We tend to replay scenarios in our mind as a way to make sense of our experiences- what I call our 'life story'. We can get overly attached to those scenarios, so much so that we forget that we possess editorial control of our story. We tend to believe that life just happens to us, when in fact we have a lot of say in how our decisions affect our outcomes. Like an author learning how to edit a book for smoother flow, we can all learn some life-editing skills to help our story flow more smoothly. Here are a few life story editing tools:
Flexibility: Do you tend to be more rigid or more flexible in your perception of the world and your place within it? If someone wrongs you, do you hold a long-term grudge or do you listen to the other person’s story and offer forgiveness? Are your political opinions rock solid or open for consideration? Want to know when you’re being overly rigid in your experience of the world? Practice catching yourself in red flag moments saying things like: “I’m positive”, “I’m sure of it”, “That’s the only way”, “I never”, “I always”, “You must”, “You’re wrong”, “I hate”, “I need”, “I can’t live without”, “I can’t help it”, or “That’s just how I am”.
When the flag goes up, take a moment to consider the alternative options to the rigid belief you’ve adopted. Even if you end up sticking with your original viewpoint, you’re establishing a healthy habit of keeping your brain flexible. A flexible mind/body finds itself less sore when it’s pushed beyond its comfort zone—much like an athlete.
Flexibility can be exercised when looking back at stories from your past, situations at present, or fantasies about your future. Simply ask yourself questions like: “Am I really seeing this from all angles?” “Was I biased at the time?” “Is there another possibility?” “Am I being fair to myself and others?” “Does my choice reflect me at my best?” “How will this attitude best serve me?” “Does my choice/belief cause me or others suffering?”
Self-permission and Self-compassion: When you’re thinking about trying something new, do you always need someone else’s opinion? When you consider getting a new hairstyle, does a nervous voice inside you immediately ask: “Will [so-and-so] like my new hair?” Many of us have been conditioned to find external permission and acceptance before moving forward on anything. Many of us are unpracticed at allowing ourselves to feel what we need to feel, move on when we need to, move forward and grow, or give ourselves what we deserve. Yet we seem very skilled at coming down hard on our mistakes and shortcomings.
While asking for a second or third opinion can often be very helpful in making a well-informed decision, we can also get stuck or face unnecessary roadblocks by always seeking permission and approval. Sometimes it seems like we’re seeking permission at every single turn—from our family, friends, colleagues, church, community, school, advisor, or boss.
We are individuals and in the end we must trust ourselves to make our own decisions. To choose our behaviors with a strong sense of self-responsibility. When we constantly ask for permission, we are asking for those responsibilities to be shifted. It lessens the burden of responsibility on ourselves and gives us an easy out—placing blame somewhere else should things turn out poorly.
Self-permission is partly about taking responsibility for ourselves and partly about being more compassionate with ourselves. Compassion is about loving and respecting ourselves. Having trust in ourselves is a compassionate act. Accepting the mistakes we take responsibility for is also a compassionate act. When you can develop the practice of self-permission, keeping in mind self-compassion, it can be wonderfully exhilarating.
Forgiveness: As we think deeply about our life stories and our relationships, it’s inevitable that emotions will surface. Are any of those emotions keeping you stuck in a place where you no longer want to be? Perhaps mistakes and guilt from the past are weighing you down and keeping you stuck in a chapter that has long passed. Self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others are compassionate skills for moving forward. For some strange reason we humans feel obligated to carry our burdens and beat ourselves up over things which we no longer can control.
You’ve heard it before: the past has passed, let it go. That may feel far easier said than done, but it does get easier with practice. We can learn a lot of positive lessons from making mistakes but we can do it without the self-limiting burden of long-held guilt.
When our dog has an accident on the floor, we don't hold it against her for years with scorn. We quickly wipe up the mess, take a few deep breaths, and accept that the love for our pet outweighs our frustration over her accident. We probably don't even consider whether or not to forgive—it's automatic. Yet people often struggle to forgive their neighbors for long periods of time, even for the pettiest of mistakes. And they probably didn’t even pee on the floor!
A rose that blooms in the summer expires in a couple of months, leaving us with nothing more than thorns and dead leaves. The following year we don't think back on its previous autumn betrayal. No grudges against the rose for losing its beauty, just acceptance of the cycle and an awakening to each new day with curiosity to see if the buds have bloomed once again. We accept the changes of the season but we’re not that great at accepting the changes as they happen to others or ourselves. We hold on, we judge, we hold on to expectations. Which brings us to the next concept of acceptance.
Mindfulness and Acceptance: You’ve probably heard the oft used phrase, “It is what it is.” Whatever happened in the past cannot be changed, so we must find a level of acceptance with our lingering connection to it. Likewise, the future is never a point on the map that we will reach. It is only a concept containing possibilities and potential. Therefore, we must accept that we cannot truly predict what will happen, instead bringing ourselves back to the present moment. We can choose to put an end to the loop of constant worry and inaccurate crystal ball reading. Like a stop sign that flashes in front of our face when we’re stuck ruminating and obsessing, we can say “STOP!” and make a choice to accept what cannot be changed.
Mindfulness is the twin sister to acceptance. It’s an essential practice that has endless benefit. From a decrease in physical and emotional suffering to an increase in physical and emotional resilience, mindfulness is on everybody’s mind these days …if you’ll pardon the pun.
It would be difficult to describe mindfulness in a limited space here, so I invite you to download my easy-to-read ebook about mindfulness, found on my website at bradwatersmsw.com/resources. I devote special writing to this topic because I believe it is one of the most helpful of all concepts we can come to understand and practice.
Perhaps the simplest way to describe mindfulness is to offer the following short phrases I include in my ebook Cultivating Your Everyday Mindfulness:
-“being” rather than “doing”
-quieting the mind
Love and Gratitude: For the most part these are self-explanatory; but the main point about love and gratitude is that they take us out of our selfish selves—our egos—and open us up to the world. By expressing sentiments of love and gratitude, we can instantly stop the incessant me-focused chatter of the mind and instead speak from our heart. Love and gratitude can be directed at a universe full of abundance and wonder. An excellent meditation practice for developing an awareness and expression of love and gratitude is called loving-kindness meditation.
Engagement: This is the culmination of it all. The richness of day-to-day living that we must allow in or seek out in order to achieve a basic state of well-being. Beyond nutrition, sleep, hygiene, and shelter, we are referring to the connection with the world around us in a way that adds meaning to our life. We are responsible for creating engagement, seeking it out, or accepting it when others try to engage with us.
Engagement includes but is not limited to: socialization in a community, vocation, connection with nature, laughter/humor, personal growth, education, storytelling, spirituality, love, affection, creativity, and movement.
Engagement with life is the backbone of my StoryLaunch! book, and the bottom line is that we are individually responsible for our engagement with life. Part of exploring your life story is about bringing consciousness to your engagement. To witness where you are and aren't engaged; and making intentional choices to become more and more curious and connected with your world. If we sit around and wait for life to come to us, we will sit around and wait for life to come to us
In closing, it must be said that reading and knowing about growth and happiness factors does not equate to living and experiencing them. I'm reminded of this classic Garfield poster that used to hang in my middle school classroom. Unfortunately, Garfield's approach is pretty ineffective when it comes to happiness habits. They must be practiced.