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.)
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.
- 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.
(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?