Let me tell you a story
What is the very first story you remember hearing?
Was it a once-upon-a-time fairy-tale, a story told by a grandparent, or perhaps a parable from a religious book? Perhaps it was the story of bunny-ears told to teach you how to tie your shoelaces, or maybe a tale you created yourself and acted out with the help of your toys or playmates.
Was there a moral to that story? What made that tale so distinctive for you that you still remember it after all these years?
By comparison, do you remember anything else you heard the same day you heard that story way back when, or even from that week or month? No? That’s because the human brain isn’t hardwired for facts, it’s hardwired for story.
Allegory, parables, metaphors, fairy stories and fables — the way we learn best is to find the nuggets of wisdom, truth, or inspiration tucked inside an unforgettable story. Good stories activate the sensory perception parts of our brain and stimulate our empathy for others. And, while we’re absorbed in a tale that engages our imagination and emotions, our mind sifts through the narrative for the lesson, and is much more likely to remember it than it would be to retain a dry fact.
In my working life as a Counseling Psychologist, English teacher, change management trainer and fiction author, I’ve seen over and over again how individuals use stories to make sense of the chaos of experience. The stories we hear shape our brains — they literally change us at the neurological and bio-chemical level — and influence our attitudes and character.
In twenty years of doing therapy with clients, I’ve also learned that people are much more open to listening to stories than to lectures or a logical recounting of facts. They’re less inclined to get defensive when life truths are woven into a story about someone or something else, than when I challenge them directly. Individuals, couples and families — everyone gets it more easily when it’s tucked inside an enjoyable tale.
There is a long and noble history of teachers and counsellors using entertaining stories to instruct and enlighten. In psychology, many therapeutic approaches — such as Narrative Therapy, Jungian Therapy, the “scripts” of TA, Eriksonian hypnotherapy and cognitive-behavioural approaches — also incorporate the use of metaphors and allegories.
I recently decided to compile some of my most useful stories in book form, and to each story added an analysis and a set of practical action steps to help the reader absorb and implement the lessons in their lives. I’m delighted that readers have reported that the book has inspired and motivated them in their journey to self-improvement and personal growth.
This story, Buffalo in the Boma, is one that deals with the danger of letting negativity in one area of our life cloud all the rest of it. I hope you enjoy it!
Buffalo in the Boma
Do you allow one bad event to ruin the entire day, one negative aspect about yourself to tarnish your whole self-concept, or nervousness about one thing to spread into anxiety about everything? Then grab this buffalo tale by the tail!
Like many people who live in Africa, I take occasional vacations to one of our many magnificent game reserves. It’s wonderful to see how intricately everything in the ecosystem is connected, but sometimes, the ecologists who manage the reserve go out of their way to make sure everything doesn’t connect. Or at least, doesn’t connect too directly or too soon.
Once, while we were out on a game drive in one of these reserves, the game ranger drove us to a boma in a distant corner of the park. A boma is simply an enclosure for animals. It can be large or small, but its main purpose is to keep those particular animals from wandering off and getting lost, or joining the general population of their species.
This boma was enormous and was the temporary home of a small group of African buffalo which had been brought in from another game reserve to be introduced to this park.
While it was a great opportunity to see these impressive, intimidating creatures up close (because it’s not usually easy to spot them in the wild), I was puzzled as to why they were being held in the boma rather than being allowed to wander freely.
The ranger explained that this was a quarantine zone of sorts, where they could ensure the animals were healthy before releasing them into the greater park ecosystem. New animals could carry diseases and pests to which the local herds had not yet built up an immunity. If just one infected buffalo was allowed into the wider park, the entire species could contract the disease and their population could be decimated.
In turn, the predator and companion species that depended on the buffalo for survival would be negatively impacted, and the vegetation that those animals typically fed on would over-grow, sending the grasslands into a state of imbalance.
They simply could not allow one animal to wreak such havoc, and so newly arrived animals were kept separate until proven healthy. Incidentally, this also gave them a chance to adapt to the new territory, and to build up their own immunity, before being turned loose.
Negative thoughts, attitudes, occurrences, feelings and behaviors are like new buffalo. They have a right to exist — indeed, we can’t prevent them from occurring — but we need to keep them fenced so that they don’t contaminate everything.
Ring-fence negativity so that the contagion doesn’t spread through all of your life.
Maybe this morning you had a hectic drive into work through the traffic, and it’s left you feeling stressed? Unless you make a conscious effort to separate and isolate that stress, it can spread through your whole day, and even affect others when, for example, you snap at an assistant, or are short with a customer, or come home and take it out on your family.
Do you have a pimple on your nose, or have you gained a pound? Stick those perceptions in the boma — quick, before you start rating your entire appearance, and then your whole self, as unappealing, unattractive, or disgusting.
Were you trying to eat healthily to lose a few pounds, but you slipped up and ate a slice of cake? Draw a limiting line around that slice so that you stop the behavior from spreading. Don’t think: Oh well, I ate a piece, I may as well eat the rest of the cake, and write off healthy eating for the rest of this day, or even this week. Do think: I made a mistake. I’m starting again fresh this minute.
Are you worried about an upcoming challenge? Watch out — anxiety is a particularly virulent disease. Unless you keep it quarantined, it can generalize and spread to every aspect of your life, leaving you a hostage to future fears.
1. When something bad happens in your life, do you create a generalized belief based on that? It might be something along the lines of:
Life is hard.
2. Ring-fence that thought as if it were as dangerous as a buffalo with foot-and-mouth disease. A great way to do this is to change your language so that it describes a specific, time-limited event, rather than a general, all-pervasive life rule, or belief about yourself.
Rather than: I’m stupid. say I made a mistake.
Life is hard. Today was hard.
I’m unlucky. That was unlucky.
I’m ugly. I have a pimple.
Do you see the difference between these two ways of thinking and talking to yourself? The one tears you down with overwhelming and permanent negativity. The other acknowledges the challenge, but doesn’t allow it to spread.
Don’t allow specific negative experiences to over-generalize into broad beliefs.
3. Sometimes, the criticism and insults come from others.
Firstly, remind yourself that their saying it’s so doesn’t make it any truer than saying the world is flat makes that so. Secondly, stick that horrible sucker (the belief, not the person!) into a thought-and-feelings boma. Don’t let it gallop into the reserve that is you where it can rampage about, spreading damage.
4. If you like, you can walk around the virtual perimeter and examine the species within, and decide how useful or valid that feedback may be.
For example, your partner might complain, “You’re always so impatient with the kids!”
Put that comment in quarantine — don’t allow it to infect you with a general belief that, “I’m a bad parent.”
Now think calmly about the comment. It’s only an opinion. Do you think it’s accurate? Is there a kernel of truth in it? If so, is it always true of you, or only sometimes? What do you want to do about it?
The great thing about this technique is that it’s possible to change specific behaviors or attitudes. If you allow the contagion to spread until you are negative about your whole self, or dissatisfied with the entirety of your life, however, then changing becomes an overwhelmingly big task. So big, that you’re unlikely even to begin.
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