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How Do the Stories We Tell Affect Our Beliefs About Ourselves?

By Gray Otis, PhD, LPC, CCMHC, Co-Chair, AMHCA’s Professional Development Committee

“Jeremy” was convinced he would forever be chronically depressed. After all, Jeremy reported, he had “always” been depressed. Now in his 50s, Jeremy had been married for more than 30 years to a devoted partner, they shared positive relationships with their three children, and professionally he was a success. Jeremy’s mental health counselor, “Rick,” could not help wondering what Jeremy’s problem was after he described an almost ideal life.

The term “developmental trauma” has taken on new emphasis as we learn more about children and adolescents. Individuals who suffer from abuse, neglect, and other conditions often present with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. These disorders can present in childhood or later in life. Trauma treatment protocols can be successful in resolving the underlying causes of these concerns. Hopefully this will result in earlier and more effective means of helping children, teens, and adults.

The word “trauma” means that the psyche of an individual has been overwhelmed. This sense of being confounded typically leads to problematic feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. By contrast, those who have resolved distressing experiences seem to be able to move on with their lives.

Despite some difficult issues as a child, Jeremy did not appear to present with GAD or PTSD symptoms. Rick questioned Jeremy about what was not working to determine how to treat him. For example, Rick noticed that Jeremy’s stories of his life often involved his parents, particularly his mother’s viewpoints. He said both of his parents worried about making ends meet and that they did not seem to enjoy life. He stated more than once his mother’s truism, “If you don’t expect a lot, you’ll never be disappointed.”

For Jeremy, his parents had inadvertently created a pessimistic developmental environment that shaped a psychologically distressing worldview. His mother told a story that he altered into a reality for himself and others. His mother’s belief that “he would be disappointed” became unconsciously modified and applied to Jeremy’s self-belief, “I am a disappointment.” 

Many years later, Jeremy was still unintentionally accumulating evidence that he would always be disappointing. His self-perception was unyielding in spite of his achievements, his professional success, and his positive relationships with virtually everyone around him.

Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD, head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, recently discussed our unique human ability to tell stories. Indeed, many of our thoughts are made up of the stories we tell others and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves. These self-stories accumulate to become what we believe about our world as well as about who we are. 

Jeremy translated his parents’ stories into the damning summation, “I am a disappointment.” Rick encouraged him to create mindful, positive self-beliefs that were reinforced by past and current experience. These new stories were constructively different. Over the next several weeks, Jeremy’s chronic depression began to fade as a more realistic sense of self emerged.