The stories we tell ourselves, our identity, and healing
Updated: Apr 16
For the last couple of years, I've been on a journey that has completely altered the way I live my life and the way I think about the world. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, but the growth I've undergone has been invigorating. Life-changing events have forced me down this path of real, raw self-discovery and self-acceptance. They have made me challenge the very stable notions of my life and identity.
Just to recap, a couple of years ago I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. This was the beginning of a life-shattering period of my life, filled with change, challenges, pain, healing, and growth. I am a very different person today than I was before my battle with cancer. Not just on the surface or in terms of my environment but also down to my core beliefs and way of viewing life.
In this blog, I have explored and explained the vast positive impact that this life-changing event had on my life. There has been a lot left unsaid about the struggle with mental health issues I've undergone. I'm now beginning to open up about this. I want to share what my coping mechanisms have been and how I have gotten through the darkest and loneliest moments of my life.
The first and most important coping mechanism that I want to go into is awareness. Becoming aware of our thoughts, and taking mental action of separating ourselves from our thoughts. It's impossible to do this all of the time, but learning to do this is in my opinion, the only way you can begin to gain control over your mind. This is what is done in meditation, mindfulness, and in many other healthy mental and spiritual rituals.
Once we separate ourselves from our minds, we can learn to watch our thoughts and see the impact they have over different elements of our being without being absorbed by them. In this process, I have realized many things that have helped me and continue to help me cope with anxiety and PTSD. In this article, I want to focus on one specific element of our thoughts. That element is storytelling.
Storytelling is human.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of this is that storytelling, is a huge part of my job and is one of the skills in my profession that I most enjoy and most pride myself in mastering. The stories that we tell about things, people, and places are what makes them interesting, inviting, and relatable, or not. Stories absorb us, and they are the fabric of civilization that makes us most human and can bring us together, or tear us apart.
The stories we tell ourselves.
Storytelling is everything. Now, what about the stories we tell ourselves? Lately, I’ve been thinking about perception and identity. Perception is reality, and perception comes down to the ideas and thoughts we select in defining something.
When it comes to the perception of ourselves, what are the ideas we choose to listen to in our minds that define our self-identity? The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, how things happened, and why they happened to create the reality we live in.
I’ve been on a journey to become aware of the stories I tell myself and the power they have over the way I perceive the world around me and myself. I’ve realized the essential role they play in mental health. In my recovery from PTSD from being a cancer survivor, cognitive behavior therapy has helped me rewire the way my mind works. I’m working on choosing to listen to productive thoughts that make me the person that I want to be today and that will turn me into the person I want to become in the future.
None of this is easy or happens overnight. I’ve recently found that altering my sense of identity accelerates this process. By choosing to identify as one thing versus adopting the mentality that I'm working to become something, I struggle less with aligning my desires, goals, thoughts, and actions. This is an example of the story I'm telling myself. In one scenario I'm telling myself I am something, while in the other I'm telling myself I'm not something yet and I'm working to become them. Telling myself I am something, makes it significantly easier to use my mental energy on the actions I take. Thus, shaping the stories I tell myself has become a facilitator not only in my recovery but also in becoming the best version of myself and making the life I aspire to have a reality day by day.
The Stories I tell myself
The last couple of years have been rough for most of us I would say. In my case, I have been through many things, starting with the pandemic and the illness I previously mentioned, and ending with many other unfortunate events. There are moments when the stories I tell myself of the last couple of years are tragic. They make me spiral into a vortex of darkness and loneliness.
While it has been necessary to grieve the loss of many things I lost in my life, it is also really important to be careful not to get absorbed by the hard episodes of life. As the word suggests, they are just that, episodes, that will be followed by more episodes to come. There will always be something, sometimes harder than others, but even in the midst of chaos and sadness, there is always a silver lining.
I have been allowing myself to feel all of the grief inside with intense passion and being compassionate with myself. After the intense emotions subside, I think of the stories I am telling myself while I grieve and then I take a step back and ask myself, what went well? and who am I? Then I tell myself the story of everything that makes me smile in a certain period of time and it changes my perspective of the role the universe is playing for me. It also changes the way I perceive my identity.
For example, last year was a year of recovery both physically and mentally and a year of change. I used to call it the year of "just when you thought things couldn't get worst, they did". It felt like I was finally out of the water and then an undertow pulled me back into the deep. It was harder than the previous year and harder than the previous year before that. I did the most to turn it around and do things to make myself feel better, to take care of myself, to put myself first, and despite the immense suffering I was going through I put all of my energy into making myself fill a void.
Looking back on last year it was the hardest year of my life. That being said, there are two stories I could tell myself. I could tell myself last year was the year that after having survived cancer and dealing with all of the aftermaths of trying to go back to a normal life, my physical condition deteriorated (I gained a significant amount of weight and had trouble doing any exercise), my mental health was spiraling out of control, I had many losses in my personal life, things at work became more stressful than ever and many more negative occurrences. Overall, it simply felt like a year of profound struggle that left me exhausted.
I could also tell myself a different story. While all of what I said above was true, there was also so much to be grateful for. I bought a new apartment in Barcelona and remodeled it. I traveled quite a bit. I went to Chile and visited friends and family. I went to one of my best friend's weddings in California. I spent time with my family in California over the summer. I went to my friend's wedding in Turkey. I spent the summer in the Cote d'Azur with my bestie who moved there due to a promotion. I traveled to new places like Amsterdam, I met up with my brother-in-law in Bordeaux. I spent Christmas with part of my family in Scottsdale. I made a new life for myself after losing my best friend to a broken engagement. I rediscovered who I was, spent time alone remembering who I was, and was true to myself. I had the opportunity to put myself like never before. I discovered parts of myself that I didn't know existed and I met new people who changed my life forever and helped me heal. I was reunited with friends from high school and college. I learned a lot at work and finally mustered up the courage to start my own business (check out Pash). There is so much more...
All of the events described above both positive and negative are true. When told in isolation they tell completely different stories. The reality is that with all of the heartbreak and soul-shattering experiences I had last year, there came a lot of amazing mind-expanding experiences that made me feel aw, that made me feel alive. The story I choose to tell myself is really up to me. It can be a balanced story that takes into consideration both positive and negative, or it can be one-sided.
When I put the stories side by side, there are more positive things than negatives that happened in this year I used to call the worst year of my life. It also makes me realize just how fortunate and privileged I am to have been given the opportunity to live these experiences and to be able to appreciate them. I am grateful for the suffering because it makes you appreciate the good times.
"I want to feel alive again."
After all of my treatment there was one reoccurring thought that I kept having that I hadn't shared with anyone until recently. That was, I want to feel alive. I had been "saved" from a serious illness but I felt numb, and even though things were seemingly getting better and I was healing, I still didn't feel alive. I was going through the motions of life. All of the changes that happened last year broke me to the point that I could feel pain again, and as strange as it sounds, it took me out of my state of numbness. Then they impulsed me to take action, actions which led me to feel deep peace, pleasure, fun, enticement, happiness, and wholeness.
That is the story that I have decided to tell myself about that period of my life. It was a period in my life where I felt numb, I wanted to feel alive, and I did. Everything, the good and the bad brought me back to life. That's my story and now that I'm alive again, it is time to start building a new story of my ever evolving identity. A new story that is the continuation of the previous one. This time, while I'm living it, I'm trying to remember my initial point, the stories I tell myself are important. Perspective is important. I think to myself, how will I remember this day a year from now? I'm trying to learn to just "enjoy the ride" knowing that no moment or emotion will last forever. In reality, life is not a tragedy or a comedy, and we are not heroes or victims, but maybe a little bit of both.