The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Part of my training in becoming a counselor is to learn about the different theoretical approaches and practice ones that align to my interpretations of therapy. One of my professors calls this “dating around,” but it hasn’t taken me long to zone in on one: narrative therapy.

As a writer, storyteller, and now soon-to-be therapist, narrative is a natural fit for me. In fact, a semester before I took the theories course a student further along in the program anticipated that this would be my theory of choice. She was right. Narrative centers on the idea that stories define a person’s experience in life and that these stories can be changed and altered to help empower a person to see their own strengths and build a life that they want. Narrative therapists believe that people are separate from their problems and that they are capable to externalize these issues and manage them in effective ways. Not only have I been exploring narrative therapy in practice counseling settings, but it’s become an added perspective in which to view my own life.

There are many stories I tell about myself and who I am as a person, and not all of them are steeped in reality. Rather, many are framed around expectations and comparisons and focused on what is missing. When I hit a snag in life, these stories of deficit consume me.

Last week, my husband was laid off due to COVID-19. It’s specifically upsetting because he had had this job a few months and has been mostly underemployed for about three years. This job was to be, finally, his fresh start, but then a global pandemic and national recession hit. Not only is he now back enduring the humility of a job search, but he is doing so with fewer job options and more competition. With me still in graduate school for another year, we are hovering right at the line of being OK and not. Also, we lose our health insurance at the end of the month … during a pandemic.

At first, I didn’t take the news well. I tried to keep it together in front of my husband, who was reeling from yet another professional setback, and finally had to go outside to cry. The emotion spilled out of me so ferociously and audibly that a woman living nearby came to check on me.

In that moment all I could think about was reverting back to the emotional distress and despair that haunted me for months. How I held my breath each time as the cashier scanned my items at the grocery store, wanting to indulge in simple pleasures but hoping the total was one our bank account could handle. Or, how shameful the situation sounded when we explained it to friends or new acquaintances. Or, how exhausted and irritated I felt after taking an extra shift because I wasn’t in a position to refuse an extra paycheck.

Mostly, I was terrified of going back to the idea that our lives were on hold, of going back to the pause. Without a steady, sufficient income, we can’t make big choices let alone a budget. Things like buying a home or taking a trip have to wait. We’ve been trying to have a baby for some time, but that is another thing that can’t happen until there is enough money coming in. As our friends and family travel through these big life events, we just watch, waiting for all the pieces to fall into place so that we can have them, too.

The story I told myself for so long was that we were undeserving. We couldn’t figure out the basics, so we didn’t get to spend Saturday mornings walking a stroller down the block to get coffee. We don’t get to try out that new restaurant or get tickets to see a beloved performer. We dislike our small apartment with the thin walls, but it’s what we get. Somewhere along the way we failed, and so we must suffer.

I couldn’t go through this heartbreak again. It took so much from me last time—testing not only our marriage but both of ours mental health—and I wasn’t sure I could survive again. I tried so hard to find solutions for us, controlling every aspect that I could, doing everything I thought a loving wife did, and yet here we are, in a similar place. How could we go through this struggle again, but this time a bit harder?

Then I wondered, what if my constant heartbreak isn’t the situation that life keeps handing me? What if it’s the expectations that I continue to hold myself to? The ideas of what I think life should be? My pain and sorrow are not what I don’t have and who I am falling behind but that I only see what isn’t there. Would it be possible to stop aspiring for perfection and accept my life for what is, even the very real, scary, and uncertain parts? Could we survive if I didn’t worry about it every day? If I didn’t match our downs to everyone else’s ups? What if instead of the one where I am waiting for life, I am living it? What if my story became that life isn’t perfect, but I don’t need it to be to enjoy the simple but beautiful everyday pieces? What if I decided that as long our necessities were met and we were together then contentment was achievable?

What would happen if I changed the story?

So, I did.

My new story is about enough. With a greater sense of reality, it reminds me that we have the money we need to pay our bills and enjoy an occasional night out, that my husband is a good, intelligent man who will find his way to a career that enriches him, that as a couple we are building a satisfying life with enormous potential, and that there are small but nourishing blessings all around me.

It’s only been a week, but this time is different. I don’t wake up stressed about money. Rather, I understand that the white privilege I hold allows me to be a bit better off than someone of color in a similar situation, and I refuse to take that for granted. At the grocery store, I get whatever I want because I know that I am careful with other spending and this is the only place that I do indulge. And, when I think about what is missing and how far I am behind, I ask myself, “Will that really make you happy? Or, can you be happy now?” Now is always the answer.

Our circumstances are not ideal, but we do not have to be victims of the situation. Even in a financially stressed time, there is so much beautify in our lives, and we also know it won’t last forever. Eventually, my husband will get a great job with benefits, and I will graduate next year and get my own consistent job. We’ll have more money for trips and luxury items, and that baby and house will come. But, I’ve come to understand that if we can’t be happy now, we never will be. If we can’t change our story about what we need and what we deserve, we will always be plagued by it. I refuse to continue let circumstances write my narrative. I write my own story, and it in, I am deserving and worthy.

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