How to Become Aware of the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Mimi Handlin, MSW - ADHD Coach for Women
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“I’ve experienced many terrible events in my life. A few of which actually happened.” Mark Twain

Self-generated disturbing thoughts and worries can be one of the greatest sources of stress in our lives. And the problem is, a lot of the time we aren’t even aware of our thoughts. They can be automatic and habitual and end up taking away our happiness and peace of mind.

Here are two examples I have heard recently from my ADHD coaching clients: My friend didn’t call me back right away. It must mean he doesn’t want to spend time with me anymore. It turned out he wasn’t able to call her back that day because he ended up staying at work until 11 p.m. Here is another one. My boss never comments on what a good job I do. It must mean she is going to fire me soon. It turned out her boss never complimented any of the staff and had a supervisory style that wasn’t very supportive. It had nothing to do with my client who was doing a wonderful job.

Here is an embarrassing one that came from me when I couldn’t reach my daughter. She was away at college and it was 5 degrees and icy where she lived. I had images of her lying on the ground somewhere with a broken leg from slipping on the ice (in the dark of course) and not being able to reach her cell phone because it flew out of her purse when she fell. She finally noticed that I had called her five times and called me back very worried about me!

Joel Levey, a meditation teacher and author of the book, Simple Meditation and Relaxation, writes about a technique can help us become aware of when we experience thoughts that cause us stress. It’s a mindfulness of thought technique that comes from a tribe in Africa.

“From an early age, children in this tribe are trained to be mindful of their thinking. If a person becomes aware of a foreboding thought like, “Oh no, what if there is a lion hiding behind that tree waiting to eat me?” they learn first to recognize and then release the thought by acknowledging it to themselves, “This is a story that doesn’t need to happen.”

We can also use this technique to identify positive stories and thoughts that we would like to see happen. “In response to a desirable mental scenario, such as “Maybe there is a watering hole over there,” or “I hope the baby I am carrying will be healthy and grow to be a leader,” the members of this tribe would say to themselves, “And this is a healing story!”

We can try these techniques on ourselves to help us identify what stories or scenarios hurt or heal us. Remember that most of the things we worry about don’t happen. Yes, it is possible that the worse might happen, but it’s not probable in most situations.

Once we become aware of our stories, we may have more control over the outcome of what we are worrying about. If a college student subconsciously thinks, “I’ll never get this paper done,” then it would be very difficult to try. Why not give up if it’s never going to get done?

On the other hand, with awareness, the student could investigate the thought. What is holding me back from getting it done? What do I need that I don’t have? What kind of help could I use? Do I need to go somewhere different to write it? Do I know what is required for this paper? Maybe, after investigation, this student would gain insight as to what factors are holding him back and develop strategies to overcome them. Then he could come up with a healing story.

One of my Qigong teachers said that most of our “what if” scenarios are about scary or negative things. Maybe we could experiment with sending ourselves some positive and healing “what if’s.” It may feel unfamiliar, but it’s worth getting used to!

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