Why is it that some of us who have been blessed with so much in life still find living so difficult?
Rebecca and her friend Amy mused at this perplexing phenomenon as they commiserated on how challenging life had always seemed to be for them—especially in contrast to people like Jenny, Rebecca’s twin (also good friends with Amy) who seemed to be naturally more positive and emotionally buoyant.
The Best to Come from Oaxaca
Amy observed that her husband, Hugo, was like Jenny. Despite being raised in extreme poverty in a small rural village in Oaxaca, Mexico, Hugo went on to earn both his BA and his law degree from Harvard and, in the 70’s, to found Radio Bilingüe, the National Spanish language public radio network that continues to grow and thrive today. From an early age, Hugo remembers his mother telling him that he was the best thing to come from Oaxaca since chocolate and corn. “And,” Amy marveled “he believed it!”.
The Story We Tell Ourselves
Amy qualified that it isn’t that Hugo thinks he is better than others, in fact he is quite humble, but that he implicitly trusts that good things will come his way. She concluded that, “It’s all about the story we tell ourselves.” Amy, we should say, is no wallflower herself. She is the co-founder and executive director of Alliance for California Traditional Arts, as well as the mother of twin boys. But she also consistently struggles with feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and discouraged.
Those Of Us Who Struggle More Than Our Circumstances Warrant
Which brings us back to the general topic of those of us who, like Amy and Rebecca, often feel like life is subjectively much more difficult that their external circumstances seem to warrant–a dynamic that emerges with many of our clients.
Clinical Reasons That It’s Harder For Some of Us Than Others
Looking at this through the lens of psychology, there are complex reasons for that. Some of them relates to our innate propensity to experience more positive or negative emotions (click on the following hotlink to see our posts on highly sensitive people and on emotional valences), also to our general mindset–are we more prone to an optimistic or pessimistic mindset, to natural grit and resilience? But also to what Amy suggests–that the story we tell ourselves about who we are and the circumstances we encounter can play a huge role in how we experience life.
Angela’s Story (One Of Our Clients)
For example, Rebecca works with a client Angela* who despite having a relatively trauma-free childhood has what we call the Trifecta of negativity: 1) prone to negative emotions (anxiety, worry, stress); 2) prone to a pessimistic attributional style (she tends to personalize negative events and minimize positive ones); and 3) struggles with physical challenges (poor sleep, low energy, physically frail). Nevertheless, Angela believes that she was endowed with this challenging combination because Creator (as she calls her “Higher Power”) determined that she, unlike many others, has the strength and grit to survive it.
An Optimistic Twist To A Pessimist’s Experience
In other words, as Angela sees it, for the 70 + years she’s been in this iteration on the planet she has served as a magnet to draw negativity away from others who might not be able to withstand it. This ironically optimistic twist is what helps keep her empowered when, as she so frequently experiences, the going gets tough.
Rebecca’s Story For Why It’s So Hard for Her and Being The First Born Twin
Rebecca determined that she is paying her dues in this lifetime so that in the next she has a softer landing and that during this go-round she is here to use art to help others see themselves and their unique strengths more appreciatively. As a twin, she also believes that she took the hit of being the first to leave the safety of their mother’s womb in order to give Jenny some extra time to prepare.
Jenny’s Story (the Other Twin)
Jenny’s story, on the other hand, is that she playfully kicked Rebecca out of the womb so that she could indulge a little longer. And although she can articulate what she sees as her purpose–that she is here to help people feel authentic, safe, and comfortable–she really doesn’t think too much about it. “I’m generally happy to be here and just want to get some shit done.” Clearly she is not prone to the navel gazing self-absorption with which Rebecca was cursed.
And Amy, at the end of our conversation about stories, decided that despite struggling for so long with depression, was put here to raise her amazing twins and to highlight the role of traditional and folk arts as expressions of and facilitators of community health, resilience, healing and wellbeing. (You can learn more about Amy’s work with ACTA here).
FYI, there is a form of therapy, Narrative Therapy**, that is based upon the stories we tell about who we are, where we come from, and the world around us. The basic premise of narrative therapy is that, in order to make sense of our lives, we construct stories that provide meaning and context for our experience. (We should note that we do not believe that narrative therapy “fixes” the struggle people like Angela face, just that exploring our beliefs about our lives can be helpful).
Distance Between the Subject and the Story
Narrative therapy attempts to create distance between the subject and the story so that disempowering narratives can be challenged and we can play with other story lines. In other words, there may be multiple versions of a story, depending upon the point of view one is taking (e.g. which twin you are) and you have some choice about which storyline guides your life.
With that in mind, what’s your story?
Positively Your, Rebecca and Gioia
Write a narrative entitled “My story”. Although it seems trite, you might just start with “Once upon a time…”.
You don’t need to write an opus, just include the main things that shape your identity. Think about not just your circumstances but how you explain what’s happened to you.
If you want to go deeper you can think about the stories you have about your place in your family of origin, among your friends when you were growing and now that you are older , in your community and in your work place.
- Do you think that you are a natural product of your upbringing and culture or a reaction to it?
- Are you either more positive or negative and is there a story that you have always believed about why you are that way?
- Are there stories that you tell about yourself or that others tell about you that you no longer find useful? (i.e., is that your story or someone else’s? And if you are “negative” is that such a bad thing or is it just fine?)
- Might there be another way to retell that story that is more empowering?
Even if, at the end of your story, you are still struck with how challenging life has been for you, make an image of yourself (drawing, sculpture, etc.) as a Superhero of your story.
You could also draw an animal that represents you at the beginning of your story and you in this chapter of your life.
*Angela is a pseudonym
**To learn more about Narrative Therapy click here to go to the Narrative Therapy Center.