t craft sentences. Let it rip.
Next, study what you’ve captured on paper and spot all the lies. Circle them.
From here, begin your new story. Write down “I am” statements that align with your true self, resonate deeply within your soul, and empower you. Consider scenarios and ways of being that exemplify how you can live your new ethos, bring it into daily life, and give it wings.
You’ll know when you’ve landed on what is true for you when you actively begin chucking ballast overboard, and a light and giddy feeling of freedom lifts you up, up, up.