[This is a continuing series on the power of storytelling. Part 3 Beauty in War? was about how perspective is everything, and that we can rewrite ANY story to find something positive within it. In Part 4, you’re gonna write down your toxic story. Get ready to get dirty!]
What kind of story are you telling right now?
What do you tell yourself, frequently, about your life, your personality, your abilities, your talents?
Is it a positive, uplifting story? Or is it like most of us, decidedly negative?
We’ve already covered the theory behind this, and why most of us tell such shitty stories about ourselves, and beat ourselves up over the silliest things. Now it’s time to do something to change that, to do what I call ‘writing the toxins out.’
A couple years ago I read a handful of books on positive psychology. One of them that stood out the most to me was by Jim Loehr: The Power of Story, which I reviewed most favorably. Loehr developed a technique, or exercise that I really love and employed myself to help me deal with a lot of negative issues and emotions that I was experiencing, and it involved, what else: writing.
Writing Out Your Toxic Story
Here’s how it works, and it’s just the first step in rewriting our personal story, so don’t get stuck at step one.
- Take out a legal pad, or several sheets of paper. You can do this on the computer as well, but I think it works better if you actually, physically write it out. Psychologists have recently discovered that we learn more effectively if we take notes, or write things out by the hand, than if we type it. Both methods work, but handwriting is more effective.
- Start writing as fast as you can, your life story. I don’t mean every detail. We’re not trying to write a book, just a brief summary. It’s a highlights reel, if you will: the main events, emotions, people in your life, and your feelings about them. Don’t stop to edit, to spellcheck, to think about what you’ve written, to analyze it. Just FEEL it, and go, go, go! Dump it all out as fast as you possibly can! You should be able to do this in less than 30 minutes.
- Let the Toxins Out: Dr. Loehr suggests that you write the version of your story that you actually tell yourself, every day: your toxic story, the one where you point out all the negative things that have happened to you, your victim story, your Fears, your failures, your hates, the things that are wrong with you (too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too slow, too old, too ugly, you get the picture), your angst, your depression, your melancholy, the people who have wronged you and what you want to do to them. All the things that hold you back from doing what you really want to do in life. DO NOT HOLD BACK. Do not sensor it; let it all out! Consider the page to be your punching bag, your handkerchief, the beer for all your tears, whatever. No one is going to see this, unless you want to show it to someone, and I doubt you will. Mine was very fuckin’ toxic, and I bet yours will be, too.
- Go take a break: DON’T READ THE STORY! You need time away from it. Take a nap, a walk around the block, go jogging, swimming, or gardening. Let that story sit for at least 24 hours. I think it’s important to do this. You’re gonna read it, but it’s best to let it rest.
- After 24 hours, or more, come back to what you’ve written. Maybe meditate first to help clear the mind, or pray, do the Dao of Dishes, or whatever you do to calm your mind–if you ever calm it that is.
- Read your toxic story, out loud if possible, to yourself. Listen to it. Notice any emotions that come up as you read. Don’t do anything about them; just notice them.
- Now, go back through the story, line by line. As much as possible, approach it from an objective mindset, as if you were reading a friend’s story. Ask yourself, about each and every negative thing within it, the following questions:
- Is this true? Is it factually true?
- Do I really believe it to be true?
- What would the people closest to me think about what I’ve said about myself? Is this what they think about me?
- Go through this process for the entire story, for each and every negative statement you’ve written. Make notes. Circle or highlight things that stand out as false. Maybe highlight any true statements, as well, possibly with a different color.
What I think you’re going to find, is that the vast majority of the negative things you say about yourself, your internal, toxic story, is complete bullshit. Mine was almost all bullshit. Sure, there were some factual elements in there: things that actually happened to me. But the story I had written around it, especially the nasty things I said about myself, were all bullshit.
There is something quite liberating to writing the toxins out, dumping all of that negativity onto the page, like mental diarrhea. It definitely smells like shit, to be sure. But that kind of crap is much better outside of the mind, than in it, and writing it down is the best way I know of kicking it to the curb. But it’s not time to flush it, just yet. We’ll do that next time.
Step 9, is just to put the story away, where you can find it. Walk away from it for another 24 hours, or more, get back to work, to play, to partying, to life.