The outer story and the inner story
For every outer story, there is an inner story. My 5-year old granddaughter, Anna, demonstrated this so clearly.
I was singing her a song, showing off the magic of my new guitar amplifier. She was immediately drawn in. Success, I thought, and popped my question. "Do you want to sing a song?"
"I'm embarrassed," she explained.
"You feel shy. That's fine," I'm well versed in the magic of empathy. I know never to push a strong willed 5-year old, so I sang another song, then, "Want to try now?"
Anna clutched her favorite stuffy, a polar bear named "Porley." I knew I couldn't compete with Porley. "Maybe he'd like to sing?" I suggested.
Anna grabbed the microphone. Porley belted out "Let it Go" from “Frozen” (No. 1 on the polar bear hit parade.)
I congratulated Porley profusely. Anna was all smiles, brimming in performance pleasure. Porley, his work done, was soon tossed aside. Anna stood, held the mike up close, and delivered two perfect numbers, confident of the diva that she is.
Later, I reflected on our little play, watching the pieces fall into place like a magical mosaic. Porley — or was it Anna? — was demonstrating, as only a child can, both the strengths and the limitations of the mind, and the power of story. I teach this stuff in my “mindful conversation” classes, but never had I seen such a clear and dramatic illustration.
Now you know the outer story. Here, as I see it, is the inner story:
Act 1. Anna's mind, and particularly her amygdala, rushed to protect her from embarrassment, failure, insecurity, threat, etc. She was "triggered" by my offer, "Do you want to sing?" Fight, flight or freeze (the only options that the amygdala knows) were her only choices.
Who among us neurotic adults has not had such an experience? I certainly have. I wrote a whole book (“King of Doubt”) about how “imposter syndrome,” the classic self-doubt story, reduced me to a bundle of fear for decades.
Act ll. When I offered Porley the chance to come to the rescue, he was fearless. Anna told herself a story that her bear was magical. Porley, of course, was true to his story. Learning from her teacher, Anna changed her story. Instead of the "I can't" story, Porley showed her the "I can" story. When you change your story, you change your life.
This is the magic of mindfulness. I use story changing frequently in my life and in my coaching. Few things are more exciting to me than witnessing someone change their story, freeing themselves from the self-made prison walls we build. This, as I see it, is rebirth.
Anna, 5, is plenty old enough to understand that Porley can't really sing, and that she did all the singing (and not singing) herself. The real "magic" here is a mind unconsciously shifting between two stories. Anna first believed the "I can't" story and then the "I can" story. It took her just a few minutes to change. Children are more flexible than adults. We can learn a lot from them.
What stories do you tell yourself? Many of the ones I hear from my clients are versions of Anna's "I can't" story. There's the "I can't express myself story" and the "I'm not creative" story and the "I'm not a good mother/father/husband/wife" story. One of the saddest is the "I'm not lovable" story, and its cousins, "I'll always be an outsider" and "I'll always be alone." So many stories holding so many people locked into self-made prisons of fear and doubt, anxiety and isolation.
All such stories have one huge thing in common: they are stories. You made 'em up, and you can change 'em. It takes work, but it's possible. When you change your story, you change your life. You learn to stand up there with Porley. I mean Anna, living your bliss.
Peter Gibb is an author, teacher, speaker and coach. His forthcoming book is titled, "Mindful Conversation." His online course about mindful conversation will soon be available. Reach him via email at email@example.com or his website, www.petergibb.org. Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.