Words have the power to liberate you or to choke you. Not only the words spoken by others, but often times those we say to ourselves. The voices in our head can say, “Get up. You can do this. You’re incredible.” Those same voices can also say, “You stupid bitch. You always mess up. I wish you would just die.”
Over time those words form sentences of tar that pave the roads in our mind. We travel down the same path, over and over again. Sentences become paragraphs, become pages. Eventually we’ve told ourselves an entire story that we absorb into our core beliefs. We are convinced that the road we are on is the road we will stay on. We think there is no way we can turn back. And you know what? That is true. We can’t go back. But we can stop laying down that tar, choose a new direction, and start telling ourselves a different story. Word by word.
The 10 steps below are the first baby baby ones to help you create a whole new story. Just like it took a long time to write your book so far, it will take some time to change the plot. But we all need a beginning. I hope this can be part of yours.
- Identify when you are triggered. That moment just before you start replaying that same podcast in your mind, catch it. This is far easier than it sounds because its fleeting. That gap in time between event (trigger) and the voices narrating the story in tar. Being aware in this critical space is the first and most important step. When you are tripped into the road, stop. Name the trigger. Identify it.
- Do what you can to immediately distance yourself from the trigger, just for a few minutes. You will use that time to go through the next steps. So if you’re in conversation with someone, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. If you read an email, get up from your desk and go make a cup of tea. You need to be alone, in your own space, with some time carved out to recentre.
- Close your eyes. Take 10 deep breaths and focus simply on your breathing: inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time. If you focus on your breath you can’t focus on that nagging first thought. This lasts for just under a minute, but that is the way your mind rests its hand on the page instead of turning it.
- Identify the emotion. Don’t let the words in yet. Don’t listen. Sometimes it helps to notice how your body is feeling. Is your tummy anxiously in a knot? Do you feel like screaming in anger? Are your hands fisted? Teeth clenched? Maybe you’re crying. What is the FEELING?
- Repeat to yourself: “It’s OK to feel ______________.” Say this a few times. You’re allowed to feel whatever you are feeling. Let yourself feel it, even if it’s only for a minute (because let’s face it, a bathroom break can only take so long). You will work with the feelings in greater depth later on, but for now, simply admit that it’s OK and allow the feeling to be there.
- Now you can let that first sentence have it’s say. Just the first sentence, not the entire story. Perhaps it will be something like: “She’s thinner than I am. She’s smarter than I am. She’s more beautiful than I am. She’s way more successful. No wonder that cute guy at the bar is looking at her and not at me.” Or maybe it is around the lines of: “I screwed up again. I’ll never get this right. I should have known I would mess up again. I always do.”
- Turn that sentence on its head. For instance: “I have beautiful eyes. I’m damn smart – I have a few degrees, thank you. I’m beautiful too. I am successful. Heck, just a few months ago I won that award for my writing. I deserve to find someone outside of a bar anyway.” Or in the other example: “I have done plenty things right this week. This is just a mistake that I know I can fix. I am resourceful. I will learn from this and improve. I have turned things around before.”
- Force a smile. I know you probably won’t feel like smiling. But physically do it anyway. Hold that smile for 10 seconds. Repeat your new sentence to yourself as you smile. Fist pump the air just for fun; get your power back.
- Take 3 more deep breaths. Focus simply on your breathing. Inhale. Exhale.
- Get back out there. It’s best if you can change the subject in your conversation, respond to the email at a later stage, or step out of the situation entirely and start a new activity. Tell yourself that you will work through this in detail later, you will hug those feelings when you get back home. You will respond to that person or other form of trigger if and when you need to. For now though, if you managed to get through every step to this point, you have achieved something remarkable. You stopped laying down that tar. You didn’t stay on the track that leads to a very steep downhill. You have empowered yourself instead of mindlessly following your emotional habits.
I know from experience that the stories we tell ourselves play a leading role in depression that cripples us. We can’t change our chemistry (even with medication, those deviant molecules are there for life), and there will always be life circumstances that contribute to our mood. But, there are things that we CAN change. One of the massive ones are our those words in our heads.
I have written hundreds of mind stories. Narrated so many over and over again that I know them off by heart. Gosh, I have a library of self-loathing. I have started a new book now though. One I am proud of. I am speaking metaphorically and literally. I have started building a concrete highway in my mind to a new destination. A far happier one. It’s piece by piece, and currently looks like that half-finished WTF road in Cape Town. But I’m getting there – and you can too. A wise friend once told me, “Positivity begets positivity.” The more positive and happy thoughts we lay down in our minds, the more velcro we stick to cling onto more.
Then, rather literally, I am busy writing my first actual book. One that will be printed on paper that I can touch and smell and see on the shelves. It’s a new way my words can learn to dance. It’s about how stories have the power to define us if we let them, and how we can use them instead to transform our lives. I have crafted it around depression and bipolar disorder because they are the ink on my life’s pages, but the ideas can be applied to any struggle – and as we will find – victory.
The beauty of books is that they are organic. They grow into themselves. Words come from outside of the author, from within the author, from the pages themselves. They also come from other powerful voices. I’ve always been very clear that we cannot do this alone and that our little community is stronger together.
I would love your help in creating my life’s work. I will be sharing excerpts from my book over the next few weeks before I submit it to my publisher. Obviously these would only be tiny snippets of the whole, but I would still love your comments and feedback, and perhaps some ideas or things you would add. You may even wish to submit your own story as one of my case studies in the book (obviously I wouldn’t use your real name). I will formally thank everyone involved who gives me ideas for material that I use in the final manuscript.
If you would like to see the first few pages, you can click on the link below:
Thank you for being part of my journey and for allowing me to be a part of yours.