What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

When I was a little kid, one of the funnest games to play was “let’s pretend”: “Let’s pretend the living room is the ocean, and the furniture is islands, so you have to swim to get to them!”… “Let’s pretend everything is opposite, like we can only move backwards!”…  “Let’s pretend I’m a really rich person and you’re my butler!”

(O.k., so you usually can’t get your younger siblings to go along with that one, but it’s worth a try.)

The awesome thing about the “let’s pretend” game was that it made the boring everyday things around you seem suddenly new and exciting. In the blink of an eye, you weren’t stuck inside with nothing to do on a rainy day; you were on a cool adventure, and everything you saw was part of that adventure.

Banisters were trees. Trees were giants. The world transformed around you, just because you said so. (It’s a handy trick to use if you’re babysitting, too. You’d be amazed how excited a kid can get about brushing his teeth or helping clear dishes if you make it into a race or a secret ninja test.)

 

The Power of Frames

The way we frame things matters. When we get older, we may stop intentionally imagining the world around us into something different. But while we’re no longer saying “let’s pretend,” we’re still telling ourselves stories that change the way we view things — and not always for the better.

It’s way too easy to cast yourself into a role. You’re the overworked, under-appreciated martyr. You’re the only nice person left in a world of jerks. You’re no good. You’re too good. Everyone else is no good. You’re hopeless. And, like magic, everything around you seems to fall into place to support that role.

Self-stories have a way of becoming self-fulfilling. If you look at the world through whatever-color glasses, guess what? Everything will look whatever-colored. (Tweet, tweet!)

But that doesn’t mean that it is. (Or that it has to be.)

 

Red Flags

I’ve begun to realize there’s one surefire to tell when I’m operating based on faulty self-stories. Any time I find myself thinking in terms of things that “usually,” “always” or “typically” happen, I should learn to stop myself right there, because I’m probably telling myself a story that won’t lead to anything good.

For instance:

  • This guy’s gonna cut me off. SUVs usually cut me off…
  • Of course she dumped that project on me. People always dump their projects on me. I’m the only one who ever does any work around here…
  • One more load of dishes to do. Typical. The chores never end…

Can you tell which sad, sorry stories I’m telling myself about my life in these examples? Here are the underlying (/unattractive) assumptions:

  • Everyone else drives like an idiot. Everyone is only out for themselves. SUV drivers are obnoxious. Woe is me. [Cordelia note: I personally do believe that the ratio of obnoxious SUV drivers to obnoxious small car drivers is considerably high, but an assumption is still an assumption, so I’m trying to be more charitable. Apologies if you’re one of the nice ones!]
  • Everyone wants to take advantage of me. No one appreciates how hard I work. Everyone else is just goofing off playing online poker or updating their Facebook status. Woe is me.
  • My life is ruled by chores and errands and I’m helpless to do anything about it. I’ll never have any time for myself. It’s all on me. [My husband is actually perfectly willing to help out if I ask him, but I rarely ask anyone for help because I’m too busy doing everything myself and then stewing over it.] Woe is me.

In summation: Not good, folks. Just plain Not Good.

 

Bad Story. Bad!

(In Which Cordelia Confesses She’s Not Always That Great)

In case you couldn’t tell, way too often I tell myself the “woe is me” story. I cast myself as the harried Girl Friday who does everything for everyone and never gets a break.

And what happens as a result? I’m stressed. I resent things. I dwell on petty inconveniences. I’m inundated with stress because I’m approaching the world stressfully. I’m easily irritated because I’m focusing on all the things that irritate me.

It’s not pretty, and I don’t like it. Actually, I feel pretty awful admitting to it. It’s a horrible way to approach a life. I’m not sure how I acquired it, but it’s time for a redo, stat.

 

Self-Story 2.0

(New & Improved!)

I’m deliberately trying to teach myself a different story now. For all my Cordelian ideals, I still find myself defaulting to the old story when things get hectic or I’m not feeling particularly strong. But I’m learning to catch myself when the bad self-casting kicks in and to start the new story playing instead.

The new story is infinitely better:

I’m taking control. I’m on my way to something better. I’m Cordelia, and I’m calling it quits, because there are better things to do with a life.

Are the same stresses and petty inconveniences still there? Yep. Of course. But I don’t mind them as much. The world seems a little rosier in my new role, which means I’m reacting to it better, which in turns makes better things happen.The story perpetuates itself.

Is this sort of self-narrative a little too golly-gee-whiz perky? Damn straight it is.

Sort of a silly “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” affirmation? Might be. What of it?

I’ve takenthe opposite approach, and personally, I think it’s crap. If I’ve got a choice between stories to believe in, you bet your sweet tail I’m going for the happier one.

I’m done bemoaning the world I think I’m stuck in. I’m ready to start creating the world I want to live in.

So, what kind of story are YOU telling yourself?

Image: Flickr

Screw the Game of Life. Here’s the Real Way to Play It

I never played The Game of Life as a kid. Count it among the many random ways my childhood was deprived of things most normal American children experience (including getting something from the ice cream truck, seeing The Goonies and going to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese).

Maybe if I’d played it back then, when things like jobs and life insurance policies seemed cool because they were “grownup,” I would have enjoyed it more. But when my husband introduced me to the game recently (I’m trying to make up for lost experiences), I have to say I was disappointed —  and also oddly disturbed.

I was expecting the game to be more of a choose-your-own adventure, something that lets kids role-play being an adult by making various choices and then seeing what the consequences would be. And there is some of that.  (Don’t want to buy that auto insurance? Guess who just got into an accident!)

But for the most part, I felt like I was being moved along on a conveyor belt, collecting things as I was told to based on random numbers generated by a little plastic spinner arm.

It didn’t feel like fun; it felt like obeying orders.

 

I Have to Do What, Now?

What if I didn’t want three little peg-headed children? What if I wanted two  (Or none at all, for that matter?) Or what if I wanted to wait until I had a little more money to properly support them?

And did I really have to buy a helicopter on my modest teacher’s salary just because that’s the space I landed on? What if I didn’t want a helicopter? I already owned enough things I couldn’t afford, including a house, a business, two horses, and apparently all of my dead aunt’s 50 cats.

Being told what to do and when to do it, and then doing it, isn’t my idea of a super-fun time. When I reached the “Day of Reckoning,” I had the little family of five that had been assigned to me, a collection of ridiculously pricey items, and a life insurance policy to cash in on. But I didn’t feel any sense of triumph or accomplishment.

All I’d done was check off the boxes I was supposed to, exactly the same as my opponent (although I have to admit he’d done it much more successfully than I had). And now that I’d reached the end, I had nothing to show for it but a bunch of stuff I didn’t want to begin with and the sense of having been pushed through a series of events I’d had no say in.

Woo. Hoo.

Quite frankly, I was hoping for a little more out of Life.

 

So This Is What It’s Like to Be a Grownup?

I think the reason I disliked the game so much (I found myself actively resenting it by the end, and not because I’d lost) was that it’s actually an all-too-accurate depiction of what it’s like to be an adult. And I don’t agree with The Way Things Are in real life, either.

I can accept that sometimes random events (fire, lottery windfall, etc.) happen to you when you least expect them. I can also accept the notion of a giant spinner arm of fate/God/what-have-you that grants certain people “luck” and other people misfortune on a seemingly random basis. I may be an idealist, but I understand that sometimes the good guy doesn’t always win in the end. (I don’t necessarily like it, but I can begrudgingly accept it.)

The thing that bothered me about The Game of Life wasn’t these random ups and downs, but how compulsory it felt. Just like my actual grownup life, I didn’t feel like I had much input into how I went about living. I was simply following a preset line, doing what I was supposed to do whenever I was expected to do it.

I may have more say in the real world over whether or not I buy a helicopter, but there are still plenty of spaces along the road of life where you’re expected to do or acquire certain things just because that’s the way most people normally go about it. There’s a generally accepted blueprint for living, and most of us follow it without thinking twice.

You can tell because other people are guaranteed to notice when you’re not following this blueprint. You reach a certain age, and people start asking you “when you’re going to” do various things: When are you going to get married? Start having kids? Buy a house? The implication is that you either should have done these things by now, or you’re about due to, because the typical life goes along a continuum just like the board game, with certain actions you take at certain stages.

Everyone’s board looks a little bit different, but the basic layout is the same: go to college, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids and a 2.5 car garage house, work 9 to 5 five days a week, keep doing that till you’re 65, and then (if you’re lucky), you reach the end space, where you get to finally relax and just live life (if you have the money and health left to do so). You move along the winding, colorful spaces with everyone else, collecting things at the points you’re supposed to, and that is considered a “life.”

 

Break Free of the Board

Personally, I have a problem with that. A big problem.

I don’t have a grand master plan for the future, but I can tell you I’m not too enthused about the idea of living my life as a series of checkpoints and to-dos. Especially when they’re someone else’s. (Tweet, tweet!)

I have a to-do list of my own, thank you, and only so much time in which to accomplish it.

I don’t care what I’m “supposed to” have done or “supposed to” have gotten by my 28th year of living. I don’t care where everyone else’s little plastic cars are on the board. This is my life, and there’s an awful lot I’d like to do with it. And none of it will get done if I waste my time trying to make my life conform to the usual pattern.

Which is why I’m taking my little plastic car off road to see what kind of adventures I can come up with beyond the board. I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds like a lot more fun.

What’s your take on the game of life? Are you ready to off-road it, too?

Image: Flickr