HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK

What is the story you tell about yourself, that holds you back from doing the things you really want to do?

This is my very first blog post, which was first published Friday, November 29, 2002

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course.  We paired up for several projects.  I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation, multiplying a single digit by 9.  I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work.

“Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained.  “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking.  Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.

But she wasn’t kidding.  She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  There are many easy facts.

Let’s take the multiplication tables.  Everyone knows what the ones facts are:1 x 1 = 1, 2 x 1 = 2, etc.  Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too.   Most kids learn them quickly.   Next are the fives and the tens.  They’re easily mastered, too.  Also the “doubles”: 3 x 3 = 9, 4 x 4 = 16, and so on.

Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2 x 3 = 6 and 3 x 2 = 6, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for.  And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun.  You have to memorize them.

Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables: Subtract 1 from the not-9 number, use that number. That number plus what will equal 9? So for 6 x 9, 6-1 is 5, 5 plus what = 9? 4.  So 6×9=54.  Cute, huh?

But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them.  The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice.  (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, too.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts.  One is measurable, observable, concrete.  To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them.  You gotta memorize them.  You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers.  But once you learn them, you never really forget them.  You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two.  But the foundation, the habit is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify.  Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it.  It goes like this: “I have a special story about why I can’t do something.  It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing.  So I hold onto it fiercely.  Even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?

Well…you don’t have to try anymore.  You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing.  Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.

In fact, probably other people, who have their own  “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too.  You may even get sympathy, or admiration.  “Wow, that’s quite a story!  How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”

It’s also a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something.  It’s too hard,  it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on. So make up a story, and move on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?

You lose a lot.  A lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.

It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art.  It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist. It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it. 

Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better.  A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.  

I now hear that old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years.  When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am.  (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)

I soon hear their story.  They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story.

When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.

When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.

When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified.  They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story.  There’s just too much at stake.  It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is:  What is your story?  What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Tomorrow I’ll tell the story about my friend Walt and his messy house.  Now there’s a story! *

*Sadly, I never told the story about Walt, who died a few years ago of brain cancer. I remember it was another riff on this article–he had a huge story about why he couldn’t clean his house.

One of the many wonderful things I remember about Walt is, he came to the same conclusion: He could change his story, and he did.

RETELLING A STORY: How to Get Your Mind to a Better Place

Find a different way to tell your tired, sad old story, and watch your heart grow.

There’s a sad story I catch myself telling over and over. And I’m sick of it.

When we moved into our current home, I did a major de-stash of my fabric collection. I actually reduced my inventory by almost 75%. It was a glorious horde of vintage fabrics and used clothing (from my vintage looking traditional quilting days), home decorating fabrics (from my make-my-own curtains, duvet covers and pillow phase), silk ties and antique velvets (from my crazy quilt days).

It was really really hard. I had to use all kinds of strategies to overcome my hoarder mode brain. I was determined to keep only the materials I would use in my art quilts, and the fabrics I truly loved. For example, pink isn’t really on my Lascaux Cave color wheel. So I told myself if I ever made another baby quilt for a girl, I could go out and buy NEW pink fabric. (Don’t worry, I kept most of the vintage pink fabrics.)

Another strategy was to find the perfect home for my stash. For years I’d donated fabrics, books and supplies to a little sewing group at a women’s prison in northern New Hampshire. They accepted almost anything gratefully. They made quilts for various causes. It felt wonderful to help a group of people who, in such sad circumstances themselves, made things for other people who were even less fortunate. It made the ‘letting go’ easier.

I bagged up almost twenty giant bags of fabrics. Someone from one of the causes found out about my donation, and offered to meet me at a town halfway between us to get the stash. I was grateful, for it saved me hours of driving time.

We met, the bags were transferred to her van, and I went home to wait for the donation receipt.

A long time later, I emailed to ask her where the receipt was.

Her answer struck me speechless.

She said her organization only accepted donations of new, 100% cotton fabrics. Because so much of my fabrics were old, blends, vintage or specialty fabrics, the entire lot (except for some picking by the staff) was…..dumped.

I called her immediately to remind her that the donation was not to her organization, but to the sewing circle that donated some of their projects to her organization. There was a long silence and then a quavering, heartfelt apology for the misunderstanding. I received the receipt for the donation anyway.

But I still cringed at the thought of all those fabrics sitting in a landfill somewhere.

For many years, that affected my ability to de-stash. Because one of my main motivations is to feel that my cast-offs are going to a new and better place, to people who will truly love and use what I’ve given them.

And it made for a good story, too. When I was feeling small and vindictive, I could tell that story with a sad little face, and with relish. See how awful that was?? All that good fabric gone to waste! It was a guaranteed sympathy-grabber and aren’t-other-people-awful moment.

Yes, no good deed goes unpunished, as my husband always says.

But lately I’m embarrassed to tell that story. And ashamed I’ve kept it going so long. It feels…wrong.

Because the truth is, many good things came out of that incident. Things that served me far, far better than a small truckload of fabrics I was happy to move on.

1) I discovered the light heart you get when you finally let go of things you don’t really need nor even really want anymore. If it took a ‘good cause’ to get me going on that, so be it. But when you really let go of something, demanding that it still serve you somehow is unproductive.

2) Remembering how quickly my stash of not-really-useful fabrics grew, it makes me think twice before letting just ‘any old fabric’ into my studio. Oh, I still succumb now and then. And those of you who have seen my fabric stash and are snickering, “Really, Luann? You actually restrain yourself from buying more fabric?! Yeah, right….snort!”, just cut it out.

3) Someone I respected admitted they’d made a mistake. And apologized with a full heart. (I am a complete sucker for a sincere apology.)

4) This same woman taught me a simple technique for prayer. And though I am quite the agnostic (meaning I don’t feel we can KNOW there is a higher power, and I know there probably isn’t, but I like to believe there could be), I believe the act of prayer is human and healing and good for the soul.

To pray for what you want and need, you don’t fall to the ground and hunch over with closed hands.

You stand. You take a deep, cleansing breath, and let air fill your lungs. As you gently exhale, let your arms drop, hands open and facing outwards. Raise your face to the sky, and close your eyes. Get quiet. And ASK the universe for what is in your heart.

I have a story about how dramatically this worked for me the first time I tried it. It was so powerful, I’m actually a little scared to use it much. But somehow, simply going through these motions is often enough to lift a weight from my heart, and soothes my savage, yapping little brain.

It restores me to my true self. I find I rephrase my wish into a better request. And the sole act of asking fills me with a feeling that’s even more healing than getting the wish. (Which, perhaps, is what I’m always actually yearning for.)

5) And, hey, I got my tax deduction.

So I’m telling that sad, self-righteous little story for the last time (I hope!) I think the process I’m describing is called ‘reframing’ in psychological terms. Whatever. It works.

And from now on, I will strive to ONLY tell it in this shiny, wonderful new context.