Every Truth has a Qualifier

canstockphoto0866421I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this week – the personal stories that we carry with us and roll out for visitors. We’ve told them so often that they purr out of our pores. My story has always been one of being a survivor – of an unstable childhood and low self-esteem. My story is that I grew up poor. I experienced and witnessed abuse and addiction. These things are true, but I’ve found that the story no longer fits who I am or who I want to be.

Sometimes our stories were given to us by someone else. I got called a pessimist a lot. My army buddies called me Chuckles for my dry, unsmiling humor. My stepfather used to call me a prude, because I always had my nose in books and didn’t think he was funny at all.  A friend’s father said that I’m a cold fish. A boss told me once that I could be cruel.I’ve been told encouraging things as well, but those never seem to have the same staying power.

If your self is fully formed, grounded in confidence and you are experienced in being loved and loving as is, these things tend to roll off a bit easier. If you’re still searching and there’s gaps in your armor, these words slither in and sit on your skin until they sink in. You take in pieces and patches until you’re an emotional Frankenstein. Just waiting for villagers to run you out of town.

canstockphoto4076599.jpgThis was my story. I’ve clung to it. I’ve repeated it over and over. It was, I would declare, my truth, my reality. I’m a wounded bird who learned to fly. Yay me. Except that’s not me at all, anymore. It might not have been me for years. It’s all a big damned falsehood that I sit comfortably in like a bean bag chair. And while I’m sitting there, I can’t move. I can’t write a new story.

Most of us don’t like to be defined by others, but we’re still very adept at assigning labels to ourselves. I see labels as limits, as hard core definitions that you carry like an awkward badge of honor. It’s supposed to help – this knowing what you are and aren’t. But if you take a moment and see all the exceptions you’ve made, all the qualifiers in place, then a label is a lie. Then all personal truths become temporary.

I am sometimes a pessimist. Sometimes I’m a daydreamer. Sometimes I’m a wounded bird and other times, I’m a fierce predatory hawk. Sometimes I’m a fuzzy Buddhist feminist liberal bleeding heart and other times I’m a puritanical and judgmental fascist. We make choices about who we’d like to be most, but we have to be humbled by the moments when we’re complicated humans. And that’s about the only label I can work with – I’m human.

Our stories inform who we have become and this is the point that gives me pause. If that is the case, then what I am I telling myself now and what will that look like in ten years? When I’m procrastinating creative work, I chide myself. Stories don’t write themselves, knucklehead. And they don’t – we have to be willing to sit down and devote time to writing them. Even our own stories.

canstockphoto14925482We all have them. I’ve found that as I work through my old tales, there is much to archive. Like pictures, it’s time to take down the yellowed photos and frame new ones. It is time to write some new stories.

What’s your story?

 

Books I’m Perusing This Week:

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin E. P. Seligman

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

Stuck in the Story No More: Breaking Down the Defenses that Define You and Bind You by Dr. Nicki J. Monti

100 Comments on “Every Truth has a Qualifier

  1. Great post Michelle, as always. I grew up in idyllic circumstances, which as lucky as that makes me, also makes for a boring story. Not a lot of drama, twists and turns. Yet I still managed to make enough mistakes along the way to keep life interesting and teach me a lot. One of the more interesting discoveries I’ve made about myself is that I am someone who not only embraces change, but needs it. I actually crave it. Change gives me energy, it inspires me and I love the challenge of having to adapt, to start over, to learn and re-learn and re-invent. So I guess you could say I have an ongoing series of short stories 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes we think that unless there’s adversity in our stories that they are uninteresting. I believe if our eyes are open and we’re paying attention, there’s always something of interest to tell.

      I, too, am a proponent of change (obviously). I believe that we can be active participants in our own evolution and reinvention is a wonderful gift. Such a great perspective, Fransi!

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      • Thanks Michelle. And you are so right about the interesting stories we can see, and tell, when we open our eyes and minds.

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  2. Sometimes you’re honest, sometimes you’re straightforward, sometimes you’re bold enough to let the world know your stories, sometimes you’re compassionate to embrace people’s opinions about you, those sometimes you’re too many things but everytime you come out as a survivor & an inspiration for all of us. Thanks Michelle!
    Always an ardent follower of your writing – Chandan 🙂

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    • Thanks, Chandan, for your kind words and encouragement. I seem to be on a bender of self-revelation, but learning to live with intention really requires me to focus some time and energy on it. I’m glad that you can find some inspiration as well.

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  3. One of the hard lessons I learned while working for the police is that people are formed by their environment. When I tell people this, no one is surprised. We all know this – but we don’t. What we do not know is that people are molded much more by their micro-environment than by major social forces. Like the cops used to say, we are who we hang with.

    This is liberating because it gives us agency, our stories can change because our circumstances can change. So the take-away, with qualifiers of course, is surround yourself with who you want to be.

    It is only natural to outgrow our stories – because we outgrow the people who helped us write them.

    Liked by 4 people

    • This is such a useful perspective, Greg. I am really going to be thinking about this over the next week. A friend suggested, too, that sometimes we continue in old behaviors out of habit and fail to take into account that things have changed. It seems a reminder to open one’s eyes to the present.
      I like the idea of giving ourselves agency to change our stories. Really great points – thanks!

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    • Yes. Greg. I, like others, love the empowering part of your contribution here. At the same time, I felt we should acknowledge that it is so much more difficult for those most in need of changing their environments and companions to, first, recognize the need for this, and, second, cultivate the means, economic and personal/social, to make that happen. This is part of why mentoring and volunteering and fostering, etc. are especially important, and quality daycare is so important, and why it’s very disappointing to me that relatively few males–even retired ones–participate.

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      • My parents spent their afternoons reading to kids in the Saint Paul public schools. While their efforts were noble and of value, there is a deep flaw in the notion of older, mostly retired white people helping children learn to read.

        About a mile to the east of where I now sit, there is an old abandoned building that was home to a one room school where between 40 and 60 students were taught everything they needed to know about reading, math, grammar, history and geography by a single teacher.

        The reason the teacher could so successfully handle such large class is incomprehensible to modern industrial education but would be obvious to anyone who stepped into the room. Two very effective factors were at work: the younger kids received both a constant preview as well as a review of their lessons and the students tutored each other. The older kids taught the younger kids.

        Like I said in the first paragraph: volunteering, mentors, fostering are all wonderful things but they are not nearly as effective as peer to peer learning and peer to peer support.

        Here is an illustration in the power of peer learning. There is a Walgreens across the street from where I worked and one day I was standing in line at the druggist counter behind a Hmong woman and her daughter. Mom wore the long skirt, embroidered blouse and sensible shoes that are common among Laotian women immigrants. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her daughter had to translate the complicated instructions from the druggist – and did it while pecking away at her iPhone. She spoke in pitch-perfect Midwestern English – right down to the teenage angst.

        Where did the daughter pick up her English and especially her angst? Clue: it wasn’t from school or mentors or volunteers because no one in that group could hope to replicate how an east side teenager talks.

        She learned it all from her peers.

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        • We are in agreement: On the superiority of peer learning over the other (which is why, when I REALLY learned to teach, I taught less, by forming teams of students teaching students), and of the perceived value of white-or-any-color persons reading to groups of disadvantaged kids–versus a child in a lap, with affection, and questions being answered, and words pointed to at times.

          Adult volunteers can do a lot more mentoring than just read to kids at libraries and schools.

          Denzel Washington credits Boys and Girls Clubs with his staying off the streets. My own children’s city softball league fell apart for two reasons, one of which was the lack of any adult volunteers to coach. When I first started my boys in Scouting, most of central L.A. offered no scouting due to the lack of adult volunteers, and their Westside troop had mostly moms doing the work (several were over-involved doing-it-all-for-their-sons moms instead of those who would foster independent skills–some of the dads were the same).

          Then, there are the volunteers who don’t contact families or children directly. The Big Sunday group of volunteers in town here does projects for basically any group which needs help, and many times these aid battered women and children, or families with parents recovering from substance abuse. Projects have included gifts of books, clothes, art, and school supplies, as well as toys, for children. Frequently, hand-drawn cards with encouraging messages are sent. These types of efforts can do a lot, and “cost” only two hours a week. Not much.

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  4. I especially like the Frankenstein analogy: “You take in pieces and patches until you’re an emotional Frankenstein. Just waiting for villagers to run you out of town.” And they will. Or, if they’re blind to the monster in you –if they see instead an angel — they’ll serve you a bowl of soup.

    We’re all continually telling stories about each other as well as ourselves, and those stories are hard to change, too. The familiar serves us in myriad ways, many unconscious.

    Lots of rich food for thought in this post, and also in the comments. Nice work!

    Liked by 3 people

    • You make a terrific point about the familiar stories serving us in some way, Cate. I’ve been thinking about that as well – what does holding on to any particular story do for me? I suspect, when I think about Greg’s (Almost Iowa) comment above, that it’s easier not to take that responsibility for writing new stories and exercising agency. It’s human nature, I suppose, but it does make it more challenging.

      I initially wrote a political post about the stories politicians were telling about others, but as usual, I veered into the personal. This one made me a little less angry in the writing!

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  5. Thanks for this brave (a label…aargh!) and insightful article. I will share

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  6. Most times you speak the minds of a thousands other souls you have never met. I am one of those thousands. We fight against labels or accept them reluctantly we fail to see that the only label that applies is the label that we are humans. That we can be super and still be fallible.

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    • I think it’s very difficult sometimes for people to live with dichotomy or to embrace that they are many things – none of which can be covered by any single label. I have found that looking at myself with eyes open means that labels don’t work – and that I need a good sense of humor. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lovely post, Michelle … and an articulate claiming of your true self, with all its facets. It brought up the wonderful Walt Whitman quote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Thanks!

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  8. Very thoughtful post. Understanding one’s history and yet not being defined by it resonates with me. The stories we tell ourselves are so powerful. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  9. Very thought-provoking! Sometimes labels are helpful. For example, when a parent is given a label for their child that helps explain their behaviour and helps them get a handle on it. Or an adult who is finally diagnosed with something like Asperger’s or ADD and then everything falls into place. Having a label for something can even help you outgrow something negative or replace it with something new.because it gives you something to fight against. Or, in your case, it gives you a way of reevaluating yourself and realise that those labels just don’t work any more. We just all need to challenge our assumptions about ourselves and give other people a second, or third, or umpteenth chance, because we’re all on a journey, and it’s not always a straight road.

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    • You make a good point about the usefulness of some labels, but I think they, too have their limitations. A child with Autism or Aspergers will vary widely in behaviors and personalities, so while labels can point parents in a certain direction, it’s still important to see the differences.
      I think you are right about figuring out that certain labels don’t work anymore, but I’ve always come to question the use of labels at all – and you are right about extending that idea to others. Thanks for the great comment!

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  10. Not only a terrific post, Michelle, but such thoughtful commentary from your readers and you. Have perhaps told this several times before, but my first divorce lawyer was so awful, so terrible, so incompetent that I was told I should both sue her and report her to the bar–she was so awful that my second lawyer took over for FREE. But Lawyer #1 did one good deed for me:
    “So, you had an unhappy childhood. Who’s to say you can’t make a new childhood for yourself?”
    I went home that day and rewrote my story. I still told the truth, but only the happy truths. My friend Millie still re-reads that thin little booklet of stories some nights before she goes to bed. She says it makes her happy, too. My Joshua Dog post came out of that new happy childhood. : )

    My new happy (and useful) grown-up-hood is still a work in progress, but it will get there. Now, how to find those companions Greg’s on about…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are some schools of thought about rewriting or reframing one’s childhood, but I feel a little ambivalent about that. Truth was rewritten and denied in our family, so I have a stake in reclaiming that. In some ways, by raising my daughter to be healthy and happy, I am rewriting A childhood. I’m proud of that fact.

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      • Michelle, you deserve to be proud: You are doing the BEST childhood rewriting possible, and doing it successfully.

        You mistook me–surely due to my lack of clarity–and in my usual egotistical manner, an encyclopedia of words follows, because I responded only this past Dec 15 to a blogger on another blog who suggested someone ELSE rewrite their horrendous bullied past. Here is my (hard-to-believe-slightly-edited) response, both to him and the bullying survivor:

        Your words and intent are compassionate. Possibly, a strategy of rewriting past bullies as if best buddies can be healing for some. It would SEEM to make sense.
        But: My own healing from decades of abuse did not begin until I recognized and named it, and healing has grown each time I’ve realized each person and incident as abusive. Fifteen years away from the last bully, I occasionally STILL have a head-slapping moment: “Hey! What s/he did there was WRONG!”
        This is because some people lowered on bullying (not raised on it!) may not develop the normal unbullied person’s reactions to others, or their abilities to judge behavior–their own or others. We can be plagued, more than others, by self-doubt, passive-aggressiveness, submissiveness, or eager beaverism: “No, it won’tbother me to do ALL the clean-up after the party–What? Drive Mitch home afterward? Uh…it’s 2:00am already…okay, sure, I’ll take him.” That desire to be liked/loved….

        My recognitions and memories of the wrongs give me important benchmarks against which to measure my own interactions with new people and relationships–and their behaviors toward me. They also give me tremendous pride: That I was able to carry on, somehow, and come out the other side a kind, sane person.
        (Sometimes depressed, sometimes snappish and over-reactive…but I am kind and sane even toward myself, and so blame these lapses on those bad, bad bullies!
        🙄

        I think writing even a simple list of the bad events of the past can be helpful. Even more so can be letters to your bullies, including some of what they did and how this made you feel. You can send, or anonymize their names and post on a blog, or just keep for you.

        Then, I do agree that focusing more on all positive memories of both past and present is wise. I suggest gathering all the positive childhood memories, no matter how few (I had…six?…in my first effort) and writing them down in a little book titled “My Rewritten Childhood”. This was extremely helpful to me. For a while, I re-read it each night like a happy bedtime story.

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  11. I enjoyed reading that and your last question relates to one of my previous blogs asking a similar question. I am in the process of collating my story for the sake of my daughter so she understands her story as well.

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    • That’s lovely. I haven’t told my daughter my whole story, but she has heard bits. What is more fun is telling her stories from when she was little, that she can’t remember. Thank goodness for cheap digital cameras as well! I have very few pictures from my childhood, so I’m glad that I have that for her.

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  12. Again great honesty here Michele. I studied psychology and there is a subject within it called discursive psychology. Discursive psychology theorizes how we are defined by words. How the words others use toward us and the words we use ourselves actually define us. We are described a certain way our we describe ourselves in a certain way. Then it sticks and thats who we become. So as you say lets write new stories!

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    • That’s interesting, Gabriel. The power of words and language fascinates me. It seems like there is so much more to learn about that aspect of psychology – that we’ve barely scratched the surface.

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  13. A thoughtful piece Michelle. And so true. I’ll start by saying the sentence “We’ve told them so often that they purr out of our pores.” is brilliant! Purr out of our pores. Absolutely brilliant.
    And then I’ll admit that every time I read an inspired piece of writing like that my first reaction is jealousy. Why can’t I think of things like that when I write!
    My story is unworthiness. And like you it doesn’t really fit any more though it seems to relentlessly simmer away on the back burner, mostly unconscious, no matter how much inner work and healing I do. A re-perception of myself as something other than that, in an ongoing way, at times feels impossible, and that that person would be an impostor. At the same time I’m very aware that the stories we tell ourselves, and that others tell about us are indeed powerful, and shape who we are and how we show up in the world. So in this moment I choose to focus on how far I’ve come, and how little I really fit the old story that (thus far) refuses to die.
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, the simmering on the back burner bugs me, too. Every time I make a mistake or get sick or any moment of slight vulnerability and it goes into a full boil. I try to counter it with different messages, but it takes a lot of awareness and effort to keep doing that. Practice, practice, I guess.

      I’m at the point where I know I have to intentionally move beyond survivorship. I often feel like apologizing for any good fortune that comes my way, because I don’t think I deserve it or I think about all the other people who don’t have it and feel embarrassed. There’s a fine line between maintaining one’s humility and the inability to embrace happy moments.

      But, as we’ve talked about before, Alison, we’re all works in progress. Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly defeatist, I remind myself that it’s good to be in a place where I have the luxury of working on these issues.

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  14. Thank you for your very human post. It’s why we write and read–trying to understand ourselves and others. The labels can get in the way, utilized as they are to try and simplify complex human behaviors. We are all growing here, even as we age. It’s inspiring to read about people who grow away from the old and into the new, especially when the old isn’t helping. Best wishes!

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  15. I’ve been thinking on this topic all week. I, too, have decided that I’m not who I think I am anymore. I realize I’ve evolved, but into who I’m not sure yet. Great food for thought in this post, but no actual answer to your question.

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    • There’s something just a little exciting about realizing you’re not the same person anymore. It opens one’s mind to the possibilities of who you are and what you could become. That sounds like a fortune cookie. I’m going back to bed.

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  16. Thoughtful and thought-provoking as usual.

    Life is a write-your-own-ending story. I’m not dismissing or downplaying the role of environment or peers or circumstances. Those are vital, basic ingredients in our lives. But in the final analysis, we each get to decide what recipe we’re going to concoct from what we got. It may be the only thing we truly can control, but it is the thing that only we CAN control, nobody else – how we choose to respond to life.

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    • I think, too, the people and environments that we are drawn to says something about what we need – it’s not just about being influenced. I agree that how we respond, how we bounce back, how we react – these are where our choices lie.

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  17. We all had a story, past that possibly broke us. It’s not easy to break out of it, requires some hard work sometimes.

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    • Hard work indeed. Some days are simply easier than others. And we spend a lot of time taking 3 steps forward and 2 steps back. I always try to remind myself that it’s progress nonetheless. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  18. I’m scrolling through the 50 comments without looking. I know there’s gold in them thar hills, but I can’t wait to get HERE.

    And HERE’S the thing: How is it that we’re both doing this Work at the same time? And are you finding a huge clearing where all those old stories once rooted themselves? (These are rhetorical questions, so don’t squirm with being *required* to answer)

    I’m not looking to create a new story yet, just get used to all this S-P-A-C-E and feeling what that does to my innards. I can’t wait to see you again and compare blanks.

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    • It is work, isn’t it? I don’t know that I’ve cleared as much space as you have, but my thing is having so many questions that I no longer have the answers to. Even questions as simple as “what do I want?” or “what do I need?” feel like big stumpers (ha, another forest/tree pun).
      When I’m tired or vulnerable or, as is now definitely the case, sick, I let my brain fill in the blanks with old answers. Doing a lot of writing about it, though, which is very useful.

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  19. Ah, what fun it is catching up on my blog reading after some busy weeks, especially taking in a couple of your posts. I’ve been working with a Tibetan-Buddhist teaching lately called “shenpa,” which is the habit of responding to pain, disappointment, etc. by engaging in excessive self-talk: retelling the story, reliving the suffering, rehearsing what I should have said, and so on. Sometimes I think my self-perception is disproportionally based on the bullshit I’ve repeated to myself over the years–my shenpa. Just sharing out loud here. John

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    • If you’re familiar with the teachings of Pema Chodron, shenpa is a big topic with her. It reminds me that if I’m holding onto a story with both hands, I have to ask myself why it is so important to me and if it is habit or there is some need being fulfilled.
      And I think I get your point. I started out with some very negative messages in other people’s voices, but at some point, I took them over, turned them into a believable story and now everything comes to me in my own voice. It’s so much worse when we do it to ourselves, because we confuse it with truth.

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      • Pema Chodron . . . yes, yes, yes. We’re speaking the same language, roughly at least.

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        • One of my favorite CDs are her collected talks on “Getting UNstuck”. I’ve probably listened to it 20 times over the last few years. She gets into shenpa and talks about her own experiences with it. I keep hoping it will sink into my noggin at some point!

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  20. Its sometimes… So enthralling to know..u can write ur own story…as u want it to be…
    Realizing this fact is a blessing
    But what’s…really significant is the act of reminding this simple fact again and again to ourselves… Whatever we do wherever we go…
    I do it..by writing…
    Writing.. My heart out..
    The way u reminded us..from ur writing…. To carve out a new story

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  21. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this. It’s the same message that’s inspired my personal journey and recent writing. All that navel gazing can be exhausting. It can also lead to us becoming who we are capable of being.

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    • I’ve been finding that I need to take breaks from this exhaustive self-work, in order to keep my perspective and to not get too bogged down. But writing is really a great tool to getting where one needs to go.

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  22. Well, the title strike me so hard that i was so anxious to read the full contents. A very well crafted sharing of the personal journey, people often cannot share and express so clearly. It is so inspirational especially for a beginner like me .cheers 🙂

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  23. Michelle, this makes one of the best post I have read today. Love you have rightly put it, we all have a story of our life. This story is uniquely tailored by the an individual. You are on point.

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  24. You took a very complicated matter and broke it down to a level which we can all connect on. Beautifully written material with a strong meaning to all. Keep up the good work 🙂

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  25. I thoroughly enjoyed your story. It amazes me how much we do limit ourselves because of peer ideas/constraints. Now it is time to break free from such nonsense.

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  26. Stories make life have sense. Not in the instance when they happen, but after a while I have the habbit to roll over in the archive of my memories, and retell in my head some pleasent moment (mostly love stories). And the thing about personal stories that in our head they do look as such (as stories), but not in our the eyes of the others. Everyone carries the background of the stories in himself and not always can others understand them. I can quess you overthink a lot?

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    • It sounds like you have reached a comfortable place with the stories you tell yourself. It’s not so with me and most of my stories aren’t a day at the beach. So I will continue to think about them, as that seems more reasonable than pretending they don’t exist.

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  27. Thanks for this post. I’ve always had the hardest time writing about myself I feel like I have so much CRAP to put out that I don’t even know where to start or if it even matters now. This helped though I’m definitely looking forward to writing much more about myself again.

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  28. “We make choices about who we’d like to be most, but we have to be humbled by the moments when we’re complicated humans.” …and I get humbled by this truth ! True that we make choices according to who we want to be , but lack of patience and losing temper quickly seems to be two biggest follies that keep me humble by pushing me back again and again to start over again ! Enjoyed reading your post. Full of so many truths and some great inspiration to write our own stories at the end. Thank you.

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  29. Reblogged this on joceldawesome and commented:
    “This was my story. I’ve clung to it. I’ve repeated it over and over. It was, I would declare, my truth, my reality. I’m a wounded bird who learned to fly. Yay me.” Share yours.

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  30. Beautiful post, every word here is as meaningful as the entire article. We let ourselves be defined by what we went through a long time back. Sure, it halfway made us who we are today but that person then isn’t the same person we are today. It’s not enough knowing this but we need to feel and believe it. Thanks for sharing:)

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  31. I am new to blogging and have been stumbling around from blog to blog trying to get an idea of what’s going on in this world. I am so glad I came across your blog. I really feel like reading what you write will help keep me pushing towards my writing goals. Thanks!

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  32. Wow!! An amazing post!! “Stories don’t write themselves. We have write them” That’s so true, unless and until we put our stories in words, they will remain in archives!! 🙂

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  33. I find it amusing that I make some people uncomfortable! They try desperately to put me in a box, but I refuse to be confined or defined. I don’t mind using words to describe myself, but I tend to use terms like weird and different, the kind of words that most people think carry negative connotations!

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    • I truly think we widen our perspective when we realize that labels are awkward and ill-fitting. Around here, we’re all freaks and weirdos. Even the mildest among us have something just a little bit odd going on.

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  34. I think labels in general are tools, neither inherently bad or good. We can use them for better or worse. I think in naming something we gain personal power over it. The ones I feel sorry for are those who never question and therefore never escape the destructive patterns with which they grew up. One of the things that attracted me to my hubby is that he made the same choice early in life that I did, not to make the same mistakes as our parents, but make different ones!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Pingback: Labeling Ourselves… Limiting Ourselves… | RJ's Corner

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