meaningful work podcast

Episode 4: How to use restorying to reframe your experiences

Mar 4, 2023 | Podcast


Welcome to Meaningful Work Remarkable Life. I’m your host Brooke McCarthy and I’m a business coach, trainer and speaker living and working on the unceded lands of the Camaragal people here in Sydney, Australia. In this podcast, we explore the paradoxes inherent in working for love and money, magnifying your impact and doing work you feel born to do. We explore the intersections of the meanings we bring to work and the meanings we derive from work. Let’s dive in.

Today we are going to talk about a topic which is very close to my heart and that is the power of re-storying. Now if you’ve never heard of this before, you are not alone. It is a term that I only discovered not that long ago, but it is something that I’ve been doing for a number of years and it’s something that I discovered at the age of 21. So at the age of 21 I returned from a grand misadventure overseas, this is a story for another day, but I was pretty scarred and traumatised and I was living with my parents once again, attempting to make sense of how far I had fallen from travelling independently, having the time of my life on my own, travelling independently, having the time of my life on my first big overseas trip as a young adult to all of a sudden or seemingly all of a sudden being back home, eating peanut butter toast and watching Seinfeld reruns and generally feeling like complete and utter shit.

And what I did in that year, for the better part of a year, before I left to go overseas once again, was I looked at the story of what had happened from as many different angles as I could imagine. And part of this, I guess in retrospect was exposure therapy, rather than shutting my trauma away, compartmentalising my trauma in a dark, dark room that was never to be opened again. I exposed myself to it over and over and over again through memory. But every time I did so I took it from a slightly different angle and from as many different angles. And going through the story and restoring and restoring and restoring and restoring and restoring until I came to a conclusion that wasn’t just palatable for me, but was a way to actually move forward where I wouldn’t just survive, but I would actually thrive.

The story of that year is one of triumph. So I feel a great sense of pride and self-satisfaction when I consider myself as a 21-year-old and I consider the fact that a year later I packed my bags again and I went off to become a tour leader in Southeast Asia. But I’d never heard of this term restoring before. And if you Google restoring, you will come up with a whole bunch of different information from different fields of inquiry. But it is about telling your story or re-telling your story, rewriting your story in a way that is constructive and positive and useful and helpful to get you to a new narrative. It’s reconstructing new meanings from old stories, reconstructing your stories.

Now the telling of stories is our primary way of making meaning in life. It is the way that we remember. It is the way that cultures and systems and societies were built, especially before written language, when we could record things in books or on stone tablets. It’s the way that humans have always communicated through stories. And so it’s obviously pretty important. Now what I’m not talking about here is I’m not talking about deluding yourself. I’m not talking about denying certain facts or spiritual bypassing, which is this idea of let’s just avoid the difficult and the awkward and the uncomfortable and the unpalatable and make out like everything is shiny, happy and wonderful. It’s not. Life is shit. Life is oftentimes terribly tragic and crap. And yet we get up in the morning and this is amazing and never ceases to amaze me how much trauma and crap we can carry and continue to thrive, continue to build constructive, meaningful lives. It’s extraordinary.

So I want to talk a little bit about memory first before we talk a bit more about restoring. Generally speaking, most scientists believe there are at least four different types of memory. We have working memory and working memory is the memory that we’re using moment to moment to go about our lives. We have sensory memory and this is things such as when I used to smell, it doesn’t happen so much anymore, but for a period there when I used to smell vanilla, it gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush because it was a nostalgic smell. And it reminded me of childhood. It reminded me of my mother baking birthday cakes ahead of a birthday party. She was excellent at birthday cakes and birthday parties, my mother. And, you know, the joy of this, of the anticipation of friends arriving and parties about to start.

I also have that with books. When I pick up a book, when I pick up my book and I start reading, I often remember quickly, you know, immediately where I was last time I was reading that book. So then we have short term memory and we have long term memory as well. And every time we pull a memory, every time we retrieve a memory from long term, from the long term part of our brains where those memories are stored, we are in effect rewriting that memory. We are changing that memory in the recalling of the memory. So memories change. They change just by virtue of our brains, the way our brains are wired. And it’s not at all uncommon for us, of course, to have false memories or to remember things differently. You know, when we pull from unconscious to conscious, there’s a change that happens and that change will also be dictated, of course, by ourselves and where we are at in our lives and our experience. But it’s also dictated by our audience.

This is called the audience tuning effect. And when we describe our memories to different audiences, not only does the message of what we’re describing change, but actually the memory itself will change. If we’re describing a memory, for example, to our grandmother, we’re going to describe it differently than we would to our best friend or that we would to our parents. So it’s all we’re being respectful and that’s entirely appropriate. We’re being empathetic. But in that process as well, we’re actually changing the memory for ourselves. So our memories aren’t as good as we tend to think they are. They’re not as reliable and static, fixed as we tend to believe.

The other thing is a lot of us are relying on memories from sharing stories. And of course, you probably had the experience where you’ve looked at a photograph of something, the photograph of your past, and you can’t really remember. But the photograph kind of writes the memory for you. And then you can kind of convince yourself, you do convince yourself that you do remember that when in effect you don’t. You know, the reality is that you don’t. And when you’re sharing stories with friends, they’ll often remind you of things that have happened, of memories, past experiences that were shared. Certainly, a lot of my memories, I don’t have a lot of memories from certain years of my life, and my friends tell me stories of what we’ve done together. I’m like, wow, really? Did that really happen? Like, what an exciting life I’ve had. I just can’t remember. And sometimes I’ve appropriated those stories. I like to blame it on an overactive imagination. A lot of empathy and a poor memory. I’ve appropriated my friends’ stories and I’ve told their story back to them as if it happened to me. And then they’ll say, hey, Brooke, that’s my story, not your story. My memory, not your memory, has happened more than once, several times.

So memory isn’t as consistent. And we do often change the facts and add false memories, add false details to our memories without really realising that we’re doing this. Now, as this is the case because of the way the brain works, as we do add false details to our memories and perhaps all the details because we’ve only got a photograph and we don’t really have a memory, if we can add the false details, it’s highly likely that we’re adding negative details or we’re adding details that creates a negative story. Again, this is the brain.

This is the negative bias, the negativity bias at work. We’re more likely to think in the negative than we are to think in the positive. We’re more likely to notice the negative details or to make the negative more meaningful or more weighty perhaps than the positive. We kind of tend to value the negative over the positive. We see that in art where there’s this inference that you can’t write happy stories when you’re in love. You can’t write great music or create fabulous art when you’re in love and everything’s going swimmingly. It’s only once you get your heart broken that you can write that banging song. So rehearsing our memories of past events, retelling our stories, retelling our memories will make those memories malleable. It’s almost like they’re less malleable when they’re locked away in our unconscious brain and not referred to. We change it every time we tell it. We change the story every time we tell the story. So if that’s the case, then it is more than possible to re-story our life, to create a different story for our life and knowing of course again that stories are our primary way of making meaning that we can do this, that this is more than possible to do. And of course a lot of this is done in therapy.

A lot of what I’m describing are processes often times that are done with a therapist. And one of them being childhood memories. It’s quite a common technique in therapy to recall, to talk about childhood and to return to old memories or childhood memories. And then the therapist might introduce a different interpretation of events, a different, more constructive, more positive, more helpful interpretation of a memory. You know, or at least introduce this. So this can be really, really useful to do for a number of different reasons. It can be super useful to do for a number of different reasons. But one small reason could be when you want something different, when you want to change a habit, when you have a goal and you want to achieve that goal and you’re not able for one reason or another to achieve that goal.

Because often we’re wanting something different, but we’re not changing the stories that we’re telling ourselves. We’re not using the power of restoring to help us in that journey towards doing something different and getting a different outcome. And oftentimes in coaching there’s this model of, you know, first we have to be somebody different in order to do something different, in order to achieve a different outcome or have a different outcome. Be, do, have. And I don’t always find this so useful with all clients. I often find it more useful to come from the practical, which is, you know, first we have to do something different in order to have something different in order to be somebody different. So, for example, let’s pretend we wanted to be a writer. We wanted to write a book. Well, writers write. Dreamers dream. Dancers dance. Artists paint, like whatever it is. You have to do the thing, right? So you do the thing first, then you have a different outcome, which if you’re writing every day, for example, if you’ve created this new habit of I’m going to get up and I’m going to write for the first hour of my day every single day, then of course we’re going to get better at it.

We’re going to learn how to write better because of that repetition, because of that practice, and then we’re going to be a writer. And that can make a lot more sense that way to different people. But it’s still linear. And I’d really encourage you to think about this do, be, have as more cyclical, more of a circle, more circular, and, you know, moving and changing and interwoven, intimately interwoven, that we do things, we have things, we are things, we believe things, and that stories are absolutely part and parcel of these things.

So, for example, let’s pretend you have a story to yourself. And this is a story that a client told me recently. I’m not creative. Well, people tell me all the time, clients tell me all the time, I can’t write. I’m not a writer. I’m not creative. I’m not a writer. So you set the alarm or you don’t. And you wake up in the morning and you start, you sit at the desk to write for an hour uninterrupted. But you have that narrative, you have that story. I am not a writer. I am not creative. I’m not good at writing. I’m not good at being creative. And so, of course, you’re sabotaging yourself. Of course, you’re not going to sit there day after day after day, telling yourself, I’m not a writer, I can’t write and writing. It’s not going to happen. It might happen for a week, maybe a month perhaps, but it’s certainly not going to happen for much longer than that.

So the story you tell yourself has a massive, massive effect on what you do and what you don’t do. And I think one of the difficulties with storytelling, with talking about ourselves, with telling stories about ourselves, or, you know, re-storying is that we believe we need to start way back when. We need to answer the who are you, where are you, what’s your story, where have you been type thing. And that, you know, that it has to kind of happen in a grand narrative, you know, a grand arc. And it doesn’t. Rather than starting at the beginning and going back to childhood, if you don’t want to go back to childhood, you don’t have to. Like you don’t, you certainly don’t have to dwell on your childhood experiences if you don’t want to. That’s not what I’m talking about here. It can often be way more constructive to actually start in the middle, because the middle is the only thing that we’re really, we really have access to, right? Life is lived moment to moment, present moment to present moment, whether or not we’re present or not, whether or not we’re aware of that or not. Life is happening while we’re busy making other plans, as John Lennon said. So we can start re-storying in the middle. And we don’t necessarily need to, you know, create a neat story either. It doesn’t have to be neat. And it doesn’t even have to be shared. You know, I want to make that abundantly clear.

You don’t have to share your story. You don’t have to share your trauma. You don’t have to, you know, you should never feel obligated, I believe, to share, you know, anything that you don’t feel comfortable sharing. In fact, you know, a lot of us are re-traumatised when we’re put into environments where we’re peer pressured to be intimate with people and we don’t feel safe. And the person that is supposed to be guiding us through this is actually not qualified to do so. And, you know, is actually traumatised themselves, you know, and it can become an absolute shit fight. It’s not advisable. So, you know, part of re-storying is self-insight. And this is not something that we find in a book. It’s not something that just, you know, happens overnight.

Discernment and self-insight and wisdom are important. And part of that can be in the evidence that we’re able to draw upon to point to alternative narratives. Yeah, because one part of this episode is, you know, how to tell that you’re deluded, how to know if you’re deluded. I was considering creating a whole episode on how to know if you’re deluded. I don’t think that’s a great idea. But certainly, you know, there are plenty of people out there who wake up every morning saying, I am, you know, rich and wonderful and I am miraculous and fabulous. And actually the evidence is that they’re none of those things, that they’re great on affirmations and mantras and chanting, but they’re not actually great on the follow through.

So, you know, delusion and the flip side of delusion, discernment is kind of pivotal to this whole topic, right? But almost always you can find evidence to the contrary of the negative story that you’re telling. Almost always you can find evidence that, hey, do you have any evidence to draw that conclusion that you drew from that experience? Actually, no, I don’t. Is it possible to look at it from a different perspective? Could an alternative interpretation be possible? Yes, probably it could. So it’s not about deluding yourself. What I’m talking about with restoring is not about self delusionment or attempting to turn a crap house situation and make it look amazing, make it sound amazing, but not actually change anything. That’s not what we’re talking about here. There’s plenty of that going on. That’s not what I’m talking about here. It is about self compassion, absolutely. It is about kindness and care. It is about love and about loving yourself.

It is about understanding that there are multiple interpretations to any one event and that oftentimes when we attempt to call something true, there’s violence in that. Truth with a capital T is oftentimes quite violent because we’re denying the reality of alternatives. And again, I’m not talking about delusion, but there’s oftentimes violence in those capital T’s. This is the one, the only, this is the light, this is my way or the highway. There’s a denial of alternative viewpoints or perspectives. And in restoring, we are actively seeking to reimagine ourselves in a way that is constructive and useful and helpful and gets us closer to where we want to go. And not just in the kind of a long-term practical sense, but also in a moment to moment, you know, in the way that we are living our lives from minute to minute, from second to second.

So I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts on this. If you have anything to say, please come and find me on Instagram. You can find me at at Brooke McCarthy. There’s no E on Brooke and there’s two C’s in McCarthy. I would love to hear about your experience of restoring. Have you heard of it before? Have you not heard of it? Are you going to give it a go? I would love to hear the stories that you are writing, the new stories that you are writing for yourself.

This podcast was produced by Morgan Sebastian Brown of Brown Tree Productions Original music was produced by Sean Windsor.

Brook McCarthy Business Coach

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We acknowledge the Cammeraygal people, the traditional and ongoing custodians of the lands that Hustle & Heart creates and works on. This lush land is just north of Sydney Harbour Bridge. We also acknowledge the traditional and ongoing custodians of the land, skies and seas where you are, and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. We recognise that these lands were never ceded.

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