How The Stories We Tell Ourselves Control Our Lives
My phone rang promptly at 11 a.m. On the other end was a woman who, like many of the people I work with, was struggling with a number of things in life. Her predominant issue was the seemingly ever-increasing occurrence these days of a constant albeit mild anxiety.
After hearing what she was currently dealing with, I started asking about her childhood to develop a framework for understanding her current experiences. The most notable event for her was the passing of her mom when she was 14 years old. Her dad had been virtually absent in her life, so naturally she'd grown especially close to her mom during her formative years. Not surprisingly, when her mom passed, she experienced sadness, confusion, fear, and even anger at the seeming unfairness of life. Now in her 30s and married, she knows deep down she could be happier. There aren't any major problems in her life, she explained, but she mentioned unnecessary fights with her husband, with some excessive reactivity and occasional meanness that she wasn't proud of and that left her feeling immensely guilty. But more than anything, she felt a persistent underlying current of restlessness.
It's my assertion that, as human beings, our predominant agenda is to survive. The instinct is deep in our DNA. Of course we want to stay alive, but now this instinct has become more of an emotional response. It's less about a threat to our actual existence and more about the barrage of perceived threats to our ego. To me, this is the source of human suffering—simply getting triggered. Either being upset or equally trying to avoid getting upset. If you look at your own life, wherever you feel any kind of dismay, I can almost guarantee it's due to a limiting view of your ego. It might be believing that somehow someone has done you wrong, that the current circumstances aren't to your liking, or that some part of your life and the people in it should be somehow different. There's the reality of life, and then there's our view of how we think life should be. The degree to which those two differ is the degree to which we suffer.
So why do we believe we know how life should be and how others should act? Worse still, why do we believe that if things aren't the way we think they should be, then we can't be happy? To me, it's our ego, sometimes also called our persona. For a long time, the ego has gotten a bad rep. We tend to think the ego is bad, something to get rid of, burned, removed, let go of, ceremonially discarded through some ritualistic process. Consider the ego as simply a point of view, a perspective, a personal vantage point. But it's a point of view that we've had for decades, so it feels like it's actually who we are. This is the reason people do the maddest things to defend themselves, just as the woman I spoke to this morning would do with her husband or anyone else that appeared to be threatening her view.
If this perspective of the ego is fundamentally the cause of our suffering, it seems to make sense that we should try to better understand it. What's its nature? How is it formed? With this understanding, we can make real strides to shift our perspective and consequently shift our suffering.
The mental cages we live within.
Digging deeper on the call, I asked how the death of her mother had affected her. She felt it was evidence that she couldn't trust life and that there was certainly no God. She went on to explain how the subsequent years of her life were predominantly about controlling as much as she could. In my experience, this is a common adaptation when feeling the absence of security, whether it be from another person, life, or a deity of choice.
With some further inquiry, I asked her to look at and figure out what her foundational perspective of life must be in order for her to think, feel, and behave this way. This is not an easy task, and it took her a while to find it. I find that these primary building blocks of our ego are blind spots and yet are the insidious containers we live within. They dictate our view of others and life, and thus they also dictate not only how we act but, consequently, all our results.
She explained that at the deepest level she feels scared. Fear is a bedfellow of anxiety. Intellectually she knew that didn't really make sense because she leads a nice life with a loving husband and isn't really wanting for anything. However, this awareness did little to offset the deeper conditioning but instead just added frustration and more guilt that she shouldn't feel this way. These patterns are deep. Like anyone who's scared, she was doing her best to try to avoid feeling scared—hence her need to control everything and her occasional outbursts of hostility, a reaction no different to the animal instinct to protect one's territory when perceiving any threat.
Our feelings are a by-product of how we perceive our environment, including others. So I asked, "What must you be saying about yourself and the way life is for you to be scared?"
There was a beat as she continued to dig. She replied, "I'm not safe. I'm not OK."
Yes. This is one of what I assert are many mental cages we live within. This was totally justifiable to a 14-year-old whose mom had died. But it's not who she is deep down. It was a moment in time during which she felt deeply scared, as we all do at certain points in our lives. But the ego/persona finds refuge in these limiting perspectives and adopts them as its own. Over time she had become a person who functioned as though she was fundamentally not safe. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you're living from that perspective, it's going to give rise to anxiety and even aggression when necessary in order to protect yourself.
She was suddenly aware of how absolutely exhausting her life had been, constantly in fight-or-flight at the deepest level of her being, doing her best to be nice, stay calm, and live a happy life while at the most rudimentary level of her subconscious always looking out for the next potential threat. And so her life was one of a constant state of mild anxiety.
Waking up to the truth.
Once we reveal a particular type of mental constraint, we can investigate its nature. We have the evidence from our past, which is all the ego needs to justify itself. But what does that evidence have to do with today?
She realized her perspective existed solely in her thoughts, her words, so ultimately in language. The belief "I'm not safe" was simply that—a belief. Yes, it feels real, but it's not. It's just a lens. A perspective. And in the case of the ego, it's always a limiting one. And although a belief is only made up of words, the effects are devastating. She started to realize how such a subtle perspective had informed her entire experience—all the fights, the worries, the desperate attempts to control every aspect of her life, the toll on her sleep, her body, her health, the resistance to change, the denial of dreams, the resentment toward life, and the absolute waste of time and energy.
I asked her: If that lens was not there, if it didn't even exist, if she recognized it was simply a perspective, how would she feel? What would become available to her? There was a long pause. I could hear her audibly exhale. Starting to cry, she replied, "I'd be so at peace. I already feel so much lighter. I feel so calm right now."
These are the moments I live for. When in a split second of awareness, someone can see the fictitiousness of the mental cage they have lived in and its associated suffering. Human, yes, but unnecessary. What she was left with was freedom. Freedom from the shackles of her very own thoughts.
True awakening is to realize that we're not who we think we are. We're not the stories we tell ourselves and others. We're not a series of narratives we've unwittingly allowed to define us. At the most fundamental level, we're not defined by words, regardless of how accurately they might describe the events of our life. And so despite the ubiquitous hurt we see in the world, this shows how understanding the power of stories can lead to our liberation. Beneath the words of pain lies the experience of true peace and joy that I assert is our inherent nature.
Who would you be if you weren't defined by the limiting dialogue of your own mind? Consider that you are pure possibility. You are boundless potential.