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The Greatest Story-teller on Earth: your mind.

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Everyone of us has a story, what's yours?

(Part 5 of the Heal with ACT Series)

If you had to look back on your life and tell a story about it, what would you come up with?

Each of us live with stories of our lives. Whether you know it or not, we depend on these self-stories to help us get through each day and make sense of the world.

For example, if you think of yourself as a highly motivated and successful person, you might have a self-story around "I'm a successful person". This story will fuel you to go out each day, hustle hustle and get things done, and perhaps sell yourself as a miracle worker.

On the other hand, you might have a self-story around what a failure you are. This "I'm a failure" self-story pulls you away from potential opportunities, makes you withdraw from a job interview out of fear of judgment, or even sell yourself short when you talk about yourself to others.

You might notice in the above that we tend to mold our behaviours and actions because of our self-stories. This in turn helps to further reinforce and perpetuate our stories, making them become more and more real.

Research actually finds that 80% of our thoughts and stories have a negative content. Here are some examples of more self-stories, along with whether they are negative (-) or positive (+):

  • I'm a useless person (-)

  • I'm not good enough (-)

  • I'm a very special person (+)

  • I will never get better (-)

  • I'm a very likeable person (+)

  • I will never be happy (-)

Our self-stories can be positive or negative - but that's not really the point.

We've become so unaware of these stories, and take them as the absolute truth of who we are, that they've actually turned into something potentially harmful and disruptive. They start to feed into our anxiety, anger, depression, self-esteem, self-doubt and vulnerability.

This is true even of the most positive stories. Take the example of the person above who believes that they are successful.

Despite hustling each day and working their butts off, imagine that they suddenly got let go and lost his or her job. Month after month, they are out of work. No matter how many applications he or she sends through, they can't seem to land a new job.

That same story which had fueled their motivation each day now turns back to bite them:

"If I'm so successful, then why will no one hire me?", they begin to wonder. What will happen next, I leave to your imagination.

You see, whether self-stories are positive or negative is not the point. The problem is that we've lost track of the self-stories that our Thinking Mind have fashioned for us.

We've become fused with such stories, and that's not surprising, because these are stories we've been listening to for all our lives.

The origins of our Stories.

A story of ourselves comes into being as early as when we are age three of four. This is the age where we start to grasp the concept of Perspective taking - the understanding of I, me, here and now appears.

We start to learn that there is the concept of this Self behind our young eyes, and that this self is different from the human beings that are our mum, dad or siblings.

An idea of the self starts to form.

With the power of perspective-taking, we start to make sense of the world by using ourselves as a reference point. We learn that the next-door kid is bigger than we are, faster than we are, has more more fancier toys than we do.

We also start to feel jealously when our siblings get more attention than us.

This amazing ability further enables us to extend our perspectives beyond ourselves. We learn that we can make-pretend and become a superhero for a day, or a famous chef the next.

Our imagination of all the possibilities of who we can be grows. We even learn that we can do this thing called telling a little white lie to get what we want, such as more attention from our parents.

A story of who we are begins to form, taking into account how we compare to others, and how who we can become changes the way we get more love, care, and attention from others.

The earliest versions of our self-stories start to weave in our little child minds.

It is also here that we've begun to fashion what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) calls the Conceptualised Self, also known as the Ego, the concept of me that we have grown to believe is our story.

What's your story?

Of course as we grow up and evolve, so do our stories. Life issues us new experiences, and with them new stories appear.

For example, you might have a story about how you're an unlovable person. Digging deep into your past, you discover that this story was created because a parent died or left when you were young. Maybe they simply didn't spend enough time with you. Maybe you struggled to find friends.

Yet you carry this story with you wherever you go, and even throughout the entirety your life. Our stories do change - maybe one day, you come across a beautiful person you like. As the relationship progresses, and you fall in love, your story evolves to become "I can be loved".

That's a really helpful story to have.

Yet another possibility is that you get caught up in your story. You worry that no matter what you do, the relationship with this new person will not last. You truly believe you are unlovable and thus focus on signs that point to that 'truth'. Out of your worry, you choose to avoid getting deep into the relationship. After a while, the other person leaves, thinking you are not interested, when really you are.

That's a rather harmful story to carry with you.

Our self-stories have a huge impact on our lives. They are part of our inner world and affect our judgments, choices and decisions. Sometimes they lead us down the right track, leading us into a life of meaning and love.

At other times, it takes us away from the things we value the most. They become harmful and bias our choices to avoid vulnerability, yet stealing us away from a life of deep connection, love and meaning.

So let's try out this activity together and come to know our stories better.

Cognitive Defusion exercise 4: Naming your stories.

The best place to start is to become aware of the stories that center around your life and think about how they've led you away from recovery, from getting better, from being happier and living a meaningful life.

When I had Depression, I recognised the presence of this self-story - I call it the "I'm a smart psychologist" story.

This story got in the way of me seeking help. It caused me to be harsh on myself, to try and quickly "snap out of it", and to go at it alone. Because of this self-story, I struggled for months without finding help.

Recognising this story was a key part of my recovery, and let me to stop struggling and humble myself to seek help. Likewise, take some time and discover some of the stories you carry with you.

Practice time: What are some of the self-stories or themes of your life? Can you name at least three major ones? Write them down.

Try naming the titles of your stories starting with "I'm" or "I". For some guidance, some examples of mine are:

  • "I'm a damaged person."

  • "I'm a smart psychologist."

  • "I need to be perfect."

Spend some time reflecting on how these stories were created and how they've led you away from a more fulfilling and experiential life. When you're ready, let's move on to the next activity.

Cognitive Defusion exercise 5: Accepting your stories.

Stories are essentially beliefs about ourselves. Your Thinking Mind never stops telling you stories. Everywhere you go - there they are - constantly comparing, judging, evaluating, criticising, planning and fantasising.

"Why isn't this person listening and taking me more seriously. I'm such a smart psychologist! Shouldn't he... ".

Oh! There's that same story again!

Most psychological approaches will probably tell you to recognise your stories and make a big fuss about eliminating them. For example, they might tell you to:

  • Check for evidence on how accurate that story is.

  • Re-frame that story into something more realistic.

  • Distract yourself away from that story.

  • Repeat or affirm a more positive version of that story.

  • Argue with that story and make it see the truth.

Yet, you're an expert in this by now. These are all examples of avoidance strategies - they involve fight or flight and only lead us into never-ending vicious cycles.

The ACT approach is very different. These stories aren't a problem on their own accord - they've helped us along in the past, enabling us to make sense of the world as we grow. It's only when we become so fused with them, and become affected by them, that they become a problem.

Self-stories are much like a newspaper - except it's a newspaper about you. It reports what happens in your life, interpreting your day as it unfolds.

"Oh there goes Hernping again. Is he really such a smart psychologist? Why isn't he more successful then. Hmmm, maybe he really is damaged. Look, look, his colleague is laughing at him for making a mistake. Ah Hernping, you're such an idiot!".

On one hand, we can react to these stories as they unfold. We become defensive about them and dwell on them, even when it's three in the morning. We toss the details of the story around and around in our heads, trying to see where we went wrong, or if it's true or not.

Outwardly, we get angry, sad or frustrated with anyone who comes along to challenge it. We put pride in the way of our relationships, or act out in rage at people who don't honour our stories.

Yet there's another way to handle these stories - you can also accept this as part of who you are.

Just like a famous celebrity like Julia Roberts reading a ridiculous story in the newspaper about themselves, you don't have to believe everything your Thinking Mind reports to you. You can also learn to shrug it off and go "Well, that's just silly", and carry on with your life.

Here's the practice.

Practice time: In the day ahead, become aware of your self-stories as they appear. Don't try to change, avoid or get rid of that story. Simply acknowledge it as it comes about.
"Oh, that's my I'm a _________ story again".

After a day or two of practicing this, you might find that you're taking these stories a lot less seriously. They will still be there, but they will probably bother you less.

Anytime you are feeling anxious, depressed or upset about something, ask yourself what story your Thinking Mind tell you now. Once you've identified it, acknowledge and accept it as part of how your mind works.

Remember that it's not so important whether it's true or false, but whether it's harmful or helpful. These techniques all help us learn to gain some distance from unhelpful thoughts, to not be bogged down by them, and allow us to become the person that we truly want to be.

Pro tip: Combine this practice with the "Thanking your Mind" technique. As the story comes about and you can be aware of it, simply acknowledge to yourself:
"Oh there's that story. Thank you mind for trying to be helpful. I'll take it from here."

We've now gotten through the first pivot of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Defusion. Congratulations. We've learned how our Thinking Mind often fashions thoughts, beliefs, and stories about ourselves that are often harmful.

By not arguing or trying to get rid of them, you've now know what acceptance is - really, it's about seeing yourself in a non-judgmental way and coming to terms with who you are. I hope you find that it's a powerful new way of seeing yourself!

In the next chapter, we'll be venturing further into Acceptance, the second pivot of ACT, and this time we'll learn how to handle painful feelings and emotions.

Thanks for reading Kaya Toast for the Soul! I hope you continue in your journey in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Do drop me an email if you have any questions at all. Thanks!


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