What is your personal myth?
We were engaged in our departure ceremony. I was leaving the nest—being launched into the world as a newly minted therapist. As per the agreements of our ritual, each member wrote down the effect I’d had on them.
One by one, my fellow therapists spoke kindly and generously of how much they liked my work and of what they’d learned from our time together. One woman said she was reminded of her husband and father and another said she hoped her two boys might grow up to be like me.
After reading from their bits of parchment, they folded their paper and placed it in the specially chosen container: a chrome-plated vessel, about the size of a large coffee cup with a wooden top. The metal was chosen for its reflection and sturdiness, the wood for its warmth. My coworkers agreed that the container was an apt representation of me and what I had brought to the practice.
I was dumbfounded.
I’d spent the better part of those two and a half years waiting for my pink slip, silently wondering when they would get wise to their mistake. I knew I had done well with my clients—oddly enough, that was the easy part. The tough part, for me, was fitting in among my colleagues. After all, I had spent the last 13 years of my life slinging drinks in a dive bar on the east side of Manhattan. How was I now supposed to trade my bar boots for my brains and go to work at a fancy Madison Avenue private practice?
None of this added up. Born to a 15-year-old mother who was unceremoniously kicked out of high school for being pregnant, most of my family assumed I would be trading crib bars for cell bars before I turned 18. The life I was creating was not supposed to be my story.
My wife said time and again that it was all in my head—that the people at my internship seemed to really like and respect me. She consoled me often during my time at the practice and tried to quell my insecurities.
But how could she be right and my feelings of being unwelcome be so wrong?
The words my colleagues spoke that day told me that my personal myth had blinded me to what was otherwise a wonderful experience. It made me wonder what else I’d missed in my life.
Our personal myths are not something most of us think about, much less discuss. Our myths are at the core of our beliefs about who we are, what we are worth, what we get, and what we don’t get. They are the backdrop, the theme, and the through-line of all the experiences of our lives.
Our myths tell us who we are and where we belong.
Difficulties arise when our myths fuel limiting beliefs about ourselves or they no longer match up with who we’ve become.
When therapy clients report feeling stuck, I will often help them to discover their personal myth. I say discover because our myths often live under the surface. We tend to be wholly unaware of them and how problematic they can be.
I can say personally, as I look back across the expanse of my life, my myth of not being welcome, of being the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, has played a part in almost every relationship and experience I can recall. Over the years, it has kept me from asking women out who I deemed out of my league and it has kept me stagnant in career paths for fear that higher levels of success were not for me. It certainly kept me from feeling the level of kindness and respect my colleagues at my internship felt for me.
From my experience, our personal myths can be unearthed in two ways. We can look at our lives through an anthropologist’s lens, or we can look at what I call our foundational questions—questions we ask from the very beginning of our lives.
The anthropologist’s lens:
Discovering your myth through an anthropologist’s lens means looking at certain aspects of your life to see if your myth presents itself.
It will show up in the subjects, stories, and themes you are drawn to. I have my clients look at the movies they love, the songs they are inspired by, and the books they just can’t put down. When we see our stories reflected in art, we are captivated by the sameness. We feel a sense of normalization when we see another who has struggled as we have struggled, lost as we have lost, or loved as we have loved.
My personal myth presents itself in the films I cannot turn away from if they are on. Show me “Rudy,” “Braveheart,” or any of the first four “Rocky” films, and I am in the chair until the credits roll, clutching a box of tissues. For me, these movies carry the theme of the unwelcome—the guy no one thought could or would make it. I saw myself in a “5 foot nothin'” football star, a leader of an upstart rebellion, and a small-time ham and egg boxer, who wanted to know for the first time in his life, that he “…weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
The foundational questions:
While our personal myths will show up in the subjects and themes we are drawn to, they can also be found by asking some basic and foundational questions. The questions we ask are preverbal and from the early years of life. They are innate and seemingly part of our very nature.
I tell my clients that these are the questions they were asking when they came through the gates of life and continued to ask through their formative years. They are answered by family of origin, extended family, and our community.
These questions include but are not limited to:
Am I loved? Am I safe? Am I enough? Am I too much? Am I welcome? Am I worthy? Am I important? Am I wanted?
If answered in the affirmative, you felt loved, valued, and safe. If answered in the negative or not at all, you incurred a primary wound that you have probably spent a good deal of your life trying to heal. Most of my clients resonate with one or two foundational questions and after some thought and contemplation, settle on the one that is the door to their personal myth.
Using myself as the guinea pig, I tried on all the foundational questions. For a time I thought mine might be “Am I enough?” but “Am I welcome?” was the question that resonated the most and started in my mother’s womb. After all, what poor 15-year-old girl, family, or community would truly welcome the birth of a child into such desperate circumstances?
The plight of the unwelcome child turned, quite naturally, into the romantic notion of the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Odds stacked against him, with little if any resources, that kid still had a fighting chance—or at least he did in the movies. Across the stories of my life, I see where the romantic notion became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the case of my internship, it clouded my experiences with self-doubt and insecurity.
Left in shadow, our myths grow and thrive. They transform our beliefs about who we are and what we deserve. When we identify with them, they become the lens we view the world through, profoundly affecting everything we see and hear. Eventually, they turn into cyclical, self-fulfilling prophecies that keep us mired in limiting beliefs that inhibit our ability to reach our full potential.
As I sat listening to my colleagues, I realized how much I’d missed out on in those two and a half years. My myth had affected my experience and I was emboldened to take responsibility for it and change it.
My limiting beliefs found their roots in the story of the unwelcome, so I turned up the volume on the narratives that had grown out of my myth and began to re-author a new story about who I am and what I deserve.
I’m not going to say I am all better now—that the myth of the unwelcome kid from the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t show up from time to time, because it does. Now, when it makes an appearance, I meet it with kindness, compassion, and understanding. I picture the child I was and welcome him into the fold of my existence.
In those moments, I give to him the one thing he didn’t get: the understanding that he is always welcome and that there will always be space for him in my heart.
Author: Lair Torrent
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Travis May