In The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Louis Cozolino writes, “Each of us is born twice: first from our mother’s body over a few hours, and again from our parents’ psyche over a lifetime.” As babies and children, sense-making happens implicitly and unconsciously as we develop. Our brains become wired over time through the combined contributions of our unique relationships, experiences and personalities, and how each of us then constructs meaning (makes sense) about everything and everyone around us based on our individual formulations. In essence, this informs our autobiographical narratives we tell ourselves that defines who we are and how we understand and interact with the world. Ultimately, we become so inextricably embedded in our subjective beliefs (our stories) about ourselves and the world, that they become to us both truth and fact. We feel so righteous in our position – This is who I am! This is what I believe! – that anything or anyone that threatens our “truth” or our “beliefs” must be resisted at all costs.
We all do this all the time – it is the basis of our psychology as individuals and it coheres our families, religious groups, athletic teams, political parties, and citizenry – and this is why change can be so hard and so scary: it requires us to tap into our deepest core and question the very essence of who we think we are. It requires us to cast doubt on our own convictions and limitations. It requires a letting go of rigid and tightly held systems of beliefs. It requires a tolerance of uncertainty, ambiguity, and tumult. It requires a level of bravery and trust that many simply aren’t willing or able to rise to. Often, the decision to change is one that is forced upon us when we wake up and realize our ways of operating in the world have become intolerably damaging or painful and we know that the responsibility of healing is not about changing anything or anyone but ourselves.
So how do we change? One way is to change our story.
When we are unable to make sense of experience, when it doesn’t fit into our narrative, pain or fear arises. Feelings of helplessness - which most of us find so intolerable and avoid at all costs - arise when what is doesn’t match up with what we think should be. We are so instinctively self-protective that it is counter-intuitive to not blame, lash out, make anyone other than ourselves responsible for our pain, helplessness and anger. The problem with this approach is it’s often a defensive attempt to return things to status quo; to return to what is known so we can make sense of it. As much as we think we want the pain to stop, we fight to preserve our existing story – who we think we are – which really just keeps us stuck.
Changing our story changes everything.
Once we understand and embrace the idea that we can as easily define ourselves by our future than by our past, we take back our freedom through creating new meaning rather than be created by old meaning. In other words, if the stories we tell ourselves, and the subjective beliefs and perspectives inherent in them, are a product of all our past experiences, is it not feasible to expect that changing our story can potentially change everything? Neuropsychologists tell us that changing our autobiographical narratives "reorganizes" our experience on a biological level; our brains literally rewire themselves in response; Changing our story gives us the freedom to choose how we want to respond to what we meet in our inner and outer lives as opposed to automatically reacting to what happens. Changing our story taps our unique human capacity to creatively chart our course into the future, no longer helpless victims of our past.
Humans are storytellers; This may be one of the things we do best. Therapy at its best is about changing your story: creating new meaning, opening up to new possibilities, letting go of a narrative that no longer works and writing one that does. As a therapist-in-training at IHI Therapy Center, I invite you to join us in courageously changing your story... It’s worth it.
- A reflection piece written by one of the advanced clinical interns at IHI