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As a child growing up with asthma, I was often cautioned against strenuous physical activity out of fear that I might have trouble breathing or suffer an attack. My mother disagreed and encouraged me to try. On the other hand, my father and other relatives suggested I stick to what they considered safer, less physically demanding pastimes.
Even with my mother’s support, the belief that I couldn’t engage in challenging activities stuck with me over the years. I would do short runs or sprints but avoided long-distance running. As an adult, I was the queen of power-walking, until one day, while I was walking on a track in Harlem, an older woman ran right past me, her silver locks flowing with each step. Just seeing her out there inspired me, so I decided to give distance running a chance.
Today, after building up to longer runs over time, I can run for half an hour without getting winded or provoking my asthma. Now I can confidently say that I am a runner, and it is a part of my identity.
The beliefs we hold about ourselves often stem from messages we received as children. They’re influenced by our families, by our peers, and even by the media we consume. Those messages shape our identity in the present and can be quite persistent. But as adults, we have the ability to shift our perspective and re-story our lives.
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Have you ever had the experience of going home for a reunion or family gathering and suddenly feeling like you did when you were a child or teenager? Old family dynamics come into play and relatives might view you and treat you the same way they did years ago. They don’t realize you’ve changed. Next thing you know, you may even find yourself responding to those family members as you did in the past.
But you don’t have to be a prisoner to what other people think or how they see you. Our minds have what’s called neuroplasticity, or the ability to adapt. From the time we are born, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to changing needs, enabling us to learn and grow from experience throughout our lives.
In other words, we have the power to change our identity, or who we think we are.
Plot Twist: How to Re-Story Our Lives
There are several strategies you can use to counter the powerful and sometimes unconscious messages you receive. These steps will help you define who you are and feel empowered to re-story your life.
Be mindful. On your way to a family gathering or in the moment, you can use mindfulness to keep yourself anchored in the present. You can silently say to yourself, “I am here today. It’s 2022,” or something more specific like, “I don’t have to take my cousin/sibling/in-law picking on me. I am not that person anymore.”
Set boundaries. To protect yourself from negative messages from relatives or peers, make a list of at least 10 boundaries you will enforce. For example, you can set a limit for how much time you will spend at a gathering and do not feel guilty about leaving early. If people start to gossip, you can make a point of not being a part of those conversations. You can say “no” when pressured to do something you want to do. You can also set boundaries around when you are available by text or phone, and choose whether to respond to messages.
Check your values. Messages from others can make us question our own choices. That’s why it can help to remind yourself what’s most important to you by engaging in what’s called a values exercise. How it works: Write out the values that resonate with you, such as balance, or freedom, or service. Organize the values into groups of similar ones, then attach a verb to your top values (“live in balance”) to express how you intend to put them into action. Make artwork from your top four or five values, frame it, and display it someplace meaningful to you. Engaging creatively can strengthen your relationship with your values.
Question “shoulds”. A sign we may be living by others’ expectations is the frequent use of the word “should,” as in “I should be married/have kids by now,” or, “I should own a certain type of home or car.” If you find yourself thinking this way, try the values exercise above. When the word “should” starts to arise, you can choose affirming thoughts like, “I’m single and satisfied” instead.
Decide what’s next. Now that you’ve identified limiting beliefs and new possibilities, how can you stretch yourself? In what ways can you grow? For me, I’m exploring a 5K run and possibly even building up to a marathon. What’s next for you?
Consider counseling. If you are struggling with letting go of old ideas about yourself, therapy might help. In addition to talk therapy, consider poetry therapy or drama therapy to help cultivate self-awareness and relational awareness.
Remember: You’ve always had the power to determine who you are and how you show up. Using these tools can help you activate it.