Without a doubt, the past influences the present. But when your past isn’t all that cheery, how do you prevent it from defining you? Yes; the past influences our perceptions and reactions, but it doesn’t have to be our destiny. It doesn’t have to define us.
When it comes to our past, we are natural story tellers. We can’t help it. When something bad happens, we have to tell ourselves a story, and – like any good story – the stories we tell ourselves include bad guys and good guys. They also include morals or lessons, like why the bad thing happened or how the bad thing can be avoided in the future. Some of the stories we tell ourselves are accurate and helpful, while others can be biased and hurtful.
Years ago, while working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I knew an eight-year-old boy named Tommy*, who experienced something bad, but told himself a story that seemed helpful. Tommy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Even though his prognosis was very good, and he quickly went into remission after a surgical resection of the tumor, Tommy was still given a full dose of chemotherapy as a precaution. I started working with Tommy and his family soon after he started chemo. After beginning treatment, Tommy’s mother related to me the following story:
“Last night all the family was eating together in the residence when there was a lull in the conversation. I was surprised when Tommy suddenly spoke up, ‘Hey!’ he said to everyone, ‘…You guys want to see a magic trick!’ We were surprised because Tommy, by nature, is very shy and doesn’t speak much. ‘Sure!” we all responded, glad that he was participating in the conversation. So, Tommy stands up very slowly, and, like any magician, demonstrated that there was nothing up his sleeves. Then, while pausing for dramatic effect, he moved his right hand toward his head very slowly. Next, with a smile and a flourish, Tommy grabbed a big tuff of his hair, pulled it from his head, and proudly announced, ‘Ta-dah!!!!’ I laughed. Tommy beamed proudly. His grandmother cried. And everyone else went silent.”
Like I said, Tommy responded well to treatment and everything turned out fine, but, when I tell this story, many people remark that it is “sad.” I understand why any story that features childhood cancer would seem sad, but I disagree. Not only do I find this story very funny, I find it joyful and encouraging. When adults lose their hair after starting chemotherapy (or even without chemotherapy), they are saddened and traumatized, but – instead – this eight-year-old boy took stock of the same situation and said to himself, “Cool! A potential magic trick that no one else can do!” It’s true that, due to his age, Tommy was blissfully naïve, but experiences like these have helped me realize something: a well-lived life is less about what happens to us and more about the stories we tell ourselves about what happens to us.
What will our story be?
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
There are two kinds of stories we tell ourselves: there are growth stories and there are contamination stories.
“Maybe this is just who I am,” John* sighed in despair as we discussed his seeming inability to control his anger. Like his father before him, John would become easily flustered by the age-appropriate behaviors of his young children. “What does that mean?” I said, suspicious that such self-talk served John’s anger and not his interests. “You know. Maybe people don’t really change,” he said. “Kind of like your father?” I replied. “I guess so,” was his only response as the energy and motivation he felt previously evaporated from the room.
Contamination stories, like the one John rehearsed to himself, are contaminating because they infect all other perceptions. Soon no coping technique, new relationship or psychopharmacological solution will help. John felt fated to become his father. But John wasn’t stuck … until he assumed he was. Much like a disease, contamination stories are viral; they spread with the telling. The more we rehearse our contamination stories, the more we become emotionally invested in them. Soon, we would rather be “right” in our despair than hopeful in our possibility.
The difference between contamination stories and growth stories became apparent as I read the work of Carol Dweck (2015), who is a Stanford researcher that has studied motivation for decades. Simply put, people either have what Dweck called a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset” whenever they run into failure or some kind of setback. A fixed mindset means that you perceive that a personal attribute, like intelligence, personality, or talent, is fixed or unchangeable. At his or her core, persons with a fixed mindset believe statements like, “A person is either smart or dumb, talented or untalented, lucky or unlucky; there is nothing that can really be done about it.” When persons with a fixed mindset run into trouble, they become defensive and shut down. This makes sense because their sense of self is on the line. In contrast, persons with a growth mindset feel energized by challenge. They believe thoughts like, “I can improve”; therefore, they risk failure and seek out challenge. (How else will they learn and improve?) The person with a growth mindset is willing to be wrong because their personal attributes aren’t fixed. They are more focused on growth than on defending themselves from error.
Dweck’s research consistently shows that persons with a growth mindset persist when challenged, while persons with a fixed mindset are vulnerable to giving up and accepting “low-hanging” accolades. I also believe that persons with a fixed mindset frequently tell themselves contamination stories. In contrast to contamination stories, growth stories assume we are not stuck, broken or unfixable. Instead, growth stories are about learning and possibility. Things are not predetermined, and we are not prisoners of the past.
Let’s retell John’s story; except – this time – let’s tell it as a growth story:
“Once upon a time there was a young boy named John, who lived in fear of his father. John’s father was a drunk. Although he was not ‘abusive’ per se, John could never predict his father’s moods. As John got older, he swore to himself that he would not drink. John succeeded in this goal, and he eventually married and had three young children. John loved his children dearly; yet, he would become easily frustrated with them. Their whining and requests made him feel as if he was ‘failing’ as a father. He personalized their behaviors and, consequently, he would lose patience very easily. John realized that he did not drink like his father, but he did personalize like his father, and he decided that such a pattern would end with him; he would not pass along this particular inheritance to his children. Slowly, John learned how to reflect on his anger, and he realized that the source of his anger wasn’t his children; it was his own insecurity. Eventually, John learned different ways of perceiving his children. It seemed to take forever, but John persisted, knowing that he was giving his children something he was not given – patience and a healthy relationship.”
As long as blood still pumps in our veins and air still fills our lungs, growth is possible. The kind of story we tell ourselves makes all the difference because the kind of story we tell ourselves predicts – with amazing accuracy – how the story will end.
“Contaminated”: It’s the New Sexy
If what I’ve said is true, then why do we tell (and re-tell) contamination stories to ourselves and others? Why do such stories have such staying power? The first (and overly simplistic) answer is because it’s easier. If we accept the premise that we’re screwed, then we don’t have to work to be un-screwed. But we aren’t screwed; we’re scared. Scared of being disappointed again. Scared of feeling sad when things don’t work out. Scared of believing that change is possible. So instead, we accept the low-hanging fruit of believing that our fate is sealed. This is surrender, but it’s a bitter-sweet surrender. Sweet because we no longer have to risk disappointment; bitter because we also surrender our freedom to choose. We are rescued from our fear of disappointment and seduced by the promise of predictability. Contamination stories slowly wrap us in a suffocating blanket of psychological inertia since psyches without motion – just like bodies without motion – tend to stay without motion. Our personal story soon becomes a mental straight-jacket that is impervious to any suggestion, medication, relationship, or even stroke of good fortune.
But there is a second reason why people rehearse stories of contamination instead of stories of growth: many times such persons have been wronged – sometimes deeply. When we have been deeply hurt, offended, or abused, our sense of justice cries out for satisfaction. Once our sense of justice is aroused, we expect and demand completion of the following cycle:
To a greater or lesser extent, this cycle is an ideal we’ve all been trained to believe. Even as children, we were told to “say you’re sorry” as a way to patch things up. Completion of this cycle is a story as old as time.
But what if restitution isn’t possible? What if no one takes responsibility? For some people, steps 2, 3, and/or 4 never comes close to happening. In situations such as these, the cycle is incomplete and continues to beg for resolution. It is like a jig-saw puzzle with the most important pieces missing. Our sense of justice is not appeased. It “cries from the dust” and must be avenged. If I know who my perpetrators are, then my hurt must go on (cue Celine Dion music). Keeping the hurt alive seems to hold the person or universe responsible. (“Perhaps if I perpetually re-live the hurt, someone or something will validate my experience?”) If I don’t know who my perpetrators are or if they aren’t around to blame anymore, then I take the blame. After all, I have plenty of ammunition to use against myself. I can remember every mistake I’ve ever made. Therefore, my contamination story of being bad, unlovable or a screw-up seems more than justified. I may be miserable, but at least life seems less random and, therefore, more controllable and predictable. Aren’t we told that there are no coincidences in life? Aren’t we told that what goes around comes around? Aren’t we told about karma? Each of these teachings, while well-meaning and useful in their place, have a dark side; they reinforce an incomplete “wheel” of justice that continues to spin both ungreased and forever squeaky.
The next blog entry in this series (Part II) will discuss a way to break this loop by redefining the stories we tell ourselves. Our sense of justice may never be fully satisfied, but we can change contamination stories into growth stories and thrive nevertheless.
*Not the patients’ real names.
Dweck, C. (2015). Mindset: The new psychology of success.