It’s that time of year again where many of us engage in some reflection, and we coaches have many exercises to choose from in helping us think about who we are and who we want to become. One I’ve been thinking about this week is reframing your story. Because as the novelist John Barth said, “the story of your life is not your life, it’s your story.”
In this exercise we think of a challenge or a challenging period in our lives that we survived. We consider what skills we relied upon and how they served us. We then think about how we are using those skills now – it’s a post-traumatic growth practice. And it can help us to reframe and reclaim our own narrative.
This year, I want to share my story with you in the hopes that it may resonate or help you in some way.
When I was very young, I felt the light inside me. In my memory (or my imagination though I’ve come to see those as having more in common than I once believed), the world was indeed light. And I experienced my own light as a source of personal joy and warmth.
My understanding of the world changed quickly when I was five, as so many children of divorce or people who have experienced trauma may also know. What really changed was my relationship to my light (though I couldn’t have named it back then). The light was still inside me and I still used it for warmth, but as a survival skill.
In dark moments, I noticed that when I shined my light on other people, they seemed somehow better. They smiled more in response to my smile, they laughed more in response to my laugh, and it seemed like they felt better. And that made me feel better.
I suppose this happened first in my immediate family. Some of them described me as being the one who brought the fun or the party, the one who delighted and entertained, or the one who always lit up the room. Like many things about which we are unconscious, it wasn’t a deliberate act to shine my light on other people. It’s just what I learned to do so that things didn’t seem so dark. One day though, one of my sisters told me, “It is so warm in your light, Ali, but when you turn your light away, it gets really cold.”
I didn’t understand what she meant back then, but I do now. I could only shine my light on one person at a time, and only for as long as it was making someone else feel good, which in turn made me feel better and like I knew who I was. I experienced relationships like this: if I shine my light on you, then you will show me the best part of you – something I will call your light. And somewhere in that overlap of my light and yours, I will find myself.
When the combination of the light stopped making me feel good or believing I was still on a path to get any closer to my true self, or when it went dark, I left. Turning my light elsewhere.
I hurt a lot of people this way.
My deepest friendships were affected by this and so were many, many unsuccessful relationships.
Of course, no relationship can survive if that is the foundation. The whole them needing my light and me needing their light to find myself only got me further away from knowing who I was. The real me sat minimized in the shadows.
In my late 40s, my marriage ended. In the beginning, our relationship took its usual course. I shined my light on him and in its warmth, he shined. And that made me feel better.
But after a while, I needed to shine my light elsewhere. On friends. On work colleagues and clients. On my child. On my dying father. And each time, I saw another version of myself in the colliding light and I had to ask myself, who am I? Who am I other than the person who shines light on others?
When my marriage ended, I left a grey British sky for the beaches of Southern California. Land of light. Because I already had one of the best coaches ever, I hired a therapist for my head and my body, a meditation teacher, and an energy healer. I taught my Brittany Spaniel who was a trained bird dog to sit on a paddle board while we soaked in the light in Newport Beach. I bathed in light for four years.
My teachers and healers showed me how to bring the light back inside of me, how to practice a loving-kindness meditation, and how to use my own light to heal me. I learned to find joy and warmth once again in my own light. And I learned to love and connect with my family and friends in genuine care, profound respect and unbridled laughter, with or without me doing my old job of shining the light.
Light brings me joy and keeps me warm. I can shine it all around all the time and I don’t lose myself. And I don’t do it because of how it makes others feel. I know my light helps others in their own journeys, and I have gratitude for that, but it is not why I shine light.
I learned that I don’t need to be the light because I am light.
How do you take something you used as a survival skill to create a more empowered you?