How Redefining Yourself May Help You Heal

What people who move forward from trauma do to create a new life.

Posted Jul 24, 2018

There’s a running joke in my house that everything I read, listen to, show interest in, etc.–everything–ends up connecting pretty quickly to suicide. I pick up a book that looks like it could be a light read, and there’s a suicide on page 40. I choose a Netflix show to watch, and there’s a suicide in the first season. Magazine article. Suicide. Random radio show. Suicide. You get the picture.

So, when I chose a podcast to listen to while cooking the other day, it wasn’t too much of a surprise that there was a connection to suicide (you’ll have to read pretty far through this piece to find it!). I find these connections so interesting: They show me that suicide is such a critical issue that it shows up everywhere, without even trying to see it.

The podcast I chose was NPR’s Invisibilia, and this particular episode begins with one of the podcast hosts, Hannah Rosin, interviewing her mother.

Rosin’s father, a man she describes as “a super-vital guy,” had died quickly and unexpectedly, and her mother could not move forward. This loss, said Rosin, was “the kind of loss that subtracts from your life something so central that you no longer really know who you are.”

In the same episode, titled “I, I, I. Him,” Rosin interviews a couple who made their living as beekeepers. Brenda and Lloyd Cunniff realized that they would need to make a change as their hives started to decimate, and they moved, with their bees, to California to join the almond rush. (Almonds can be cultivated with the help of bees.) In a long and sad story that you can hear on the podcast or read in transcript here, the Cunniff’s bees were stolen and they lost their livelihood overnight.

Rosin compares and contrasts the responses of her mother and the Cunniffs to identity-shifting losses. She turns to research to help understand what can help someone move forward after a loss versus what keeps someone stuck. And, she discovers that the kinds of questions that people ask themselves after a loss:

  • Did I deserve this?
  • Did I do something wrong?
  • Could I have fixed this?

They play into how people manage the loss.

All of these questions center on “I” or “me,” the individual self. They tend to contribute to people getting stuck, unable to become a new version of themselves, or as Rosin says, “to think about who they could be now.”

The final interview in the podcast is with James Pennebaker, a social psychology researcher who has examined how the frequency at which people use certain pronouns to talk about their experiences may affect how they cope. The pronouns I, me, and my are used by people who, according to Pennebaker, tend to be “more personal, more honest, more self-aware”–and also more depressed or depression-prone.

People who used different words–think, understand, realize–coped better. These kinds of words show evidence that someone is working through something, moving forward, rather than circling, getting stuck.

In his interview, Pennebaker offers this example:

“Let's say that someone very close to you dies suddenly. That touches every part of your life, your daily routine, how you connect with other people, linked to your health–all of these different parts of yourself. And it's hard to put those all together. So you'll walk down the street and you'll think about one aspect and you'll get upset, and then you'll switch to another thing, you'll get upset. But the ability to get on with it is the ability to put this experience into a simpler, perhaps more coherent story.

Do I change my story about my life, or do I continue persevering with the old story even though the facts don't fit very well?”

In his research on poets, Pennebaker noticed that Sylvia Plath, who went on to die by suicide, used “I” words with great frequently. Other poets who used “I” words frequently also went on to take their own lives.

About Plath, he said it’s “almost as though she keeps digging and digging into her misery, as opposed to trying to stand back and get a broader perspective on it.”

Getting that broader perspective, he suggests, is key to healing, and one can take perspective by constructing a new story. Not inventing, but constructing.

As Rosin states: “Taking the pieces that exist and rearranging them in some new way that puts the ghosts in the background, that matches the facts and lets you find a new place to stand in the world that you are actually living in.”

What implications does this research have for people living with traumatic experiences, challenging backgrounds, or a present life that feels terrible?

In some ways, the research suggests that if we alter the language we use to describe it, we can change the way we experience trauma, loss, challenge, pain. If the language we use moves from being personalized (“I am so hurt.” “This is so hard for me.”) to being productive (“Feeling this hurt is making me realize that I really need to make a change.” “It has been hard for me for a long time and I understand that isn’t what most people feel.”), we can move into a place of action and maybe even empowerment.

This change in thinking can be, as psychiatrist Dan Siegel says, part of creating a “coherent narrative” where you shift focus from what happened to you to how you make sense of what happened to you.

One idea is to sit with it, but just for a little bit. From Holly Rogers, a psychiatrist and meditation teacher, comes this guidance:

“Sometimes there are things in our life that we’re not crazy about, that are quite unpleasant, very distressing even–and yet there’s nothing we can do about it. And in those moments acceptance, acknowledging what is true without adding on layers of 'I don’t want this to be true,' 'It’s not fair,' 'I don’t like this,' 'Why did this happen to me,' can help us get through these difficult times with more ease. Importantly, when we settle into acceptance and see the truth of our circumstance in the moment–if there is an opportunity for change, if there is an opportunity to do something different–we have a better chance of seeing it. We have a better chance of developing wisdom about the possibilities in this moment when we see each moment with clarity.”

Rogers offers a guided meditation that ends with asking us to see if we can “summon the willingness to let it be as it is. Perhaps even saying to yourself: ‘It is what it is.’”

I find it quite powerful to consider that changing the stories we tell ourselves about our lives can help us move out of pain and into a new, better place. It doesn’t have to be a place of adventure (Rosin’s mother ends up skydiving as part of her healing process), or a more “positive” place (we don’t need to delude ourselves out of reality); a place of acceptance can be a comfortable place, a place of wisdom, healing, and even, perhaps, happiness.

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