For the last six years, I’ve had the absolute gift of working one-on-one with hundreds of people, completing thousands of therapy sessions. It’s been the greatest gift of my life, and the most devastating experience I could have ever imagined. Now you might be thinking, “Wow, why would you start an article that way? And honestly, why should I continue reading this?” You might not believe me yet, but this does relate to you.
Working with people that intimately, you get to see, up close and personal, the unbearable suffering and pain that is capable of being experienced. I’ve heard stories that would bring you to your knees and cause you to lose all faith in humanity. I’ve seen suffering like you couldn’t imagine. I’ve seen what it’s like when you truly get to a place where dying would be easier than going on, and, by the grace of whatever force is causing the world to keep going, I’ve been able to help so many people get out of that and produce real, lasting change in their lives.
I wouldn’t take those experiences away for anything in the world, because those experiences, those stories, those people, from the simplest of cases to the most complex, allowed me to realize a fundamental truth: they were all being run by very similar narratives. Now you might be thinking, “I haven’t experienced anything close to the people you mentioned, how is it even possible that I have a similar story to them?” Something that I’ve come to learn is that regardless of the experiences we go through, no matter how severe or how uneventful, we all tend to draw similar conclusions to the experiences of our lives based on the meanings we assign to them, and how we live our lives as a result. You may not believe this, but it doesn’t matter what happens to you, what matters is what you make it mean about you, and then what you do about it. And that is how many of us end up developing similar narratives, even though we had wildly different experiences and stories.
What we’re going to dive into in this article are the top 3 core narratives that my clients, myself, and even you, have fallen into at one time or another, and more importantly, how to get out of them, so that you don’t have to suffer unnecessarily and can live a life of joy, meaning, and fulfillment.
Narrative #1: The Story About My Lovability
I used to have a client, I’ll name her Jessie, who firmly believed that people never loved her and that she was going to be alone forever. Jessie had a series of failed relationships from when she was 17 years old. The relationships were almost always destructive, emotionally abusive, or just plain bad. She never felt loved by her family growing up and every relationship she experienced replicated that initial core wound, and further validated her point; love wasn’t an option for her, and she was going to end up alone.
She could not fathom believing that anything other than her belief was true. She knew that she knew that she KNEW it was true, and nobody could convince her otherwise. “I have proof, look at my track record,” she would say in sessions, rather loudly and intensely. She was in pain and felt lonely, she was a hopeless romantic at heart and knew that if she met the right person she would be so good to them, that she would love them like they’d never been loved before. She did that in every one of her relationships, but unfortunately, she had a history of getting into relationships with the wrong people, perpetuated by her abandonment wound from her family, and couldn’t get out of the cycle. Her belief was further engrained by secondary beliefs, that she didn’t matter, she was alone, she wasn’t wanted, and she must be unlovable. Those primary beliefs were compounded by those secondary beliefs and ideas that formed through the experiences she had gone through, and they were deeply rooted and very destructive.
Unfortunately, this type of belief system is the second most common narrative I see with clients, and in people in general. The idea gets planted early in life, the person feels isolated and alone, like they don’t fit in anywhere or that, in any room, they’re the odd one out. They may have friends or even be a social person, but there’s this underlying thought that doesn’t go away; “this isn’t real, they don’t really like me, if they knew the real me they would leave.”
This usually leads the person to start changing who they are, trying anything and everything to just get someone to like them, to make someone stay or see them. This is where people-pleasing tendencies come into play, and the person ends up feeling as though they have no idea who they are, and that they will always have to change themselves to be deemed acceptable. The person betrays themselves over and over, disregarding their boundaries, neglecting their own needs, and doing what the other person wants them to do, because they’re hoping that if they comply, it will finally lead to being loved.
The uncomfortable truth is that it doesn’t take much for a belief like this to form. A wide range of circumstances could lead to this type of belief, which is how a trauma survivor, and an “everyday person with a normal life” can have the same belief and the same consequential outcomes, emotions, and experiences thereafter.
Narrative #2: The Story About My Worth
How many of you, at one point in your life, have said out loud or thought, “I’m not good enough.” Probably many of you, if not all. This is hands down the number one limiting narrative I see, not only with clients but with most people. We are a population of people searching, clawing, begging for anything to make us feel significant, to make us feel good enough, valuable, and like we matter because deep down we all are facing the demon of never being enough.
This belief is truly destructive. We grow up, and throughout every facet of our lives, we’re told by one person or another that we aren’t enough, that we need to measure up to some standard that has been placed, whether societally, culturally, familially, academically, and in a myriad of other ways. We’re pinned against each other as human beings and told we only matter if we look, walk, talk, sound, do, think, feel the way the other person does, and then wonder why we grow up into adults feeling worthless, caught in the rat race of comparing to the person next to us, or to THAT person on social media (you know who that is for you).
We never feel enough, no matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, no matter how much we change ourselves to try to fit the mold, and it causes us to feel as though our lives don’t matter. So we fight for worthiness, fight to stand out, fight for 5 seconds of attention until the next wave of trends appears and you have to change yourself all over again to fit the mold. It’s a pattern that will leave you dried out, wondering who you ever were in the first place. And unfortunately, we’ve all been there.
Narrative #3: The Story About My Capabilities
“I can’t do it.” “I’m not the kind of person who can do things like that.” “Maybe other people are capable of doing that but not me.” “It’s just not in the cards for me.” Have you ever said something like this? I know I have, many times. This final destructive narrative is rather insidious, it seems harmless when we are saying it, but the results of this belief structure can be catastrophic.
Human beings are far more capable than we can even fathom. Extraordinary, unthinkable feats have been accomplished and chased after, technologies and innovations we couldn’t imagine have been developed, and as a species, we’ve evolved to be able to handle and do more than any other species alive. We are extraordinary, and yet so many of us are plagued by the idea that we aren’t capable, that we are inferior to others in skill, and that we are fixed, stuck being the way we are with no ability to change or get better. Even still, many people believe they are just going to continuously get worse.
I see this every single day in my practice. A client and I will be working on a new challenge, and before we even get started they begin to doubt themselves; “Bianca, I can’t do that. I’ve never been able to do this before, I’ve been this way [done this thing] my whole life, and it isn’t going to change.” Why are we so quick to doubt ourselves? Why are we so easily led to believe that we are incapable? It’s because of our history. At one point in your life, you tried something new, tried a task, a challenge, a math problem, whatever it may be, and you were not able to do it. And due to the response of the people around you, or a comparison made to another person, and how horribly you felt, you decided to believe that you weren’t capable, and probably were never going to be. And what’s even worse is that it didn’t just stay with that one endeavor, you started to believe that you weren’t capable of doing anything and that you likely were going to fail at whatever it was you tried.
That’s the thing about these beliefs, that is why they are so destructive, they generalize to the rest of our lives and we are left thinking and feeling that we really are those terrible things, and there is nothing that can change our minds. We are destined to be this terrible, unlovable, unworthy, incapable human being, and that is our lot in life. Until now.
How to Destroy These Narratives
Whether you have one, or all of these narratives in your life, the good thing is that they can be worked on. We have the power to transform these narratives into something more empowering, something that brings us closer to the things we want in life, rather than keeping us stuck repeating the same patterns that are keeping us unhappy and small. These are proven methods that are backed by tons of scientific research and evidence and are the exact tools I use with clients every single day. If you want to get rid of these narratives, this protocol is for you. It works on all three of the narratives and can be customized for your specific challenges.
The Behavioral Experiment
When I get to do behavioral experiments with clients I truly get giddy because I know it’s going to rock their worlds. We place so much weight and significance on the beliefs we hold and we rarely, if ever, challenge those beliefs until we’re forced to. This “forces” my clients to see just how invalid their limiting beliefs really are.
Step 1: Setting Up the Experiment
When we have destructive narratives, we tend to avoid situations, places, people, and things that will trigger our beliefs, or we hunker down on the things that provide momentary relief from these beliefs. For example, if you’re struggling with Social Anxiety, you might need a few drinks before going to a social gathering and believe that you won’t be liked if you’re your normal self. The first step in changing these beliefs through a behavioral experiment is to determine what that situation or scenario is that might trigger that belief. When first getting started you want to make sure it’s something that isn’t a level 10 fear, like trying to belt out “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion on stage in front of 10,000 people. This needs to be something that is fearful, but not so fearful that it’s too much to bear and you avoid it completely. Pick something that is just on the cusp of being anxiety-provoking. Decide the goal for the experiment (for example, a number goal of walking up to 5 strangers and saying hello), where it will be, and who will be involved.
Next, you want to write down all of the pre-experiment jitters. What are the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and limiting beliefs that are coming up as you think about doing this experiment? Write them out, and let yourself acknowledge these fears. They are valid, and it’s okay you’re feeling them. Then, write out your prediction of what will happen. How do you think you’ll do? What do you think the outcome will be? What can you anticipate in advance might happen, like any problems or obstacles, that might get in the way of you completing the experiment, and what coping strategies can you come up with to deal with them?
Step 2: Completing the Experiment
Now here’s the scary part, you have to actually go do the experiment. I suggest clients bring their set-up notes with them so they can help themselves remember what they wrote down, especially the fears they predicted would come up in advance, and the coping strategies they came up with to deal with them. Take a mental note of how high your fear/anxiety is in the moment and the thoughts that are coming up for you. Once out of the situation (after giving yourself some room to breathe), you want to reflect on how it went. This part is crucial because doing the experiment without doing the thought challenge section at the end practically renders the experiment useless. You need action and reflection in order to change. Here are some questions to reflect on:
- What was the outcome? What happened? What emotions and thoughts came up for you during the experiment?
- In reflection, was your fear as valid as you thought? Did what you feared would happen actually happen, and even if it did, was it as bad as you thought it would be?
- What did you do that was actually surprising to you? What did you do well, or better than expected?
- Even if it didn’t go perfectly, what did you learn from this?
- How do you think you will do if you repeat this experiment?
Almost every single time I have a client do these experiments, they are blown away by the fact that their pre-experiment thoughts and fears were much worse than the reality. When we are controlled by destructive narratives, we hold them firmly as true, but by challenging them through action and provoking questions, we’re able to gather new evidence, and done enough times, with enough patience and effort, we’re able to change those narratives and develop new, evolved empowered ones. These experiments can be tough, but if you give yourself the permission to try, you’ll see that the ideas were holding you back much more than the reality, and once you can change the ideas, the reality of your life will be forever changed.
If you want help completing a behavioral experiment
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