In her entertaining memoir Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, Lori Gottlieb writes that “therapy is about understanding the self that you are. But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself–to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
We are all trapped by the stories we tell ourselves, and the negative patterns of behavior they reinforce. One of my most self-defeating stories is that I am an introvert with a capital I. I am fine with people I am close to one-on-one or in small groups, but when it comes to larger gatherings of strangers, my social anxiety takes over and I shut down.
How many times have I stood on the edge of a gathering of interesting people, unable (or unwilling) to even try to make contact? My body reacts: I sweat profusely; my mind goes blank. I simply can’t think of anything to say, so I don’t say anything, and I leave the gathering just as alone as I arrived. What choice do I have in the matter? I’m an introvert. Done deal.
The thing I have discovered is that this story can be true and still be wrong. It’s true that I am an introvert, and it is also true that I am shy. But that does not mean that I can excuse myself from talking to people, especially when my own happiness is at stake. When I am feeling socially isolated, or when I need to network for the sake of career-building, I must find a way to honor my instincts while still challenging my behavior. I have to find a way to connect.
Gottlieb goes on to tell the story of a cartoon her therapist mentions, in which a man is standing with his hands on the bars of a prison which is open on both sides. Staring despairingly through the bars, he is so focused on his imprisonment that he doesn’t realize he is actually free, if only he would look sideways at the open air around him. There are other paths to freedom, if he could only expand his awareness and see them.
As Gottlieb’s therapist says, “All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out–as long as we’re willing to see it.”
How can I choose to step around the bars of my self-imprisonment and walk forward? One avenue out is therapy, in which a nonjudgmental and compassionate professional can make me aware of my own power to change. Gottlieb’s title says it all: Maybe I should see someone.