When Our Stories Make Pain Inevitable and Possibilities Narrow

machine cogs

I’m supposed to try harder.

I’m supposed to try harder because I am not living up to my potential.

I’m lazy. I'm a procrastinator. I’m a fraud, teetering forever on the edge of collapsing my house of cards.

I’m, you know, kind of a fuck up.

I’ve written about some of the stories I used to tell about myself and the troubles they’ve brought me, but this is one of the deepest.

It was the only story I had to explain my failures, big and small: my radical inconsistency in school (and becoming a high school drop-out), my failure to finish things (often at the very last step) that I really do truly care about, my general state of being regarded as intelligent and competent and yet having nothing to show for it. Even when I had success, I was often just one misstep away from another failure and being back where I started.

I thought this was just who I was, and my only option was to fight harder and harder against this frustrating, flighty part of me. I thought it was inevitable.

As it turns out, I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I don’t have a personality defect; I have a brain that moves (several) miles a minute in a half dozen different directions at once. With intelligent, caring support, I’ve learned (and am learning) how to use it as a great strength. 

I had no idea that I was different than is typical, because my only frame of reference was my own experience, and the only stories I heard were about stopping being lazy and trying harder.

I share my ADHD story because this is true for all of us in facing down our problems: we mostly only have our own experience as a frame of reference, plus stories in a culture that prides itself in effort and bootstrapping.

Because we only have our own frame of reference, we can easily get in our own way by not recognizing all the possibilities available to us. It’s easy to see our difficulties as inevitable weaknesses and to ignore our strengths. And it’s hard to see in what ways things might be able change.

Almost all of us deal with pain, stress and tension, and we mostly do it this way. It makes our lives harder than they need to be.

If you ask somebody if they experience chronic pain, they will often in one breath say that they don’t experience chronic pain and then offer a litany of frequently recurring pains.

In the stories they tell, those pains don’t count. They’re the inevitable consequence of aging, or of not having enough core strength, or of sitting or playing sports or whatever their activity of choice is.

They’re accepted pains, 'normal' pains, explained away by a finalizing story, that now they can only expect to cope with. In the story, the pain is usually either unchangeable or the result of a failure (say, a personality defect like being too lazy to do what they’re supposed to do)

Sometimes, those pains are so accepted that we disconnect from them entirely. Like the background noise of a city we learn to tune out, pain can recede from our conscious awareness. Yet when we get a taste of silence, we realize how loud it’s actually been. The people I work with often don’t think of themselves as having been in pain until they’re not anymore.

In my story, ADHD isn’t really what’s been in the way. What stood in my way was my thought that I was broken and stuck that way. I was operating on a false foundation, standing in my own way by misidentification of the challenge I was facing. This left my unrecognized symptoms to run free, instead of making choices that could actually help, including finding support from other people (professionals, but also friends and family). I had narrowed my sphere of possibilities, and sealed it up with a shiny layer of shame and self-blame. Once I opened that up, I still had work to do in order to change, but it was the right work and it has only given me energy, never taken it.

In my experience, pain (or stress or tension) itself is usually not what’s in the way at root. What stands in people’s way is their narrowed sphere of possibilities (which might even mean being unaware of carried pain).

In simplest terms, we don’t realize that things can be easier until we’ve experienced them easier. 

The first step of getting out of the way is in the opening of possibilities. For me, there was even be a step before that, in releasing the shame and self-blame for having stood in my own way, and acknowledging the legitimate fear of not-knowing, of taking that step into the unknown.

In thinking about this for yourself, make sure to take a second here to also acknowledge just how exciting this is, too.