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The stories we tell ourselves

How changing our stories can help us heal from chronic pain and injury.

I love the process of yoga, its endless potential for growth. From each yoga training I participate in or each yoga class I teach, I come away with a newfound awareness, with new insights into the workings of my body and mind. What strikes me time and again is the importance of the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. How we tell our story greatly affects our healing. I have learned this myself the hard way. Like many people, I came to yoga through an injury. Years ago I had an accident that seriously hurt my neck and shoulder. My life as I knew it changed suddenly. I was unable to do any of the things I loved doing. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t study. I couldn’t write or read. I hardly left the house. My social life stopped. I basically spent most of my day lying down. The pain was simply too much. It felt as if the walls of my house had slammed into me.

The stories we hear
In order to heal I participated in an intensive rehabilitation program. I did daily exercises, worked on my posture and regularly visited a manual therapist. Despite all my efforts, nothing seemed to make a difference. My spine began to feel more and more unstable, like a house of cards, fragile and weak, ready to crumble at any moment. Somewhere along the line everyone around me, doctors and specialists, started to tell me that my injury had become chronic. After one year there were no signs of recovery. I was told that I would have to find a way to live with it. I believed what I was told. I lost all my hope. “This is it. This is what the rest of my life is going to be like”. It’s the story I started telling myself in my head, but I hated every part of it.

The stories we tell
Reflecting on that time of my life, what strikes me the most is that I ended up giving my trust and power away to doctors and specialists. In the process, I lost trust in myself. An injury  -I learned – is not just something physical that affects the workings of your body. The way we talk to ourselves about it or hear others talk to us about it has a dramatic impact on how we feel, experience and cope with it. It affects how we define ourselves. Language is a powerful thing. It can change everything. It can uplift and empower you; it can also crush your hope. Hearing the same message over and over again, you start to believe it. In my case, I heard people saying to me: “You can’t” or “You will never”. Like a ticker tape, I started to play those same lines in my head, giving up on myself, feeling weak and powerless, without control. We become the stories we tell ourselves; we are the stories we tell.

Opening up to what is real
When we are in pain, we tend to want to push it away. We want to disconnect from those parts of ourselves that are hurting. We tell ourselves that the injury, the body part that is hurting, is not really us. Ironically, the more we push our injured parts away, the more we allow ourselves to be identified by them. We end up alienating ourselves from our own body. We stop seeing all parts of ourselves, our whole body for what it is. By fearing and resisting to opening up to that what is real, we end up putting all our awareness into those parts of ourselves that we try so hard to resist. You become what you think about. You become your pain, your injury. The story you start telling yourself is a very limiting one.

You become what you focus on
I noticed that by focusing all my attention on my injury, I had become my injury, and I hated every part of it. My injury was something holding me back from living the life that I wanted to live, so I treated ‘it’ like an enemy, as something stupid and annoying, alien and separate from myself. The story I was telling myself was only reinforcing limited ideas of myself, of what my life could become. On top of that, my rehabilitation program focused on fixing the problem, on that painful part of myself. I got stuck in the nitty gritty details of a very small part of myself, and I allowed that part to do the talking. I allowed it to define the rest of me. I became small. I lost sight of the bigger picture.

Prioritising positivity
At some point, I felt so disheartened by spending all my precious time focusing on my injury, that I hit the end of the tunnel. I realized that I had gotten tunnel vision and that  -if I were to continue like this- , the focus on my injury would only become bigger and bigger and my world would become smaller and smaller. I made a radical decision to stop doing all the therapies that kept me focused on ‘my injury’. Deep down I wasn’t ready to accept that this was it, that this was what my life was going to be. A life of painkillers, constant nausea & dizziness, lying in bed for most of the time, was not what I wanted out of life. It was time to change my story. From that moment onwards, I made a choice to put all the energy, commitment and persistence that I had previously put into healing my injury into slowly picking up the things I used to love doing. I started prioritising positivity in my daily routine. I decided my to-do lists should no longer be about achievement or fixing a problem. Instead, my to-do lists should be about enjoying life and increasing self-awareness. I made positive and meaningful experiences part of my daily routine. I started with small familiar things like painting and sketching again and I took up new things like journaling, visualisation and making vision boards. Gradually, my spark ignited again.

Re-claiming your body
My healing journey really took off when I discovered yoga classes online. I was quite new to yoga, but soon enough I was practicing yoga daily in the privacy of my own home. I loved the feeling of peace and togetherness it gave me. I was still in pain, but each time I got on the mat I felt a little better about myself. Already within three months of practicing, I noticed radical changes. My life shifted into a positive direction. A great deal of my pain had disappeared. I felt empowered, stronger. I gained hope. Despite having no idea of what I was doing at the time -I was probably doing a lot of the yoga poses out of alignment-, yoga helped me to heal from my injury. It helped me to reconnect the different parts of myself. I began to embrace my shoulder and neck as part of myself again, as something to love and care for, instead of something to push away or push through. Yoga became a practice in self-compassion, a process of re-claiming all parts of myself, of falling back in love with myself, with life. You really become what you practice. Yoga helped me to tell a better story.

The power of storytelling
Fast forward to today: I am a yoga teacher and a personal fulfilment coach. I left a life and career focused on achievement for a life and career build around inner happiness and meaning. I now help people to tell better stories. I love what I do. I help people to expand their awareness and wake up to their own potential. It is deeply fulfilling. I get to play a small part in making the lives of people a little better. Storytelling is a big part of it. When you can help someone to experience their own wholeness and to create a new vision for themselves, healing happens. The people that come to me, suffering from serious injuries or chronic pain, have gone through the same thing I have been through. They have accepted the stories they tell themselves or others have told them. These stories focus on limitation, on what’s not possible: “I will never run again”, “I will always be in pain”, “I will never be able to lift my child up in my arms “, “I will have to learn to live with it”. For a large part, they have allowed themselves to become defined by these stories, stories that prevent them from seeing possibility, from having hope. They come to yoga or coaching because deep down they know there is more to life than what their current story is telling them. They come to change their story. And when they change their story, they change their whole world. I feel humbled by their stories. I have seen so many people’s lives changed for the better. I have seen people who suffered greatly not only become pain-free, but really thrive in life after a long period of misery. I have seen the breakthroughs changing your story can cause in your life.

Saying ‘Yes’ first
Teaching yoga or coaching clients is about helping people to expand their stories and create a better vision for themselves. You look for beauty, the good first. By shining the light on what’s good, on what’s positive and whole, you take people out of their narrow, self-limiting stories. Focusing on what is positive allows people to expand their awareness, to open up to their potential and tap into their innate resourcefulness and resilience. Instead of saying No, you say Yes first. When you say Yes, healing happens. It is where a different story emerges, a story that includes both self-awareness and a bigger, bolder vision for ourselves. On the hand, the new story knits the different, often conflicting, parts together, making us feel more integrated and whole. On the other hand, the story expands the vision we have for ourselves, for what’s possible in our future. It gives us the courage to move forward, to try new things and to stay optimistic in the face of challenges. In case of an injury or chronic pain, our limiting stories can hold us back from experiencing life fully. The beauty of stories is that they are stories. Stories can be changed. Through the practice of yoga and the process of coaching, we can learn to tell a better story for ourselves. We can learn to change our internal dialogue, to expand our awareness and open up to the infinite possibilities life has to offer.

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