NOT ALWAYS A SIMPLE ASK
For most of us, there is a whole range of ways that we could explain what it is that we feel makes us the person that we are as we are extremely complex beings. There are the factual items –
Where born and brought up; where we live now, how long we have lived there.
Our gender, sexuality; whether we are in a relationship and with whom; if a parent or grandparent maybe.
What we do or did for work, and what this involves; our hobbies or interests when not working.
I wonder how many of us if asked would go down the route of listing our qualities – are we kind, honest, brave, curious, determined? Do we consider ourselves to be a good friend, a good listener? Maybe such descriptions are reserved for c.v.’s.
When I’m working with couples for hypnobirthing, I always begin by asking one person to tell me about their partner, then swapping. They frequently go down the factual route, though some couples wax lyrical about the qualities of their partner. I have tried asking that same person to then tell me about themselves – and they seem more reluctant to tell of their own qualities. I wonder if this is because it is felt to be somewhat boastful to seemingly ‘big ourselves up’ in this way.
When working with clients who are struggling with personal issues including poor self-esteem, self-concept, I tend to resort to this being a paper and pencil exercise. The page is divided in two – with one side listing what they consider to be their positive attributes, the other the negative. Guess which side is filled in rapidly with lots of characteristics – yep, the negatives flow like syrup from a warm spoon. As for the positives, it’s a task that involves a great deal of pondering and very little writing. Both the spoon and the syrup have been in the fridge for some considerable time.
Even if I get them to take a step aside and ask how friends would describe them, there is a similar imbalance between the two lists, with maybe a couple more positives added on. Plenty of work for during our therapy sessions!
DOES YOUR AGE DEFINE YOU?
For some of us, I would say yes, at times it does. I am over 70 though I don’t usually consider myself to be old. However, there are those who seemingly define me by my age and at times, I allow this to rub off on me. I have had comments such as ‘well, you are 70, what do you expect’ from professionals whose inter-personal skills seemingly leave a lot to be desired. I am sufficiently confident in myself to be able to throw a challenge back at most comments like this. However, when it is people that I feel know me and whom I would like to believe thought more of me than to define me by a number, it is different. If I try to join in with a discussion, but am obviously not included. I struggle as I am made to feel so much less than I am, yet I don’t want to make a fuss, though maybe I should to prevent it re-occurring. My views are not considered worth listening to – and I go on to jump to the conclusion that this is because of my age. It then takes me some time of positive self-talk to regain a state of equilibrium.
Whilst I am game to try many new things, there are times when I dip out because of my age – either that I believe I am physically not able to do it, so it would be inappropriate, or that I simply think I am too old to do it – am I, in fact, using my age as a cop out rather than challenging myself and having a go? I mean, with the vast majority of happenings, I could simply dip out if the going got too tough for me. Am I allowing my age to define me in a negative way just as I have allowed others to do?
DOES YOUR WORK DEFINE YOU?
For many of us who have spent months, years of training, followed by plenty of on-going professional development, our career will often define us. For so many, work occupies so many of our waking hours, so not surprising. When this work also encompasses a huge helping of public recognition for that work, as in a successful artist, a prima ballerina, a current sportsperson even more so. However, does that past success, especially with sportspeople, retired actors and people known for being known on the television continue to define them after their retirement? Whilst I acknowledge that what we have done in the past contributes to making us the person that we are, I wonder if it goes on to prevent a redefinition with time?
A personal niggle of mine is that I do wonder whether for some, work/career can over-define us? OK, I accept that in some cases, as with medics and priests/vicars they probably consider that they are available even during the hours when they are not officially on duty? However, why is it that doctors are always referred to as ‘doctor ****’ and priests wear one of their badges of office, as in their collar, when they are appearing on shows such as Strictly Come Dancing?
DOES OUR SELF-DESCRIPTION COME DOWN TO OUR CORE VALUES?
As our core values are central to us, then yes. Our self-description is biased by this - what we include or steer well clear of in that description. On the other hand, modesty could prevail and lead to a holding back on the inclusion of too many things that you consider may be thought to be boastful by others. I was often reminded as a child that it wasn’t ‘nice’ to be boastful and this coloured my ability to include too many positives in any self-description. To say that I was good at doing something hadn’t been recognised as a reflection of the fact that I had worked hard. As a far from natural academic I worked damned hard to pass exams and get to university. Many years later, for a year, I had a two-hour drive to Nottingham to work for my Post-Graduate Certificate of Education; a two hour drive back to the never-ending lesson prep and essay writing; add in to this two sons who still needed (and received) help and support despite the promised help from my then husband not materialising. I could go on, but I still find it difficult to openly recognising that I am, as many of my ‘sisters’, a strong woman. There, I said it and d’you know what, the shaft of lightning didn’t appear as I was stating facts rather than boasting! Have I at long last cast off that message of yore? If so, about flipping time.
OLD VALUES RE-FRAMED
Just as I reframed my previously negative spin from boasting to recognising achievements as a sign of being a strong woman, there are probably things that you feel about yourselves that would benefit from a similar tweak. Those messages that have stuck with us – messages that we either gave to ourselves or received from others. Those others may be parents, siblings, friends. Sadly they can frequently have been forced upon us by those who felt themselves to be in a position of power over us – bullies, gaslighters, abusers who certainly did not have our best interests at heart. Yet, many years later, we retain those messages and they frequently continue to define the person that we are today. By doing this, we may also be omitting positive progress, actions, achievements so giving that self-definition an erroneous negative skew. Time to reframe to include those positives.
Mary Halton in a January Ted Ideas article includes the thoughts of John Sharp, professor at Harvard Medical School and author of ‘The Insight Cure: Change Your Story, Transform Your Life’. He says, “Some emotionally difficult scenes are way over-included — just think of all the things you can’t let go of — and other scenes are deleted, such as times when things did go well. The worst part about the false truth … is that it becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy, the basis of what we expect from ourselves in the future.”
She points out that ‘There are many things in our lives that we have little control over — the news, the weather, the traffic, the soup of the day at our local café. But among the things that we can control, there’s a big one: our story.’
Time to get the delete button active, to redefine you to be a true reflection of the person that currently looks back at you from the mirror. Weed out those untruths, those huge great big lies, in order to enable the hidden truths the space to blossom and flourish and to prevent the sowing of the seeds of future self-doubts.
Sharp suggests five ways of carrying out this re-vamp and I have used my own self-editing as an example of each suggestion.
Identification of where your narrative diverges from reality. This is important as it can be the root of our default setting at times of stress. Just as for me, I needed to track back to the source of my concept that saying anything positive, by way of my achievements, was not to be done. This can be traced clearly back to conversations with my mum. Her beliefs as a different person, from a different generation and background had long been mine. Beliefs with which I actually did not agree and would actually encourage others to kick against.
Question your beliefs. This I did and decided that whilst I still held to the vast majority of beliefs that had been passed on to me by my parents, this one was to be set aside as it didn’t have a place in what defines me. As with me, many of our negatively skewed self-definitions are as a result of happenings, messages received in childhood or relatively early on in our feet-finding process.
Don’t beat yourself up. I didn’t do this as I was not in any way rejecting what my parents had taught me en masse. Neither did I beat myself up about the misinformation drummed into me by my gaslighter being deleted – far from it! I do admit that was a more difficult task as the inputting was more recent, far more negative and certainly not carried out with love. However, by being kind to myself and allowing my thought processes to proceed at a pace with which I felt comfortable, I worked through without the big stick being called into action.
Introduce positives into your story. I admit that once I had isolated the negatives, the positives took their rightful place. If this doesn’t happen for you, reflect on your achievements, no matter how much you may have previously dismissed them. You are likely to see that they had a significance, possibly as the first step to bigger things.
Leave behind your old story. Once you have cut out that dead wood, get rid of it. Set it aside, and certainly don’t be tempted to allow it to linger on the side-lines ready to bite you on the backside at some future date. As that Disney song says – ‘Let it go!!’
If you feel that you need support with teasing out those negative messages – do get in touch. We can work face to face or at a distance via Skype or phone.
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