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Perspective and My Sister

​​As most of you know, I think (and talk) a lot about perspective – how the narratives with which we approach life determine our experiences.  

Quick kid story: My 10-year-old daughter knows my thoughts around perspectives well. She told me the other day: “It was hot today but I was fine. It’s weird how some days it’s really hot and it’s okay, but other days it’s really hot but yucky and miserable.”

I nodded, focused on cooking. 

After considering her comment for a moment she kept going: “Oh, I know what you’re gonna say Daddy. You’re gonna say that it’s all just in how I think about it. That it’s like the water that can feel either cold or hot depending how cold or hot I am. And when it’s hot outside, I can decide to think of it as either fine, or bad, and I’ll be happy or sad depending.”

I smiled and shrugged. “I wasn’t going to say anything,,” I said, “but that sounds pretty wise to me.”

Anyway, nothing new here: Our perspective around ongoing occurrences, and even more importantly, the narratives we tell ourselves around important events (and traumas), change our lives. Our stories about experiences impact us far more than the experiences themselves. Simple as that.

And today I realized that my sister Rachel taught me a lot about how our perspectives and narratives determine our lives – though not in the way that one might think. Today is her birthday… it would have been her 44th. 

In case you didn’t know, life is full of adversity. I was going to list examples – from those well outside of ourselves, to those that impact us directly, to those within ourselves – but I’m pretty sure you can fill in relevant life struggles yourself.

My sister Rachel took each struggle and wrapped it in a narrative that the world was out to get her. From clients to exes to family to Pat Sajak (really) – she was their enemy. In her mind, the world was a terrible, evil place… even worse, the ills of the world were aimed at her.

It took me a few years after her death to understand this piece – and to realize that it was her narratives that made her suicide make sense to her. If one truly believes that the world is built to make him/her miserable, what hope can one have? And therefore, when I realized that narratives create our lives, it made her decision make sense to me, too – which turned my experience of the trauma into one of deep, sorrowful compassion.

(Yes, a fun meta piece icymi: my realization around how perceptions change our experience led to my perception changing my experience).

Changing our narratives about the occurrences in our lives can be very difficult, in that it usually requires a denial of ourselves – the courage to tell ourselves that our stories and our beliefs are wrong.  But I’ve found the effort is always worth it. The shift in narrative can change our lives – can shift fear into acceptance; anger into compassion.

What are you angry or fearful about right now? Can you examine the story you’re telling yourself that’s causing the negativity? And can you find the humility or the courage to allow yourself to be wrong? To look at things in a different way?

Considering Rachel, I do want to acknowledge that we can’t always change our perspectives, especially in the context of mental illness. I’m reminded of the studies done around mental illness and perceived facial expression: people with depression are far more sensitive to sadness in facial expressions; people with anxiety are especially sensitive to fearful facial expressions.  Ie, perceptions that determine our experience (and even our emotional wellbeing) can run far deeper than we are conscious of.

Happy birthday sis, I miss you. May your memory be a blessing for others, as it is for me… especially for those who are struggling, suffering, or in despair.