Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life: Part 7

In the conclusion to Chapter 2, “Who Am I Today?” explore how you can be sure the dreams you hold are yours, and not someone else’s.
You can access the already published posts here.

Who Am I Today?

Stories That Heal

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your LifeToo often, people must experience greater tragedy than the ordinary misfortunes that come into every life. In these cases, it is often in the telling of the tragedy that victims are released from the pain and paralysis of the past.An example of this was the basis of a riveting play titled, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, by Sonja Linden. The play grew out of the story of a young woman from Rwanda who lost almost her entire family in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutus in the 1990s. What started out as the writing of her family’s experience of genocide, so that people would not forget what happened, became, in addition, an act of healing.

For two-and-a-half years she had worked on her book in the refugee camp, wrestling day after day with her enormously painful story, often tearing up the previous day’s work at five o’clock in the morning when she started her daily writing. Even while she was immersed in the process of writing her book, however, she recognized its therapeutic value and said that writing helped her take the pain “away from my heart.” Consequently, she discovered that through telling her story she came to feel “clean” and her nightmares and headaches ceased. As I watched the play and heard her horrendous tale, my heart cried for her and I will not forget her family, or the suffering of her people, which was, of course, the original purpose of writing her story.

Imagine you are asked to write the story of your life in three chapters titled:

I am _______________________________ [state how you see yourself]

because ____________________________ [reason you view yourself that way]

I am _______________________________ [state how you see yourself]

because ____________________________ [reason you view yourself that way]

I am _______________________________ [state how you see yourself]

because ____________________________ [reason you view yourself that way]

Continue until you’ve written every description about yourself that you can think of.

It is through the telling and retelling of a tragedy that we can begin to work through the awful memories of that event. As we gradually become freed from the terror, shame, confusion, and fear of an experience, we will tell the story with different inflections, different gestures, different words. We may think of these stories as “dynamic” because, through telling them over and over again, we come to a new understanding of whatever it was that happened long ago. over time, we develop maturity and have a different viewpoint from which to comprehend what happened back then. So our story shifts.

Moving Into a New Story

On the other hand, “static” stories carry the same emotional overtones every time they are told. The story-teller uses the same gestures, the same words and the same expressions. It doesn’t matter whether the story is positive or negative, it has “crystallized” into a form that shelters the ego and prevents the person from having to explore the original situation from a different perspective. The more complex and convoluted the story is, the more frequently it retains its original flavor.

I believe that one of the reasons this happens is that stories can be enchanting not only for the listener, but for the one telling the story as well. Consequently, if told with enthusiasm, we are fascinated by our own experience. if our audience seems receptive and offers sympathy or praise, we tell our story to others with the same inflections and the same pauses for sighs and laughter. After awhile, however, when we’ve repeated the story over and over and over again, we may notice that we’re not as interested (nor is our audience) as we were the first few times we told it. We might then consider whether we are caught in the drama of our story, or whether we are still exploring what the experience means to us.


The last time I told someone about an incident in my childhood, was it different than it had been when I first told that story?

If so, why? If not, why not?

We like old stories, of course, provided they aren’t repeated too frequently. They have a familiar, comfortable ring to them. But life continually changes, taking twists and turns we hadn’t expected. So it’s valuable to remember that there are good things to come even when life hasn’t been so great lately, and there are likely to be some rough times ahead even though today everything is absolutely fine.

Whenever we act as though we can control the ending of our story, I’m reminded of something Gilda Radner said after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer:

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.

May the questions in this book bring you “delicious ambiguity.” May they help you move out of your present comfort zone, and into an embrace of the possibility that your life doesn’t have to be perfect for you to notice the potential for pleasure inherent in every day. if nothing else, the questions can help you gain courage to tell your stories straight up, full of honesty, humor, and love.

It is good to remember that changing our lives is often a matter of learning how to change the way we tell our stories, and listening to the stories of others with an open heart.

• • • • •

What Do I Like About Me and My Life?

There may be people, like the man who monopolized the dinner conversation, who have no trouble telling us what’s good about them. Then there are others who couldn’t say something nice about themselves if their life depended on it.

Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. We may consider ourselves better than average in many areas (studies show this is true for the majority of people). But we are not generally blind to our flaws (although studies also show that the average person believes he or she has fewer of them than others). The problem is that when we do notice our imperfections, we can too often focus them, on the cracks in our relationships, on the body image that doesn’t match the model’s, on the aches and pains that are part of every life. When we’re obsessed with imperfection, it’s difficult not only to accept, but to appreciate and actually like ourselves very much.

If we can’t appreciate what is good about us and our lives, and if we can’t keep our problems in perspective, we become like my son the day he came home from a school field trip to the science museum. I asked him how his day went. “Bad,” he replied. “Bad?,” I echoed. “Were the exhibits not what you thought they would be?” “No, they were good.” “Was the bus ride bad?” “No, that was okay.” After a long question-and-answer period, I discovered he didn’t like the sandwich I packed for his lunch!


What do I wish I could learn to do?

Am I willing to learn how to do it?

What could I accomplish if I had those skills?

Mistakes are evidence we’re human, as Tim, Sue, and Pat illustrate. At the holiday office party Tim forgot the name of a high-level manager, someone he wanted to impress, just as he started to introduce him to his spouse. Sue spilled coffee on a report twenty minutes before she was to present it to an important client. Pat unconsciously tossed her daughter’s favorite shirt into the dryer, where it shrank.

Any of those mistakes can have consequences one would rather not deal with. Tim’s boss is not impressed with his memory. Sue may lose a client. Pat’s daughter is convinced her mother doesn’t care about her things. Nevertheless, as the common phrase goes, to err is human. Such events are part of life.

However, if we constantly kick ourselves for not living up to our expectations, or what we believe are the expectations others have of us, we’ll miss a lot of pleasure. If we skip over our good qualities and only see fodder for a long self-improvement project, an arduous journey of seeking perfection lies ahead of us. [In Chapter Two and in the appendix you’ll find additional comments about perfectionism, which I can tell you from personal experience can make your life more difficult than it needs to be.]

The fact is that we often fail to give ourselves credit for the ordinary things we do without effort. for example, do you find it easy to talk with strangers? Some people are scared to death of starting a conversation with someone they haven’t known for years. Do you know how to sew? Some people can’t even sew on a button. Do you enjoy reading novels? Your life is richer for it. Do you get up and run every morning? Your life is healthier because of it. Do you work at a homeless shelter? The world is better for it.

The world needs all the skills, talents and gifts you have to give, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

Self-esteem is More Than Liking Yourself

if you don’t easily acknowledge your talents, you may be accused of not having “self-esteem.” Let’s see whether that is really so. You see, one of the problems in determining whether one has “self-esteem” arises from the frequent misuse of the term. often people use it to mean someone “likes” himself or herself. on the surface of it, that would seem desirable. But too high of regard for oneself can result in narcissism, conceit, arrogance, superiority, and intolerance of the frailties of others.

In my experience, and I imagine in yours, I’ve known people who don’t think positively about themselves, yet perform nobly both in the face of great challenge and in the drudgery and weariness of daily responsibilities. Conversely, convicted felons can feel quite proud of themselves. Those who commit crimes and don’t get caught can feel twice as proud for having eluded capture! So if someone views his self-esteem as a feel- good phenomena, it does not necessarily mean he contributes to a more productive society.

That is why I like the definition of self-esteem used by The National Association of Self-esteem: “The experience of being capable of meeting life’s challenges and being worthy of happiness.”

In answering the questions in this chapter I hope you will search out every corner of your wonderful life and find many things to appreciate and celebrate. There will be plenty of time later to explore what in your life you would like to be different than it is today.

• • • • •

Am I Following My Dreams or Someone Else’s?

Imagine that your paycheck doesn’t stretch as far as it once did, the town where you live is getting a bit overcrowded, and you’re itching to live someplace else. fortunately, someone tells you about a country far across the sea to the west, where the cost of living is extremely low. There’s nothing particularly attractive about that place, but you decide it will suit you fine. So you buy a small sailboat (you’ve always wanted to have one), load it with provisions, and set your compass for due west.

The second day out, you notice another boat sailing in your direction. As it pulls alongside, you tell the captain where you’re going. “Well,” he says, “I’ve been there and I admit it’s a bit less expensive than some other countries, but the scenery is dull and gray as rock. Now, me, I like my scenery to be more lively and if you do, too, then you’d love a country that lies far to the north.” Since you appreciate beauty, you convince yourself that you could learn to be a bit tighter with your money, that economy isn’t all that important, and so change your compass to due north.

After sailing for a few days, you see a ship coming toward you. As you exchange greetings with the crew, you learn about yet another land, far to the south, where the climate is “absolutely wonderful all year long.” It is true, they tell you, that the cities are a bit overcrowded, but the perfect weather more than makes up for it. Afraid that long winters in the north won’t be to your liking after all, and that it really wasn’t so bad living in a busy city, you decide that comfortable weather is an important criteria for choosing a place to live. once again you reset you compass and off you head for the south.


What am I doing today because someone else wants me to do it, even though in my heart I know it is not right for me?

What makes it easy for me to defer my dreams to the wishes of others?

We could continue this metaphor (which is similar to the metaphor about your “backpack”) endlessly, for there are always people who have opinions on what makes a place desirable. Consequently, if you can’t decide the standards that are most important to you — and if you don’t stick with them — you’ll use up all your provisions and never arrive at any destination.

Unfortunately, many people allow their lives to shift from goal to goal in just this way, basing their decisions on what others tell them they should do. While they may have a general idea of what they like and dislike, they haven’t fully explored what is most important to them. Consequently, their compass never points in the direction that fulfills their personal needs. They’re doomed to play the game of life under someone else’s rules.

It’s understandable that we can be confused about what is best for us. Every day we’re bombarded by advertising, news commentators and editorials, to say nothing of friends and family who eagerly give us their views on every topic under the sun. All of them want us to either buy their product, donate to their cause, or believe in their opinions.

Except for out-and-out charlatans, advice-givers sincerely believe that our lives will be better if we follow their advice. But whether that would be wise or foolish, we cannot possibly set our compasses to go in all those directions at the same time. Yet because life offers us many more choices today than we’ve ever had, the in-what-direction-should-i-set-my-compass problem is increasingly common.

How can you know your purpose in life and the best setting for your personal compass? return again to “the room with a view.” That is one of the best ways to discover your purpose in life — or rediscover a purpose you previously held that has become neglected and forgotten.

The more you listen to your heart and follow the dreams of your true self, the less energy you’ll spend trying to follow someone else’s dreams. The more you look carefully at what you love to do, but have perhaps neglected, the more easily you can turn your ship in a direction that gives your life meaning. The more you choose to live consciously day-to-day, the more you will discover that your purpose in life will unfold much as a caterpillar gradually emerges from a chrysalis into a butterfly.

If you want to change your life, reflect on these questions from CHAPTER TWO:
  • Who am I today?
  • Am I willing to be totally honest with myself?
  • What story do I most like to tell about my life? Why?
  • What do I like about me and my life? Why?
  • Am I following my dreams or someone else’s? Why?

Chapter Three will begin next week.

Ask Yourself Questions and Change Your Life is reprinted here by permission.

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