It all started with a humble hyphen. I was reading Ann Patchett’s essay collection, These Precious Days, when I got snagged on an awkward hyphenation. Was the split word an unfortunate typographical error or an intentional choice?
In the chapter titled ‘The Nightstand,’ the author writes about personal narratives, the expository stories we create and tell ourselves about our experiences. Rather than use the word narrative as a psychologist might, Patchett chose the word ‘mythologies’, but the book designer, careless or clever, allowed it to print it as ‘my – thologies’.
It’s perfect, don’t you think? ‘My personal stories,’ these personalised myths, become ‘my-thologies’.
The (Troublesome) Stories We Tell Ourselves
Back in my counselling days, I was drawn to a modality called narrative therapy, which helps a person to identify their personal problem-laden stories—or narratives—and encourages them to discover new, freeing narratives and solutions.
With this type of therapy, the client acts on the new storyline, and others—partners or parents, teachers and friends—are invited to notice when the new story is playing out and celebrate with the client. It’s a beautiful system, because not only does the client ‘buy in’ to the new narrative, but their support network and community do too. Everyone collaborates by seeing (and reinforcing) new behaviour and believing new possibilities for the client.
[I’ve oversimplified a powerful and fascinating modality.
Read more about Narrative Therapy here.]
Therapy, if you can afford it, is wonderful for breaking out of ruts and attaining new insights. Personal growth, however, doesn’t necessarily require a therapist. Journalling with a humble pen and paper is a proven tool for flourishing, and it provides the perfect space for identifying and challenging restrictive narratives.
‘My-thology’ could be a fun handle to use when journalling. When I’ve dug down and unrooted the troublesome personal narrative, I can ask myself:
- “Is this fact or my-thology?”
- “Is there an alternative narrative that will serve me better than this my-thology?”
- “What behaviour results from this limiting my-thology?”
- “What will my alternative, non-limiting narrative feel like to me and look like to others?”
To Patchett’s list of common my-thologies (shown in the first image), I add other ubiquitous ones:
- I was overprotected
- I was never good enough.
- I wasn’t endowed with looks (or brains / talent / charisma / fill in the blank).
- I was misunderstood.
- I was awkward.
- I was deprived of affection.
- I was the black sheep of the family.
- I was always unlucky in love.
- I was invisible to the people nearest me.
- I was completely and indisputably ordinary.
As with myths, there’s often a kernel of truth at the heart of the personal narrative, so what’s wrong with my-thologising? The problem lies in the degree to which we allow the narrative about the past to define and limit the present and future.
My Go-To My-thos
A lot of the my-thologies listed above resonate, but most problematic for me is the story about not being sufficiently smart or talented. Deep down, I believe I’m not special enough. All my life, I’ve lugged around the belief that I’m extraordinarily ordinary and bestowed with (burdened with) ho-hum intelligence. And yes, I know, as ‘problems’ go, this is a good one to have.
This story lies tightly coiled like a snake in the dense undergrowth of my psyche, waiting for the opportune moment to slither into my consciousness and trip me up. It intensifies my insecurity when courage is required, and it spoils moments when I should be celebrating success.
It’s also plain annoying as a writer. When I read books, that snake whispers in my ear, “Look at that. THAT is brilliance. You are a boring pretender.” When I tried my hand at nonfiction and freelance writing, my fear of ‘getting it wrong’ hobbled me. Even with my fiction, after the initial euphoria of finishing a story has faded, I’m crippled with doubts about my writing. It can’t possibly be any good, because (I believe) I lack the required brain-power, the necessary talent, the slightest whiff of bloody X-factor.
Even in the throes of success, qualms shiver up my spine and grip me by the shoulders:
- It had to be a fluke, plain and simple.
- It was only because they were desperate.
- They’ll soon work out how truly incapable you are, and this too will crumble away…
- You’ll never pull this off. Just wait.
You see? My-thology is a real killjoy.
I should be basking in triumph and writhing with glee after winning a flipping major international competition, signing a contract with my dream publisher Chicken House, acquiring Lucy Irvine of PFD Literary Agency as my agent, and—WOOT!—getting paid for my writing. But I’m too entangled in wonky personal narratives about my supposed lack of je-ne-sais-quoi.
The Power of Punctuation
Thank you, Ann Patchett and (or) your book designer, for the herculean hyphen that snagged my attention and awakened me to the restrictive stories I tell myself.
It’s time—yet again—to confront this limiting narrative head on. When these joy-stealing myths rise in me, I will question their validity and relevance. I will consider and even force myself to state aloud the scary alternative:
Maybe I am special enough after all.
Who’s taking up the challenge with me to do some serious my-thology busting this year?