Getting Beyond Unhelpful Narratives
Desiree Anderson explains how it’s possible to put negative thoughts in their place…
I keep thinking about old cartoons.
You know the ones. A devil would appear on a hapless character’s shoulder and whisper in their ear. You don’t need a PhD in Tom & Jerry to know the advice they gave was never helpful.
Far from it.
Some days are worse than others. But I, like so many people, still deal with unwanted, unhelpful, thoughts. Over the years they have led me to question my self-worth, caused me to be anxious, pushed me into working too hard and led to boundary issues.
In short, nothing good has come from them.
These days, although the thoughts still come, I understand how to deal with them.
Without getting too technical, these narratives all stem back from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and the brain programming that comes with it. Our amygdala (the part of our brain that’s focused on survival) is constantly on the lookout for danger. In the past its work was vital, triggering the fight or flight response that stopped us getting eaten by saber-toothed tigers. These days, in my neighbourhood at least, the threat from tigers has diminished. Yet, the desire of our brains to protect us is still there. The problem is, sometimes it’s over-protective. So, in an effort to ‘keep us safe’ it feeds us false narratives in the form of unhelpful thoughts.
For example, I’ve struggled for years with the narrative that I’m no good at sport. It doesn’t, in fact, reflect reality. I’m not great at sport, but neither am I phenomenally underskilled. I’m just average. Which is fine. The problem was at school I had a teacher who, on seeing me mess up a golf shot (creating a massive divot in the process), christened me ‘Dizzy Des’. The name stuck. Soon the idea that I couldn’t do sports, rang out in my head every time I stepped onto the pitch. To protect me from further humiliation, this narrative limited my activities in a hugely unhelpful way.
Many people can tell similar stories.
So, how do we sidestep the times when our amygdala pushes out unhelpful narratives?
ACCEPT & QUESTION
There’s no point in ‘fighting’ against these narratives. It’s a waste of time. Instead try to be thankful that there’s a ‘protector’ in your head looking out for you. It might sound strange, but it helps.
Accept that thoughts are going to come to you, there’s no stopping that. But feel confident in questioning them.
Remember, you don’t have to agree or act upon negative thoughts, they are very rarely correct. You’re in charge.
FACE YOUR INNER SABOTEUR
Often these negative thoughts are delivered in the shape of someone from your past.
Personally, I’m still visited by the voice of gym teacher who belittled my abilities.
The key is to face your inner saboteur – throw the light of day onto it and you’ll drain its power. Try and apply a rational thought process to this figure. With experience, I now understand that the gym teacher was simply trying to motivate me, but she didn’t have the communication skills to match her intent. Understanding this has helped me to ‘park’ the unhelpful narrative she (unwittingly) instigated.
GO EASY ON YOURSELF
Anyone who sees themselves as ‘perfect’ is suffering from delusions.
None of us are without flaws, we all make mistakes. Being imperfect is part of being human and central to what makes us special.
So, next time you find yourself falling into a negative thought pattern – something that is overly critical of you – counter it will self-compassion.
It’s so important to ‘go easy’ on yourself. Spend some time remembering all the things that are great about you.
BECOME THE HERO OF YOUR STORY
So many of us find the same patterns occur in our lives over and over again.
It can feel like The Truman Show, acting out familiar activities while governed by the toxicity of unhelpful narratives. It is, however, possible to break these cycles. Rather than being a victim in the story of your life, it’s possible to change the plot.
When, like in Tom & Jerry, you feel the devil sitting on your shoulder, try reimagining the story of what’s happening around you. Make yourself the hero. Announce that you expect a new, positive, ending and refuse to be governed by old narratives.
It will take time and perseverance but making the effort to change expectations can only improve your outlook and experience.
IN A NUTSHELL:
There’s nothing unusual about experiencing unhelpful narratives. They’re a relic of brain programming from prehistoric times. The key to getting beyond these narratives is to remember not to take them at face value. Don’t fight a thought’s arrival, just question its validity. Try to be rational about the voices from your past that deliver these narratives. Give yourself as much compassion as you can and become the hero of your own story. These negative narratives will probably never disappear but, with a little effort, they can be overcome.
If you’d like any more real-world advice, get in touch with me, Desiree Anderson, for a chat. I’ll promise not to mention Tom & Jerry cartoons.
Well, I’ll try.
Founder, Crest Coaching & HR