Here I go again. Another post centered on a TED Talk. What can I say? I’m a huge fan. If I was young and hip I might say I was a fanboy. Fortunately I don’t suffer from any illusions that I am young and hip. But I do love TED Talks.
So what is it today? It is a talk by Poet Rives. Rives spins an amazing tale of how the time 4:00 a.m. has become a meme or shorthand to stand for a time that really bad, dark things happen. How does he do it? He weaves together an amazing number of unrelated facts and connections to create an entire conspiracy theory – one he calls the “Giacometti Code.” I’ll let you watch it to learn why. His presentation is amazing and fun to watch. The pacing and presentation are beautiful and enthralling. But what really caught my mind was his amazing ability to find connections where no meaningful links really exist and make them seem important.
What was so interesting about that is that fact that I see frequently see people do that in their own lives. That’s right, I see people that selectively choose facts about their lives and create a narrative for their life based on a limited set of events and thoughts, often excluding information that contradicts their self-story.
One of the most simple examples is people that has convinced themselves that “only bad things happen to them.” Why? Because their story emphasizes the bad or difficult events in their life and plays down or ignores the good things. They can tell tale after tale of “bad things” and then add up those examples to say that they aren’t supposed to be happy. One style of therapy refers to creation of a story that overemphasizes negative events as a “problem-saturated story.”
But there is an obvious error in this thought process. The fact is that good and bad things happen to everyone. Just because bad things happen it doesn’t mean the good things aren’t good. It is the natural ebb and flow of life, the ups and downs that happen to everyone.
And it can happen in the other direction as well. There are people that believe they are impervious to bad things happening. They will tell you about how only good things happen to them. Now, I’m a fan of a positive perspective on life but I’m talking about extremes. These people deny risk or deny bad events. They may let emotions around sad or difficult events go unprocessed or they may engage in very risky behaviors because they believe that there really isn’t a risk.
So why do people choose to create these slanted perspectives on their lives? My therapeutic perspective holds that people don’t continue behaviors if they are serving a purpose. So these stories serve some purpose of meet some need of the individual. Now, it may not be healthy or productive, but it is attempting to accomplish something in the person’s life.
While the specifics vary from person to person, I would contend that the most common purposes are to avoid vulnerability and fear. If “life won’t let you be happy” then you don’t have to take risks – what’s the point?. You don’t expose yourself to the emotional realities of managing changing emotions. Instead you can cede responsibility and blame others for your unhappiness. Likewise, by not acknowledging risks or past failures you can avoid dealing with the complexities of accepting that our lives are actually a combination of successes and failures. Many people have such a fear of failure that they believe not be successful once makes them a failure. So in order to avoid the fear of failure they deny all failures.
These coping strategies can work to a point. But they have their drawbacks. The person that believes everything is bad can never be happy because even if something good happens they don’t enjoy it, it just creates new fears. And the overly-confident person never learns to deal with difficulty, they just deny it. And while that can work for while, it almost never works forever. Eventually something bad enough comes along that the person can’t deny it. And they are unprepared for dealing with it.
So what is the answer? The answer is a combination of things. First, it is about having a balanced view of your life. Accept all the parts of it. The good things and the bad, the failures and the successes. And then learn new skills. Learn how to deal with bad things or failures in a healthy way. Learn to accept them as a natural part of your life and not let them overwhelm the parts that are good.
Why not start today? Instead of creating your own Giacometti Code, ask yourself how you feel about your life and why. Then ask yourself what things in your life contradict that feeling. Can both exist at the same time? Does one invalidate the other? See if you can’t be happy about good things even though bad things happen. Celebrate your successes even though there have been failures. In other words, take the risk of embracing life and spinning your tale in an authentic way. I bet you’ll weave a beautiful tapestry.