Are you ruining your midlife story?
How thinking better, helps you live better.
Stop making a story out of everything.
This is an odd sentence to write as a writer. But as a coach, it’s a really important sentence to write.
Life is a lot easier when we stop telling ourselves stories. Especially the wrong stories, because as I explain below, you’re not the only one even telling your story.
I laugh because one of my corporate talks I give is on the power of telling your story. But there is a world of pain and difference between curating the empowering story of your life or business that connects you to people, and the insidious little stories you tell yourself daily (and hourly) that hold you back, or worse - damage you and your relationships.
This is very raw and real for me at the moment as I’m finally swimming frantically to the surface of the spiral I’ve been drowning in recently. This is my annual existential crisis. Luckily because I journal and do this work for a living, I’m aware enough to spot the patterns of my life, the flow of my energy highs and lows, the rollercoaster of the wealth and poverty of my emotional state.
Every year at this time I hit my limit. It’s a busy time in my family life with birthdays and kids back to school. It’s a busy time for work as a coach and it’s a scary time for both in terms of matching income in, versus spending out. Every year at this time I can get pulled into a downward spiral of fear, resentment and exhaustion, wishing I could give up everything and run away to Bali. This is the time of the year that single parenting three teenage girls becomes literally unbearable. They are not unbearable; parenting them alone is. Thankfully, I’m better each year at reaching out my arms for help earlier as I start to drown, asking for life buoys and putting my big girl pants on to swim upwards again (bigger because of the spiralling-induced consumption of Doritos and chocolate) . But it’s hard going.
And what I’m really trying to practice - because putting on the big girl pants means that along with getting the support I need, I have to take radical responsibility for pulling myself back up to the surface for air - is don’t attach a narrative to everything.
It drowns you otherwise. I am exhausted. Not just from the relentless and torturous hostage taking that raising teens and running a home and business feels like. But from the narratives in my head pushing my head down further.
The very wise Buddha talked about two darts that cause your suffering. The first is the first dart of the action, event or experience that hurts / irritates / shames / embarrasses / wounds you. The second dart is the pain you then inflict on yourself with the endless, relentless, battering thoughts and story you attach to it, the scars of which last much longer than the original dart injury.
As I spiralled, I conjured up all the stories as to why my life is hard. I attach story after story after story of victimhood and blame, which does two things: It clutters up my brain with so much emotion I can’t see straight; and it drains me even more.
We all do it. I see it in every session with every client. The stories they attach to their own ability or circumstances and how that story then becomes the focus and drain of their energy, rather than dealing with, or adapting to, the actual issue.
So the last few days I’ve been trying to practise not attaching a narrative to a teen not doing what I ask, or asking for lifts, money, effort I haven’t anticipated.
Not attaching a narrative to my ex-husband when we tells me he can’t take the kids.
Not attaching a narrative to a client pulling a session last minute.
Not attaching a narrative to a bill coming in I wasn’t expecting.
Not attaching a narrative to the fact I didn’t get time to go to the gym because everyone else’s needs have to come first and it’s not fair and I want to run away to Bali - oops there is a narrative slipping in again.
Who’s telling the story?
The reason being, it’s because you’re not the actual narrator. You have more than one self whirring around in your head. You think every thought is you? It’s not. It’s not just that you’re a menopausal hothouse of contradiction and friction - it’s that you’re not alone up there.
First you have your primal brain - let’s call her Primal Pam. Your brain is wired to do only two things - survive and reproduce.
Happiness is an optional extra.
In fact, you are wired to be slightly unhappy. If you’re too comfortable and happy clappy you won’t be alert to all the danger out there from drooling predators and snakes in the grass. Today we don’t have to worry too much about those (except on Tinder), yet Primal Pam is still running rampant in your head. So when someone slights you, or doesn’t meet your expectation, it’s often Primal Pam pontificating in your thoughts as she is wired to see worse case scenario and to fear rejection from the tribe.
Once you recognise this is what she is doing, you can decide to not attach her narrative to the event, hand her a metaphorical chicken thigh and ask her to sit down.
You also have Historical Hilda running around in there (this is why sometimes your brain feels like crowds rushing through just-opened doors on a Black Friday sale).
Women today are living a unique midlife - with an extra two or three decades of midlife, with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. But the hangover of human existence until now, where the woman’s place was very firmly where it was told to be, and a cultural narrative still so insidious and omnipresent telling women how and who they should be, lingers on. So Historical Hilda is also in your head telling you to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, people please and keep going until you drop and under no circumstances, invest any thought or energy on yourself. No, Hilda wants you to be a Good Quiet Girl and go and do the dishes.
Don’t let them write your story!
The reason why this is so important for women in the messy mayhem of midlife when so much is going on, is that your story follows your state. And if you are operating huge swathes of your life on emergency mode, your body will be in a heightened state, which informs your brain - and especially activates Primal Pam - and you can’t get a straight, helpful happy, life-thriving thought in your head.
Distinguishing your voice from theirs is so important to prevent you attaching a narrative to everything that will drain you of energy, and frankly, just make you pissed off and resentful.
I’ve been poking myself for years with the second dart. Because that’s what we humans do - we make stories of everything. But the story is not always the right one, the most helpful one or of our own narration.
Here are some of the ways we attach a narrative to something:
False narrative - assuming it’s all their fault
False narrative - assuming you’re stupid / lazy / selfish / not good enough
False narrative - assuming the voice in your head is yours (and it’s right. VERY often, it’s not your voice and it’s not right)
False narrative - comparing someone’s external to your internal
False narrative - you‘re stuck in this moment / feeling / situation forever
What’s the goal in life?
We often think (or have been told by our Western culture) that the goal in life is to be happy 100% of the time. It’s not. The goal in life is to be able to go through a wide range of experiences and emotions and stay connected to yourself. Discomfort is not a sign that things have gone wrong; just a sign you are a human living a modern life. There are little ways you can be more intentional about this see here -
So my practise this week / month / year is to try and not attach a narrative to every conversation, event and feeling. Even doing it for the last couple of days means I’ve already created more space. And in that space I can choose to respond rather than react.
Like any habit, you don’t leap straight from knowledge to 100% appliance. You try, you forget a few times, you try, you remember but the story is so good how badly you've been slighted / harmed / betrayed you jump right in with your clothes on and splash around like a toddler on sugar just enjoying the fuck out of your sense of righteousness and martyrdom, and then you try again. What happens over time is the more you try, the more you try.
Failure is not not getting it right this time. Failure is not trying again next time.
Midlife is really messy For women in particular we are soooooooo weighed down by social conditions, cultural narratives, inhuman expectations, responsibilities to be all things to all people, it’s easy to get swept away by the unconscious narratives we assign to everything and this takes away our power to chose a storyline that will make our lives feel better.
As I saw on IG recently; -
Who says women can't have have it all? I have depression, anxiety, mum guilt, an extra 15lbs, debt, angst, terrible taste, and a soul-crushing busy schedule. You can definitely do it too.
To that I add, from my own experience and those of my clients… brain-melting amounts of Primal Pam pressure, paranoia and resentment, and breath-taking levels of Historical Hilda tutting and throwing in more “shoulds” on an hourly basis.
They are unreliable and awful narrators, and provide us with an abundance of energy-draining narratives that keep us spiralling, while our potential is out there living it’s best self without us.
If we think better, we live better. And for me at the moment, that means not being a storyteller in my everyday life, just in my writing world. What about you?
For my paid subscribers below I’m attaching a really handy little exercise I give my clients who struggle with a dominate narrator in their head - be that fear (Primal Pam) or guilt and shame (Historical Hilda).
If you’d like to take a moment to check in on your life to see how you can manage things differently, you can book a one hour 1:1 Discovery Coaching Session where you get to think about you, how to manage this life you are living, and invest some time and thought on you. Radical idea that, is it? To invest some time and thought on you? Details are here.
The Team Chat exercise for paid subscribers is below: