As an herbalist in these times, the reality is that we deal with trauma, and the effects of trauma on people’s lives. Herbs play a big role in that work – especially our good friends Tulsi, Ashwagandha, Wood Betony… But story, the way a person understands the things that they have experienced, is also a critical tool.
Story is so utterly critical to who we are as human beings. Throughout history, we sat in the evenings and listened to the stories of who we were as a people, who we were as individuals, how we should behave, where we came from, where we’re going. This is as much true today as it has ever been, but the source of the stories has changed somewhat: instead of the elders, our stories come from Hollywood, and instead of stories that extol the kinds of virtues that tell us to value our communities and help each other, we have stories that value fame and fortune, and individualism.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
As individuals, we tell ourselves stories every day, as well – all day long, and often we’re not even aware of it. We tell ourselves we’re bad because we didn’t get some particular task done, we tell ourselves we’re alone and no one understands how we feel, we tell ourselves that we’re angry about a thing that happened. On a good day, we might tell ourselves about happiness and about the people we love and who love us!
The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we expose ourselves to, are in our own control. We can tell ourselves the stories of our own depression, or we can tell ourselves that “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down”, and that feeling down sometimes gives us a way to appreciate the deliciousness of feeling up. We can tell ourselves that no one understands what we’re experiencing and feeling, or we can spend time talking to others about their feelings, realizing that actually, we all have the same kinds of feelings even if we feel them in the context of different experiences. Taking control of these stories is critical to our emotional health, and makes it possible for us to feel strong enough to start making changes that might need to happen in our lives – for example, perhaps the cause of depression is a disrespectful work environment. Your personal story might not change the attitude of the employer, but it might help you build the strength to find a healthier environment to work in!
Changing Our Story
How can we use story to help manage emotional struggle? Start off by being aware of your story: what do you tell yourself all day? What things do you hear when other people are talking? If they say, “good job! let’s just fix these few things and we’re done!” – do you hear “good job”, or do you hear “you’re not good enough”?
This beginning exercise isn’t about trying to change anything, it’s only about building awareness for what is happening.
In the second step, we’re ready to make changes! We can start, for example, by recognizing when people offer to help, and choose to say, “yes, thank you!” – which leads us to feel like we have the support of our community, instead of “i’m fine” – which leads to believe that no one wants to help. We can start to change the stories we tell ourselves about self-worth: instead of feeling bad about ourselves for work that didn’t get finished, we can identify what caused the delay, and recognize the places we could or could not have gotten control of that, acknowledge that in the given situation, this is what happened, and move on with some new data for tomorrow.
By choosing to emphasize the positive aspects of a situation, by choosing to acknowledge when people are offering to help us, by choosing to take power over a situation that we’re disappointed with, we can change our feelings about that situation. When we feel negatively, we sink lower into stagnation, but when we feel positive, we have more energy to move forward!
The Stories That Surround Us
It’s also important to monitor the stories that are being told to us: what stories do we choose to listen to? What stories do we surround ourselves with? We can choose stories of hope and perseverance, we can choose stories with heroes we admire! We don’t have to be stuck with the stories fed to us in mainstream media, filled with selfishness, greed, and corruption. We can build our reservoir of stories – positive ones are out there. Pay attention to the media you choose to expose yourself to, and make sure that some of it is positive!
Having a community that shares our stories is also important. If we think about stress and trauma in historical terms, when someone was chased by a tiger, but made it back to their village alive, the whole community shared in the story of their adventure. That person was the new local hero, and songs or poems were composed about their experience – and most importantly, these stories portrayed the experience in terms of survival and heroism! That person experienced trauma, fear, and peril, but their story didn’t get stuck there. The community helped them to push that story through from trauma to heroism, survival, athleticism – the experience becomes something that makes that person feel stronger. The whole community sharing in the experience through story becomes a form of therapy for the person who lived it!
When we think about traumatic or stressful experiences today, do we see them in this heroic light? Often it’s just get-back-to-work, or in many cases there’s no support for sharing our experiences at all. Finding a community that will accept our experiences and help you turn them into stories of survival can help to move through trauma. Finding a community that will sing our triumph, instead of echoing the refrain of our sadness and frustration, is tremendously valuable. Even if it’s only a tiny triumph, you can still choose to see yourself as a hero! Consider finding a friend or a co-worker, and choose to share your tiny triumphs and sing the songs of your heroism – it’s an antidote to feeling defeated during the day.
The Story Goes On
Of course, story is only one part of the equation: fighting for justice and positive tangible change in every life is critical! Telling ourselves the stories of our power and choosing to frame our experiences in ways that feel more positive whenever it’s possible can give us the energy to make the bigger changes that need to happen.