Personal Stories: Laura McHale

There I was, teaching my first class as a professor, a course I designed from scratch, loving the topic, genuinely excited about sharing it, trying on a new professional identity I am proud of, and having awesome moments of genuine connection with my students, even as I was interacting with them all remotely (due to the coronavirus). So, what could go wrong? Well, a bit of negative feedback – which was presented to me with graciousness and tact. But even so, suddenly I was in high stakes, the old internal narrative activated. The surface issue was a concern over possibly getting negative course evaluations. But the old internal narrative that was activated was deeper and almost primal.

I am a psychologist and emphasize mindfulness practices with my clients as well as my students. But there I was with my heart racing, hands wobbling, along with all the other unpleasant somatic visitations that accompany adrenaline. Even though the feeling was familiar, it seemed almost otherworldly in its intensity. This small piece of feedback jolted me, as if it been an insult.

The thing is that I have a healthy amount of Oppose. In fact, I love a good Oppose. Thoughtfully and compassionately done, Opposes make my heart sing. They poke holes in my arguments, allow me to consider new possibilities, get me out of taking ideas for granted, allow me to practice being brave, and enable transformative learning. I am practically a poster child for Oppose. I’m also an academic. I know I need a few good Opposes to help make my class be as good as it can be.

And yet, there I was, suddenly retrenching. Revisiting an old internal narrative, and one I have done so much work to address and heal and transform:

“You will be harshly judged.”

Oh, how it still makes me cringe, even though I know now not to suppress the old internal narrative. Like Rumi’s Guest House, we should think of these old internal narratives as visitors – every morning a new arrival, whether a dark thought, a shame, or a crowd of sorrows – all to be welcomed.

“You will be harshly judged.”

Of course, it’s not just the old internal narrative, but the cruel baggage that comes with it. Inherent in that old internal narrative and its menacing tone are the despaired imaginings of the judged. Suddenly, the image of the self is one of messiness, loneliness, desperation, unimportance and shame, all departing imminently on the express train to Abandonment. 

My goodness, am I really back here again? Especially when there are other new internal narratives, more grounded in my values of compassion, honesty, kindness, and humour?

I went back to my notebooks from the childhood story training last year, and unearthed those new internal narratives, and allowed myself to read them, experience them, believe them. 

It is safe to love and be loved

I am brave, joyful, and wise

I am deliciously complex, worthy, expressive, soulful, magnetic, and lovable

In doing so, I remembered a valuable lesson from Sarah’s book about needing to dig even deeper. Sarah quoted Margaret Wheatley: “When it is time for a new Story to emerge, holding on to our past…only intensifies our dilemma.”

I know I still have unfinished business with my own Story. And it’s been showing up in more ways than I have wanted to acknowledge. Especially during this time of Covid-19.  

I read recently how the psychologist and marriage therapist Esther Perel described the crisis as a “relationship accelerator.”  This helped me to consider whether the crisis has also been an accelerator of more general anxiety, which for me has felt a bit like being on a pendulum: 

  • Professionally, I keep thinking that I am supposed to be saying brilliant and helpful things all the time – when I really often feel powerless and inept. 
  • Or how I keep daydreaming about being “rescued” – by a fabulous job offer, by moving to another country, by magically giving up chocolate and wine – even as I often wallow and don’t seem interested in doing much of anything at all. 
  • Or how sometimes I seem to believe that loneliness and poverty are my inevitable fate, and I often organize my life around that defensive posturing – even as I am blessed with a sexy and committed partner whom I adore, laughter and joy, and a gorgeous home.

I realize that these disparities are the clues of the work that still needs to be done. Little hints from the universe of unfinished business to attend to, of healing that is ongoing and continual. The ability to love the child is still unfinished, the old internal narratives loop and retrench, and doorways open and close again. I do need to dig deeper.

But there is gratitude in this knowledge too. Rumi wrote in his lovely poem that each of the visitors to the Guest House “has been sent as a guide from beyond.” I view Sarah’s book and childhood story work in much the same way. Like the very best guides, they show the way and illuminate the path.

Written by Laura McHale, Coach and Story-guide