Challenging our personal mythology

Image credit: © 2012 Gabriela Fab, from Flickr | used via CC-BY-SA licensing

What we call a mythology is a set of interrelated stories that offer explanations for how the world works, why it works that way, and how nature, humans, and the Divine relate to one another. This is easy to see when considering Greek or Roman or Norse mythologies.

It’s harder to see when it comes to our own personal mythology—the selection of stories we tell ourselves about how life works. We pick up most of these stories from our families, our culture, and our religious training as if by osmosis when we are too young to rationally question or consider their validity. In addition, our childhood formulations of some of the stories we were given may have been warped by our inability to understand clearly at that age.

Nevertheless, these stories become a part of our unconscious framework for how we view ourselves, the world (and people) around us, and the things that happen to us. Often we are completely unable to even articulate these stories because they have become such a part of who we are that we can’t even see them anymore.

But when our worlds fall apart in grief or trauma or disaster, these stories are brought close to the surface where we have a better chance of seeing them clearly, if we are willing to look. Challenging these stories can give us the opportunity to shift our mythologies consciously to ones of our own choosing that serve us better than those we blindly adopted as children.

Let me give you an example from my mythology.

A story from my mythology

One of the (unconscious) stories I uncovered from my mythology when my world fell apart several years ago went something like this:

As a human, I am so despicable that even God, who is ultimate reality of love itself, cannot bear to be around me because my very nature is that of a sinner. Even worse, I am a female and, as such, have even less value to God or the world than full humans (who are male) because maleness is more God-like and more valuable.

Thus, I am not only without any worth because I am imperfect, I am only of any value to the extent which I serve and please males who were at least made in God’s image to be able to serve God directly.

Therefore to feel that I am at all of value or lovable in any way, I must gain the approval and love of people (especially those male ones who have more intrinsic value anyway). If I can convince them that I am good enough, then I will be good enough.

Of course, I never would have stated any of that so harshly at the time. These were all unconscious stories that I had absorbed from family, culture, and religion along the way.

On the surface, I would have defended my value as a woman independent from any male’s opinion as vehemently as any feminist, but the insecurity of this underlying story colored all that I did and how I interpreted the people and circumstances around me constantly without me even seeing it.

As you might imagine, this story from my mythology did not serve me very well.

Challenging my mythology

My mythology, like all mythologies, formed the subterranean foundation of my life. It supported and defined everything else, but it wasn’t above ground for it to be easily observed.

When my life fell apart, the crumbled ruins left this foundation open to view. In fact, inspecting the rubble to see where the fault lines in the structure had crumbled led unerringly to the distortions in the foundation.

My initial instinct was to patch up the foundation and begin rebuilding right away, but I was so intent on using my pain as fuel for growth, that I decided instead to start picking at those places in the foundation that showed signs of weakness that contributed to the collapse.

As I picked away at my foundation mythology at those points, the offending stories began emerging slowly one by one for me actually view and consider.

The first one to emerge was the story that I am only good enough if I can convince other people that I am good enough. It didn’t take much to see how this story had not only contributed to the collapse, but had set up a situation that would always cause collapse. The story (and all that fueled that story) had the seeds of failure built into it.

Because my story told me that I could only be good enough (and therefore loved) if other people thought me good enough, I entered into all relationships trying to adjust who I was to fit the other person’s needs and expectations like a chameleon adapting to its surroundings.

Initially, this allowed the other person to see in me whatever they most needed in a relationship. I was eager to please and to support them and to be whoever I needed to be to make them happy.

But even during this initial phase when they perceived me as good enough, I still did not feel good enough because I knew they were approving only of a mask, not of the real me. Instead of gradually feeling loved and good enough, I would instead feel resentful that I was not able to be myself (and good enough as myself).

In time, I would not be able to keep up the chameleon facade, and the resentment would be begin to show through. The other person would naturally begin to find me less than good enough because I was no longer fitting their projection of what they wanted, and this would further prove to me that I was not good enough (and never would be).

No relationship could bear the weight of my insecurity, my chameleon-like inauthenticity, and my resentment at never measuring up. Failure after failure only strengthened the story of my not-good-enoughness in my own mind, increasing my desperation to do whatever it took to gain that approval from outside and causing the cycle to start all over again with the same results.

Once I recognized this piece of the story and how doomed it was to continually producing the same results, I was determined to dig deeper to understand where the story came from and what other stories were contributing to it and supporting it. That’s how I gradually excavated the longer mythology I described above.

Having excavated it, I was now in a position to challenge each point of the story and choose alternative stories that would serve me (and my relationships) better.

Choosing new stories for my mythology

Just being aware of the story that I was enacting and bringing to life over and over again gave me the chance to choose differently when I felt its influence. As soon as I notice that need for another’s approval arising inside me, I now recognize the opening act of the my repetitious story and can choose not to give it control.

In addition, I took time to reassess the theology and social conditioning that went into buttressing this unhelpful story, deconstructing that portion of the foundation brick by brick and finding more supportive stories to use for rebuilding.

My old mythology was so ingrained and so much a part of me that I still have to watch continually for its influence in well-worn patterns that still emerge, but those old patterns have less and less power over me as I learn to live into new stories of my worth and value and as I have learned to recognize the signs that the old stories are at work.

Instead, I work at feeding new stories that allow me to find my value and worth in myself. The more I am able to embrace that, the less I need the approval of others, and the less I feel the need to make myself into a chameleon to please everyone around me. I still don’t enjoy the disapproval or dislike of others, but it no longer threatens my world.

Now my personal mythology would be more like this:

I have worth and value by virtue of my creation and existence. I was made in the image of the Divine just like every other human. Although I am imperfect, I do my best to live into that image of the Divine that is in me, and I am loved just as I am.

While the approval and love of others feels good, it is not necessary for me to have value. I do not need to re-make myself into anything I am not in order to please other people.

Knowing myself loved and valued for who I am allows me to bring more of my best to my relationships because they don’t depend on my need for approval. This inner self-confidence and self-love are therefore valuable traits to cultivate.

That’s a big change in personal mythology, and it has had a profound impact on my life. But I never would have recognized this mythology or had the strength to change it if I had not had my world collapse around my ears and been so determined to create something completely new out of the rubble.

This new mythology is just one example of the gold that healing from that collapse has brought me.

Questions to ponder

Do you know what stories make up your own personal mythology?

Have you ever experienced a collapse of your world that allowed you to see some of the stories that make up the foundational mythology of your life? If so, what impact did seeing those stories have for you? Have you changed any of those stories as a result?

If there are fault lines appearing in your life, it is likely that one or more stories from your mythology that make up your foundation are not supporting you well. How might you investigate the foundation in the areas under the fault lines to look for unhelpful stories that could be corrected before collapse?

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