Since telling my story, I have received an overwhelming response. Friends old, new and even strangers have met my vulnerability with encouragement, compassion and some very personal stories. These stories were generously shared with me not only by fellow parents of burn survivors or women recovering from pregnancy loss, but by survivors of adversity I have not experienced such as cancer or divorce. I have also been applauded through words such as “strong” and “inspiring.” This is humbling, especially when I recognize the incredible strength among the sources of these compliments.
The persona I present to you through writing is inspiring because I tell of my adversity through the lens of positive psychology. Several times along my journey, my struggle has seemed insurmountable. In these dark moments, my solace has been the thought that our negative emotions exist for a reason and sometimes we need to acknowledge them. Yes, there are tools we can use to fight our sadness, grief and anger but it is important to process our true emotions because we can only mask or numb the negative for so long before it manifests in maladaptive ways. I look back at these ugly but authentic moments I have had with compassion because we all struggle sometimes. Then, I intentionally focus on what I have gained from adversity, because this perspective allows growth. I am a careful storyteller not because I want you to view me in a particular light, but because this is what helps me move forward with optimism.
Given the strong connection many of you made with my reference to Brené Brown in my last post, this storytelling researcher has been on my mind. I am also excited about her new book because her work once inspired my perspective shift from victim to survivor. Recently, a colleague in the field of positive psychology shared an article from Oprah.com by Brown on the influence of storytelling. Here, Brown suggests crafting a positive self-narrative about our experiences, a practice I have found helpful in the aftermath of adversity. Self-compassion is what helps me to heal and reframing has powerfully influenced the beautiful perspective I choose to use when I tell my story.
I think back to a moment before William’s reconstructive surgery in preoperative testing. I encountered a nurse who was clearly passing a harsh judgment about my son’s injury, and in her presence, I allowed my feelings of shame and guilt to multiply. Yes, William’s injury did not happen on my watch. For a second, I can find relief from guilt by pointing my finger at the babysitter who had him near the stove. But naturally, I cannot resist rewinding the tape from that moment the pot of boiling water splashed on William and blame myself for not reviewing kitchen safety with the woman I hired. I have often chastised myself for needing her help in caring for my children in the first place. As his mother, William’s well-being is ultimately my responsibility and that day in pre-op, I allowed the nurse’s negative viewpoint to confirm my insecurities and then become my narrative. “She is right,” I told myself, “I am nothing more than a bad mother who burned her sweet little boy.”
This was a powerful negative narrative I held onto for a long time. My anxiety was then heightened not only by my haunting fear that another accident could occur, but by what other people thought about me. I couldn’t hide William’s scars and therefore I could not deny his injury in the way I could pretend I the pregnancy I had just lost never even occurred. Certain scars I carried were secretly etched within my heart, but William’s scars were my failure on public display. That is, until I realized it was up to me to teach my boy how to cope with the scars I was powerless to fix. It was for William that I chose to shift my perspective and let go of my guilt and shame. I could not rewrite history and change the course of events leading up to his accident, but surely I could have some influence on his future. I chose to help him develop a positive narrative about the scars he will carry for life. Only to influence my son, I had to recognize and believe in the beauty of my own scars.
Hence, I shifted to the perspective with which I tell my stories today. I have compassion for myself and now instead of viewing myself as “that bad mother who burned her child” or “that woman who did something wrong to cause another pregnancy loss,” I see myself as a resilient mother who loves her children and strives to parent them to the best of her ability. A dear friend of mine values the quote, “You are only as strong as you allow yourself to be.” I have always appreciated this phrase she has kept beneath her email signature since we were in high school. Long before I knew about the research behind resilience, I was inspired by the thought that a friend I have always viewed as resilient is strong simply because she allows herself to be. Therefore, I have always known I can be strong too, if only I allow myself to be.
To this thought, I suggest that my story is only as beautiful as I allow it to be. I intentionally choose to tell it through concepts of positive psychology such as gratitude or the resilience I have gained, because I know this is the one choice that is mine to make. My positive self-narrative maintains my hope that I am strong enough to face whatever tomorrow brings and helps me manage those inevitable moments of anxiety. So in response to all of you who have been kind enough to shower me with praise I ask, "How do you tell your story? What have you overcome and how has it made you stronger, more resilient and therefore more beautiful?"