It was in mid-2007, when I had a glimpse into the subconscious mind that would go on to alter the course of my life.
I sat in an office waiting room when a handsome, well-dressed young man came in and stood, back to me, at the reception desk. Checking him out in a half-detached manner, slightly curious about what it would be like to date him, a voice in my head shut the prospect down with a whisper: "I'm not that girl", it said. Catching hold of that thought before it had a chance to slip back into obscurity, I asked myself, "I'm not that girl? What does that even mean?!". For the rest of that afternoon I thought about that moment.
And in the days and weeks to follow, that one moment became a crack through which I could clearly see one of the stories that had been playing out deep within me for the first part of my life.
There's something wrong with you, that story told me. That's why I wasn't that girl that would date a (nice, I presumed) guy like that.
There's this voice within each on of us that speaks to us on a level we don't often hear. That voice is a storyteller that is constantly confirming the perception of reality that we hold. A perception that includes who "I" am, who you are, and how the world is.
For many of us...that voice is telling us a story of our dysfunction and brokenness. And all the many ways we are often wrong for what we think, feel and do.
Origin of the Story
Feeling as though you are somehow broken, or that there is something wrong with you, is one of the most common experiences human beings in our culture have. But it’s also an experience based on a premise, on an idea, that there is some way that you should be that you believe you’re not.
This idea “there’s something wrong with me” has its roots deep within your own personal story. It’s steeped in the small and big ways you constructed for yourself a picture of the kind of person you were expected to be and the kind of person that you think you “are”.
This “person” you’re supposed to be is built from elements you were exposed to from the time you were an infant. As babies and young children, you watched and learned from your environment how “things are”. You learned what kinds of thoughts and behavior met with approval, and what met with disapproval from the people around you who mattered to you the most. As a small person, these were the people you depended on, so their thoughts and feelings really mattered to you.
One of the things that happens to us as we grow older is that we carry the voice of “how things are” and “how people should be” with us, without questioning that voice within us telling us a story about how much we’re failing to live up to that. Our preoccupation with this idea is like a dense fog obscuring our vision and keeping us in a state of low (or high!) level anxiety.
We aren’t aware, or we don’t even realize, that this is just a story we’ve been living by for most of our lives.
The "just" in that last sentence belies just how real the story feels - the version of it that your experience of the world reflects. You can use the example of the fish in water who doesn't know what water is because it so permeates the fish's experience that she knows nothing else. Your story, unexamined, feels like that.
Unexamined, that story of our brokenness guides our thinking, and often causes us to react (with anger or depression) when someone triggers it within us. The story often guides our behavior, so we develop ways of attempting to control ourselves or others in an attempt to avoid feeling this brokenness.
In a very human way, we try to avoid the pain associated with this belief, and we can develop some really funky ways of doing this! (Examine all the behavior you don't like in yourself and you'll know what I'm talking about).
What we slowly ease into through a practice of awareness is the awareness of this story as it plays out in all the many moments of our lives, and in the many relationships we have. Turning up the volume of awareness can be very uncomfortable because we begin to see this happening more clearly…and we turn away from the pain of it less and less.
But we’re not doing this with harshness and self-judgment (likely the qualities we’ve been practicing for years), but with a new approach that includes kindness for our experience, patience for the process of looking down through the layers of that experience, and acceptance for “how things are” right now in our minds and bodies.
And through this process what develops is a wise understanding. That is, an understanding of the nature of human life, and how the many conditions of our lives have come together to shape the experience we’re having right now.
When we have this understanding onboard, self-compassion flows like an unimpeded river, because we see how unnecessary self-judgment is through this lens. We can see that our humanity is nothing more than the product of so many contributing factors so that judgment no longer even feels appropriate to the situation.
Judgment literally falls away when we open up to a broader understanding of how we came to be as we are today, and how we came to experience our lives.
Instead of self-judgment, which often shuts us down, we have wise understanding…and this wise understanding is the starting point for self-transformation.
There's something else really profound about seeing the story for what it is. We can let the old story slowly drift away as a new one replaces it: I'm whole just as I am. And suddenly all of the (funky) ways I've developed to bypass the pain of the old belief can loosen their grip...and something else emerges. A belief in my wholeness.
That day I stopped to consider what the voice in my head was saying - the one that told me of my brokenness - was the beginning of a series of events that led me (quite quickly and dramatically) down a completely different path in my life. (A bigger story for another time. Hint: it ends with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children).
Reflect for a moment on this...
What if you were to reflect for a moment for yourself on the difference between these two ways of looking at yourself? Close your eyes and sit for a few minutes with the following statements (like mantras) suspended in your mind:
“I am broken and I need to be fixed” – stay with that thought hanging out there and sense into the body as you marinate in it. What does it feel like to have that thought there?
Open your eyes again, focusing for a moment on the breath, and then try the next…
“I am whole as I am. There is nothing wrong with me.” Stay now with this thought permeating the mind and body. How does it feel to have this thought there?
What do you notice happening in your mind and body when you hold each of these statements in mind for a few moments?
Just out of curiosity - which one feels better to hold onto?
You can begin to wake up to your life and become more selective about what beliefs play out in the operating system of our minds and bodies. If we're living often with stress and insecurity, we can trust that we're believing something unhelpful anyway.