Coping and healing have a lot to do with imagination. Getting through hard times depends on our ability to imagine that things can be different.
I say imagination, but I don’t mean a purely intellectual exercise of making up stuff. I’m talking about what you feel when you immerse yourself completely in a book or a movie, and then you come back to the reality of your present moment and your room. For a moment, everything you’ve come back to seems unfamiliar because you’ve been living in a different place.
The imagination I’m talking about is our capacity to realize the richness of what could be and to feel ourselves connected to those possibilities.
This capacity is the basis of hope, especially when things seem unbearable. Imagination and hope make it possible to take distance from the things we keep on telling ourselves, and eventually to challenge and change them.
This point is especially true of self-narratives – those things we tell ourselves about who we are. Dysfunctional self-narratives – stories of guilt, shame, inadequacy and helplessness – are widespread. They all involve, in some form or another, a narrowing of our sense of possibility, of our ability to take distance from our own story and regard it as a story.
These stories have a history and exist for a reason. They were once normal reactions to difficult circumstances. They provided a way of coping. Even though those circumstances are long gone, we may still react as if we were facing the same threats or constraints. As if we were still a helpless child looking for care and stability, or a teenager looking for affection and validation.
What makes dysfunctional self-narratives so damaging is the fact that they become part of our perceived identity. They undermine our capacity to realize and feel that things can be otherwise, that there are paths opening in front of us. We may tell ourselves that this too shall pass, but on some deep visceral-emotional level our bodies won’t feel it.
As a result, we don’t react to the present moment but to things that somehow keep us captive in the past. It’s the mechanism of trauma. Gabor Maté calls these coping mechanisms “the stupid friend”: they were once helping us cope in a specific context, but they cannot realize that we’re no longer in that context and that what once helped is hurting now.
We can reject and despise these mechanisms for making us miserable. Or we can take a look at what they did for us and why they appeared in the first place. We may even thank them for their help, no matter how toxic that help feels now. We cannot really let go unless we understand what exactly we leave behind – and why.