The following series of letters were written by Clinical Psychologist Emma, (a.k.a The Psychology Mum) for her two young children. Follow her on Instagram to see some of her fantastic mental health doodles (see below).
“I value every story I’ve heard.”
I feel very lucky that my story has you both in it. At this point in my story, I’ve worked as a clinical psychologist for well over a decade. In that time my life has been filled with the stories people have told me about their life and why they need help. I feel privileged to have heard many stories, from diverse cultures and backgrounds and I feel honoured that people have trusted me enough to share their stories. Often they’ve told very few people, if anyone at all, their story. Sometimes I have even been the first person they have shared parts of their story with.
The stories I have heard have filled me in equal measures with fear, hope, sadness and joy, and I have learned something from every story. Each one is unique, but the more I’ve heard the more I’ve realised that common themes run through them, regardless of background, race, wealth or sex. Themes of humanity. Themes that come up again and again and have influenced my story as the chapters have advanced. From the stories I’ve heard, I’ve learned about what it is to be human: what makes people happy, what makes them sad and what helps when things go wrong. I’ve heard hundred, possibly thousands of stories, and yet, with every story I hear I hear something new, for nobody can really be an expert in human experience and all the depths and breadths this encompasses. We are always learning what it is to be us.
I value every story I’ve heard. I hope, in writing these letters, that some of what I’ve learned from these stories can help you in writing your stories, which are only just beginning.
“We are always learning what it is to be us.”
Writing your story
You write some of your story, but some is written for you by others and by luck, coincidence, timing, or fate if you choose to see it that way.
For the parts you can write, make sure you write them with conviction and belief. Choose the words that you want on the page, not the words others tell you to write or that you scribe by fatalistically following a narrative. Think of the values and experiences you want in your story and the characters you want to bring into it. Choose to move the narrative towards the story you want, rather than running away from the parts you want to avoid.
Do not follow paths because others tell you you to or merely as you think you should. Choose the storyline that most fits your believes, whether many walk with you along a well worn path, or you walk in solitude through overgrowth creating your own path.
You will write things you regret, but we are all learning to be authors of our own story and no one is an expert, regardless of what you may think. A story without mistakes is a fairytale. So notice what you regret and why, and plan how you would structure the sentence or develop the plot differently next time. Then start a new chapter, leaving the regret behind the last full stop in the previous chapter.
When the writing seems out of control and the story takes an unwanted twist, think about which parts you can continue to edit. At these times it may feel pointless writing, as the story rages on seemingly unfettered. When this happens we can sometimes only write our part in a bigger story, But there are nearly always some words you can add to your story. Can you choose the next sentence in response? Or can you create another subplot where you feel in control? Or perhaps you need to seek a trusted co-author to guide you back into writing in your own words?
Losing authorship of your own story can challenge what you believe and shake you fundamentally as a person. When this happens, taking charge of the pen can be difficult. You may need to start with only a few words but the more you write the easier the ink flows, enabling the you to feel more in control of the story, even when you feel the main authorship lies elsewhere.
So stay on track of what you want in your story. But when the story verges off track keep writing the words you can, even if it is effortful and even if it is just one word to begin with.
“You will write things you regret.”
Your story won’t be all nice. You will feel bad, sad and anxious at times. These emotions aren’t pleasant to experience, but feeling this is an inevitable part of every human’s story. And although I wish I could protect you, there are likely to be parts to your story that you, and I, don’t want to happen.
I have heard stories that no one should have to experience and sometimes held back the tears as they’ve been told to me. But I have also been surprised and amazed at resilience in the face of these events; that despite their sad stories, the protagonists still find joy, still have hope and still laugh. I have learned that people usually manage through the chapters they want to rewrite, and often manage better than they anticipate they will.
Some people even consider that these unpleasant experiences, or unwanted parts of their stories, make them develop as a person. They have told me that, as a result of experiencing tragedy, they increased their insight and empathy, reevaluated what is of importance to them and changed their future story accordingly.
So bad things will happen, but don’t wait for them to happen or miss out chapters for fear of them: most things we worry about don’t ever occur. When these unwanted events do occur, most people handle them well. So write your story with the knowledge that you will be able to deal with difficult events and emerge from them to continue your story, possibly even with a greater depth of writing than you did before.
“Sometimes the least kind person in a story is their own inner voice.”
Be kind. Kindness is powerful. Kindness is compassionate, heals wounds and empowers people. Don’t be fooled into thinking kindness is weak. Kindness is strong. It often takes more strength to be the kind one, when all around you are caught up in a wave of group mentality.
I have heard many stories about cruelness breaking people down. But I have also heard how kindness has broken the patterns in their stories, and built people up to enable them to trust, love and live again. My work, in listening to these stories, has been to show kindness and compassion to enable these stories to be be spoken and, ultimately, develop further.
From birth, we need kindness and compassion. Kindness and compassion promotes brain development and is thought to be crucial to the ability to empathise, which makes us compassionate humans. Kindness creates bonds, makes people feel safe and secure enough to face a world that can be a be fraught with risks and dangers. Kindness enables people to trust, open up, and helps you truly understand them. Kindness draws people to you and make them feel safe. Throughout life kindness to your self and others promotes mental wellness. Kindness and compassion brings people together, instead of dividing them.
At difficult times, kindness is crucial. When bad things happen, seek kind people. And yes, people do bad things, but most people are kind and most people come together to help and most people want peace when bad things happen. Counteract hatred and cruelty with kindness, compassion and love.
Sometimes the least kind person in a story is their own inner voice. Many people have unlimited kindness for others while inside they are cruel and unkind to themselves. Treat yourself with as much kindness as you do others, be gentle when you make mistakes and notice when you are critical. Your brain will thank you for this kindness as it activates soothing brain systems that make you feel safe and relaxed. In other words, kindness will make you feel good.
So be kind in your stories, and be as kind to yourself as you are to the other characters who pass through your book.
“At difficult times, kindness is crucial.”
Your story doesn’t exist in isolation, its words, pages and chapters thread through many other people’s stories. People will come into your story, some will stay in it for chapters, some maybe just for a sentence, and some, hopefully the most special ones, for the whole story.
Your words and actions will become part of other people’s stories. Think about what kind of character you want to be in that story and act with these values as much as your can. We can’t always fully influence how our character appears in that person’s story or the impact it has: their chapters preceding our introduction often influence this. Bear this in mind and try not to be disappointed when you can’t write someone else’s story in the way you had hoped.
We are always influencing other stories and a small act of kindness, merely a word or two in your story, can become a chapter in someone else’s book. However, it’s acts of unkindness that really perpetrate other’s stories. The lady who still startles when someone speaks to her because of cruel words at school; the man who fears meeting people due to past unkindness. The perpetrators often forget their cruel words or unkind actions as they are edited out of their stories or overwritten with new chapters. But for the recipient these words have shaped their stories, and exert an influence on every future entry, despite their best attempts to forget that chapter.
Remember that, in writing your story, you are also becoming a part of other stories. Act as you’d like to be portrayed and influence these stories as positively as you can, through kindness, compassion and actions you believe in.
“We are always influencing other stories and a small act of kindness, merely a word or two in your story, can become a chapter in someone else’s book.”
You don’t always know the whole story. Often I’ve heard stories that people have not even shared with their closest family. Hearing the difference between the book cover and the inside story has given me insight into how much goes underneath the surface picture that we see. Approach each new person in your story with a non judgemental manner and open mind. Do not dismiss people based on what you see. Instead, stop and think about what their background story may be, it is usually more complex than you think.
I frequently hear stories of people being dismissed or judged by people they meet. They often have experienced kindness too, but it is these unkind, or sometimes just unintended, acts that bind deeper to the narrative of their story. By taking the time to listen and consider there might be more beneath the surface, then you will see that this is a person that is trying hard to keep their story going, despite these judgement blows that impact on them all too frequently. Approaching this person non-judgementally, with an open mind, will make you a more compassionate and kind part of their story.
Also remember that people will judge you, based on what they perceive they see. But they also do not know your whole story. Often, what people see is a reflection of their story rather than yours, and where their stories have taken them in the past. Although it is hard, try not to incorporate views that are based on misperceptions and bias into your character or let it influence your story.
Take with you the knowledge that we are all prone to judgment and bias. Acknowledging this and noticing how this effects you will help you keep your mind open to other possibilities and go beyond the immediate picture that is presented to you. It will also help when people judge you. By understanding there are many factors external to you which influence their judgement, you can help ensure these views do not become an internalised part of you and your story, enabling you to deflect these views without them hindering or steering the course of your story.
To read more from The Psychology Mum and see some of her mental health doodle follow her on Instagram.