Writing the “Stories” to Right the World 

Jan Ögren

Photo by Kaplan

Story-telling is not just for bedtimes. We tell ourselves stories constantly. We are the main characters in the drama we create, which we call our lives. Often we think that who we are is already established or beyond our control, but with a few simple edits we can become different people.

When I refer to the stories we tell ourselves, I’m talking about the inner dialogue that often gets mistaken for “truth.” We might discount it as just thinking. But if you start listening to the voices in your head you’ll notice you’re creating stories: “I need to feed the cats, put out the recycling, and remember to grab my briefcase before going to work.” It might not sound like an interesting story, but it’s a story as much as: “Once upon a time a girl in a red cape fed the cats, put the food scraps in the garden and picked up her basket to head to grandmother’s house.” 

Most of us are good in creating future fantasy stories like: “I’m going to be late and the boss is going to be mad. I’ll lose my job!” Our stories have dialogue too as we imagine other’s comments. “When Jasper said, ‘You can’t ask for that. Who do you think you are?’ I should have said, ‘I’m me and I’m worth it.’ Why did I just hang my head and take it again?” Often, not only do we write our own scripts, we write other people’s responses to us. For example: “I really need to settle this with Chris. But if I say, ‘I need to talk to you,’ Chris will walk away. Maybe I should try this evening. I’ll start with, ‘How was your day?’ Chris will say, ‘Busy as usual.’ Then I can respond, ‘Why don’t you tell me about it.’ Then I can casually slide into what I really need to say.” 

As I type on the computer, I’m creating a story in my head about how writing this article will encourage people to pay attention to their inner voices so that they can create more freedom in their lives and for those around them. This narrative helps me to actually spend the time crafting the article and enjoy doing it. If the tale I was telling myself went something like: “Everyone will think my article is not intellectual enough. They won’t like the story and they’ll think the exercises are dumb and won’t do them.” Those thoughts would depress my energy, leach away my creativity, ruin my joy in writing and may cause me to miss the deadline.

Jan Ögren, MA, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist, an international author and a storyteller. She works with clients to help them create loving stories to facilitate health and good relationships. Her love of storytelling came from her mother and her thirty plus year apprenticeship with Native American Healers. She presents at numerous conferences and workshops. You can view videos of her presentations and more of her writing, including Dragon Magic: Amazing Fables for all Ages, and at www.JanOgren.net. 

Do any of these inner-dialogues sound familiar? PAUSE. Listen to the story in your head right now. Who are the main characters, beside yourself? If a tiny fairy crawled up your shoulder, curled up by your ear, and listened to your personal thoughts, what would it hear?  What impression would it get of the main character? Is s/he adventurous? Stupid? Brilliant? Fun? Boring? Is s/he likely to succeed or fail? If the fairy whispered something in your ear, what would you expect it to say? What would you like it to say? 

Right now, listen to yourself. If you can actually write your responses down it will help clarify what your personal narrative is. You can use a journal if you have one, or make notes for yourself on your phone or computer. Write what your story is now. What is the setting, and the motivation for the characters? (That is, where are you as you read this article? Why are you reading it? And what are you hoping to get from it?) Once you have answered these questions, then you can explore: how does the story you’re creating affect you? Does it make you feel good? Does it make it hard to get through the day? How will it affect your willingness to explore the suggestions and be open to the story you read here? Finally ask yourself: “Is there anything I want to change about this story?

Not only do we create narratives about ourselves, we are skilled at writing scripts for others. There was a classic experiment in education referred to as the Pygmalion Effect. The experimenters randomly chose certain students in each class. At the beginning of the school year the teachers were then told a story about these children. They were the smart ones. They’ll be easy to teach. You should expect them to really advance this year. The stories weren’t based on anything related to the individual child. Yet at the end of the school year, each child in the randomly preselected group was performing significantly better than the other students.

This demonstrated the power of writing a story about someone, before you even meet him or her. Not only are we affected by our own inner dialogues, we also affect others by what we tell ourselves about them. That effect can be long-lasting, as people have a tendency to continue the tales in their mind, even when they are no longer around the person who first told it to them. This is especially true of children, who are learning to create their personal narratives, often with a pressure to publish them too soon. Children hear things like: “He loves to build with his blocks. He’s going to grow up to be an architect/carpenter/engineer.” “She’s so graceful, she’ll become a ballerina.” Switch the gender in the prior two sentences and you can get a sense of how strong the gender stories are: “She loves to build with her blocks. She’s going to grow up to be an architect/carpenter/engineer.” “He’s so graceful, he’ll become a ballerina.” Children often internalize the stories they are told growing up: “I’m good at_____.” “I can’t do_____.” “A good girl/boy likes to_____.” These messages can influence our choices in life without our even being aware of their power. 

For a demonstration of the incredible variations in stories people can tell themselves I recommend the movie Happy. It’s a documentary about what makes people happy. It starts by finding joy in the slums of Kolkata, India. Then it goes around the world exploring the happiest and the most stress-filled countries. After watching it I recommend reading about how this movie changed the director’s life. It’s the story of how he sold his house in San Francisco and moved into a trailer near the beach and started a family.

I have discovered through working with people for more than thirty years that having a cognitive grasp of a concept is only the first step in changing it.

I have discovered through working with people for more than thirty years that having a cognitive grasp of a concept is only the first step in changing it. Even if you think you have a good understanding of how criticism affects you and others, I invite you to see it, feel it in your body and experience it in relationships. Hopefully that will expand the avenues available for you to edit the story of your life into the healthiest, happiest one possible. I’m going to offer some exercises to help increase your awareness, and invite you to go beyond the mental into the physical, visual and emotional. 

EXERCISE ONE: The Effects of Self-Judgments on Performance. 

This exercise is best done alone in a quiet place. So if you are reading this article on the bus or in a public place you might want to skip the exercises and come back to them later. You can go ahead a few pages to “The Butterfly Girl” and read that story first if you wish. 

For best results, so that your rational mind doesn’t write a story about the exercise before you even have a chance to experience it, try to avoid reading the full directions until you have time to actually experience it in its entirety. Do them in sequence and finish part one before reading and doing part two and three. 

You will need three sheets of plain, unlined paper, a collection of colored pens, pencils or crayons. Give yourself about 10-15 minutes for it. If you keep a journal, you might want to have it available so that you can write about your experience. 


Stare at the empty piece of paper. Tell yourself how bad you are at drawing. And even if you can draw some things you can’t do it as well as others. You especially can’t draw a tree. They never look like they’re supposed to. Add in anything critical that fits for you. Take a minute to do this. Then check how is your stomach feeling? What about your breathing? How do your hands feel? How much are you looking forward to drawing a tree? What emotions are you aware of? Make some notes on the top or bottom of the page in answer to these questions. Now draw a tree. And don’t make any mistakes! 

When you’re done, check in with yourself: how are you feeling? What do you notice in your stomach, your hands, your breathing? What emotions do you feel looking at the tree? How long did you spend drawing it? Do you want to do it again? Make a few more notes, then turn the page over so you can’t see it. 


Stand up. Shake your arms and hands around. Smile, even if you don’t feel like it. Your body recognizes the signals from mouth-curved-upward and automatically opens the endorphin channels so you feel better. Make the smile broader. Scrunch your face up and try to wiggle your nose. Now sit back down and grab a crayon, pencil or marker and on a new sheet of paper scribble. Move your hand around so that you can feel it in your whole arm and shoulder. Scribble like you are two or three years old. If you want to create images, that’s fine, the sillier looking the better. While you are scribbling tell yourself how fun this is. It doesn’t matter what it looks like because you’re having fun. Now throw in how good you are at drawing things, especially trees. If it helps to wipe out any messages you may have received growing up imagine the person who said something and draw a silly stick figure of them then stick your tongue out at them. 


Take the last piece of paper and make notes on how you are feeling. How does your stomach feel? What about your breathing? What do you notice about your hands, your shoulders? How much are you looking forward to drawing a tree? What emotions are you aware of? After you’ve made a few notes at the top or bottom of the page. Take a few more breaths, smile and draw a tree. Have fun! 

When you’re done, check in with yourself: how are you feeling? What do you notice in your chest, your hands, your breathing? What emotions do you feel looking at the tree? How long did you spend drawing it? Do you want to do it again? Make a few more notes. 

Now look at the two trees. What do you notice? How much detail was in each of them? Which one do you enjoy looking at more? If there is a real visible difference between them store those pictures in your mind. Instead of just thinking of the critical voice in your head you now have a picture related to it. You also have one that you can visualize anytime you want to switch your thoughts from discouraging to enjoying. You can name the trees to make it easier to use them to help remember how you felt each time. 


This exercise can also be used with groups or in a classroom. Make sure and start with the critical part so that you end with the positive feelings. People can share their drawings and what they experienced. Hearing others talk about their inner-dialogues, both self-criticisms and positive judgments can normalize our own experience. Too often we are stuck in our own minds not knowing that others are experiencing similar inner-stories. Because of shame and embarrassment, we don’t share and learn that we are actually “normal.”

Smile, even if you don’t feel like it. Your body recognizes the signals from mouth-curved-upward and automatically opens the endorphin channels so you feel better.

If you did read exercise one before doing it (which is very normal), what was the story you told yourself about it? How does it match or not match the actual experience? Were you telling yourself some version of: “I already know the results, so there’s no point in doing it.” How does that story affect your life and your ability to change your script? Often our society gives messages regarding how we should be efficient: don’t take the time to FEEL you should already KNOW. 

EXERCISE TWO – The Effects of Judgments on Others.


This is a more subtle version of exercise one. You will need someone to do this exercise with: either a child or an adult. Get paper and crayons or something to draw with. Use the same thing both times so your rational mind doesn’t tell you the story that any difference is due to the tool used for drawing. 

Then ask someone to help you with a project you are doing. Tell them you need to collect a variety of hand drawn clocks–two from each person. 

Start with the negative. Don’t say anything out loud. Just hand them the paper and ask them to draw a clock. In your mind tell yourself the story that they can’t draw. They’ll mess it up. Keep your mind full of negative, critical thoughts about their ability to create an accurate clock. 

After they draw the first clock put that one away. Now change your mind. Don’t SAY anything to them about how well they can draw. Just imagine to yourself that they are going to create the most unique, beautiful, amazing clock and you are looking forward to seeing it. Now hand them the paper and ask them to draw a clock again. As they are drawing, feel as much love and enjoyment as you can for them and their artistic ability. 

You can also time how long they took to draw each clock and check with yourself how you felt about the time. Did it feel longer or shorter when you were feeling negative?

Feel free to talk with the person afterwards. You can ask them what their experience was with clock one and clock two. Repeat PART ONE with someone else. Trying this with several people will give you a different experience each time. 


Remember – it works best if you DO the exercise before reading further. 

Look at the different clocks. Can you see a difference? Did any of the people you did it with notice a difference? If there was an effect, how does that feel? 

There may have been no effect on the person. So now it’s important to focus on yourself. How did you feel doing it? What was happening in your body? How did your stomach/shoulders/hands feel when you were being critical? How did your body feel when you were feeling supportive and loving? How long did the length of each time feel? Were you more impatient during one than the other? Which was easier to do? How did you create the thoughts for the one that was harder to sustain? What were your expectations? What was it like trying to create a certain energy field around you? 


You can also try this with animals; dogs especially are susceptible to our energy fields. Pick some activity like walking your dog, playing fetch or whatever you usually do. First feel angry and critical, then very joyful doing it. See if you notice a behavior change with the dog. How did it feel for you to do it? When I tried this with my Labrador, he began to howl as I was feeling negative and danced around as I switched to positive.

You can also try doing a project with someone or asking someone to help you. Something like cooking, sorting or cleaning up. Start with thoughts of how messy and awful they are. They never do anything right. Now change thoughts and make them about how much fun you are feeling doing this project with them. Focus on how great they are to be around and how it’s a big help just to have someone to cook/sort/clean up with. 

If you try this with several people you can see the differences. Some people will pick up on your energy and for others it will have no effect at all. But YOU are the one most affected by your thoughts. How did your relationship with each person change as your thoughts changed? 

EXERCISE THREE: Taking a Tour of Your Mind. 

This exercise is designed to be done after exercise one and two.  

Now that you’ve been practicing changing your thoughts, let’s explore HOW you were able to do it? We often live with the myth that “I can’t change my thoughts. It’s what’s true. I really am ……” But we can change our thoughts. We insert new pieces of information all the time. A friend tells us she is going to be gone all summer visiting family. We adjust, thinking we won’t see her for a while. Then she says her family decided to visit here. We change our expectations to not only will we be seeing her, but getting to meet her family too. 

During the exercises you changed the basic feel and flavor of your thoughts. You didn’t have to do it perfectly to have experienced it. (Another common myth is: “If I can’t do it perfectly it doesn’t count.) You might have felt silly being negative or had critical thoughts jump in while trying to be positive. The more you practice, the more skilled you can become in changing your view of yourself and others. 

Often people don’t want to think negative/critical thoughts for fear they will get stuck in them, or because they do feel yucky (technical term for upset stomach, cramped shoulders and depressed energy) already. Imagine that each different way of thinking is like a room in your house with hallways in between. As you were switching from one type of thought to another it was like getting up and moving between the rooms. First you had to realize there were other rooms, then find the door, then open it and walk out. Then you turned to go to a different room. Maybe you opened a door and realized you were back in the same room. So you closed it and went looking again until you found the new room, opened that door, went in and closed it behind you.

Photo by Kaplan

These exercises literally encourage you to take a tour of your mind. You practice going from one room to the next. You can now use that knowledge, especially if you find yourself lost in the self-critical room. Remember that it’s just one room and a choice, not “the truth.” Look for the door. Pretend you are doing the exercise again. Smile, breathe, do whatever you did before to change your thoughts. Walk through your “house” and decorate each room so that you can easily identify it. You can put signs on the walls. What kind of furniture would be in each room? Practice walking between the self-critical, and the self-loving rooms, until you know the way, and can easily change your mental world. 

For more information on changing your thoughts I recommend the books Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness by Rich Hanson. To explore the critic in a way that doesn’t lead to fighting with it (critics love arguing) try Taming Your Gremlins by Rick Carson.


If you just skipped the prior section this is where you want to be and you can go back later to try the exercise on the prior pages. 

The questions I just asked, related to the exercises, accessed multiple ways of knowing. We focused on thinking and intellectual understanding. We observed others and checked in with ourselves. We physically did something that we could see. We were aware of our bodily sensations. Then we took a magical tour through our mind to explore new possibilities. These different ways of learning and exploring are brought out in the story of “The Butterfly Girl.” 

Reading stories is a powerful way of learning, one that both children and adults relate to. Whenever I do a presentation, I try to bring in a story because there is a magical incantation that we automatically respond to. When we hear the phrase: “Once upon a time” our bodies tend to relax. Our minds open, and we tend to store the messages at a deeper level so that we can access them whenever we need help changing our view of the world. 

Illustration by Scott Fray. Used by permission of Ruth-Inge Heinze, (1994) editor The Bear Knife and Other American Indian Tales. Bramble Books.

The Butterfly Girl

(First published as: “The Little Girl Who Wanted to Know What It Is Like to Be a Butterfly”)

There once was a little girl named Ella who loved to visit her grandparents in the country. They had a cozy house with a garden in back surrounded by woods. Ella loved to spend her afternoons looking at the plants and watching the creatures of the garden. Her grandpa often sat with her, telling her the names of the birds, what they ate and what flowers and trees they liked. He taught her how to water the plants, how to pinch back the old flowers to keep the plants blooming and the best way to pick vegetables. When Ella found an odd looking bug, her grandpa always knew what it was called and what its job was in the garden.

Ella liked the flowers, the birds, and all the good things to eat. But, best of all, she loved the butterflies. They flew through the garden on the most delicate of wings, which allowed them to walk along the edge of a flower petal without squishing it. Then they’d slip their long tongues into the center of each fragrant blossom to drink its sweetness.

One day, as they were sitting next to the camellia bush watching a brown striped caterpillar chew on a leaf, Ella asked, “Grandpa, what’s it like to be a butterfly?”

“That’s a good question,” her grandpa replied. “Let me get my books and I’ll show you.” He went inside and brought out four thick books filled with drawings and photographs. Together they searched for all the pictures of caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies. After he’d read her everything he had about butterflies, Ella sat next to him twirling a tiny stick between her fingers, thinking very hard. Finally she said, “I liked learning all those neat facts and the pictures were really nice, but Grandpa, I want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly?”

“What’s it like? Well, umm, hummm,” he said, crinkling his nose and squinting his eyes as if he was trying to see an answer in the ground in front of him. “I know a way to find out!” he exclaimed, standing up quickly. Ella jumped up, ready to follow her grandpa, because he could find the answer for any question.

Around the side of the house they went past the woodpile and into the old storage shed. “Let’s see what we can find in here,” said Grandpa. After moving a lot of boxes, disturbing three lizards, and many spiders, he let out a cheer. “Here it is. I knew we still had it somewhere.”

“What is it, Grandpa?” asked Ella, looking at a very dirty and cracked old fish tank.

“This is going to be the future home of butterflies!” he said, dusting off the tank. “Grab that old mesh screen behind you.”

Ella looked around and saw the bent screen her grandpa had taken off the kitchen window last year. “This one?”

“Yep, that’ll be perfect.” He tore all the metal frames off until just the mesh was left. Then they took the tank, the mesh and some string and went out into the garden. First they filled the bottom with dirt, then they added twigs and leaves. “Now we go caterpillar hunting,” Grandpa told Ella. They found lots of yellow and green ones, two with black spots and a very hairy orange one. Grandpa helped Ella place them on the sticks. Then he put the wire mesh over the top and secured it with the string so the caterpillars couldn’t climb out. When they were finished, they put it in a corner of the back porch. “All you have to do is keep it filled with tasty leaves, watch it closely and soon you’ll learn what it’s like to be a butterfly.” Grandpa explained

Ella checked it every day, while the caterpillars ate and ate and ate. After a few weeks, one by one, they all built cocoons. Then it was really boring because nothing happened for a long time. Grandpa decided to cut one of them open to show Ella what was inside. At first she was very curious, but all they found were strange parts of a half way caterpillar, part way butterfly and lots of yucky mushy stuff. Then she was very sad because that caterpillar would never get to learn what it was like to be a butterfly. She thought that was Grandpa’s worst idea ever.

One day when the flowers had been blooming for many weeks, Ella was passing by the back porch when she noticed movement in the old fish tank. A cocoon was shaking and quivering. “Grandpa, Grandpa! Come see what the caterpillars are doing,” Ella yelled as she raced back into the house.

“Those aren’t caterpillars anymore,” Grandpa said, as he joined her on the porch. Then he took the top off the tank and carried it to the garden. Ella and her grandpa watched as one of the cocoons opened and a beautiful orange butterfly emerged. It clung delicately to its old home, opening and closing its wings in the sun. With a little spring it launched itself into the air, followed by Ella who ran behind. She jumped in circles on the ground as the butterfly flew back and forth among the flowers and trees. Over the next three days many different butterflies emerged, striped and dotted in browns, oranges, reds and yellows. They were dressed in all the colors of the flowers and the earth. After the last one had come out of its cocoon and Ella had danced around the yard with it, she walked slowly over to her grandpa. “Grandpa, that was fun watching them come out of the cocoons. But I still don’t know what it’s like to be a butterfly”

Her grandpa drummed his fingers against his chin as he thought very hard. “I’m sorry Ella, I don’t know any other ways to explain to you about butterflies. We’ve gone through all my books and you got to see how they’re born. I don’t know what else there is to teach you.”

Ella walked away and sat down by the woods to stare at the butterflies dancing with the flowers. The summer continued with birds to watch and vegetables to eat. Sometimes Ella saw a butterfly she was sure she had witnessed being born. It would fly around the garden enjoying the daisies and daffodils.

Fall came, school started and she spent less time in her grandparents’ garden. Then one Saturday, near the end of October, her grandparents took her into town to get a costume for Halloween. As they walked down the sidewalk trying to decide which store to go into first, they passed a secondhand store they had never noticed before. In the center of the display window was a shimmering butterfly costume. The body and wings were all shades of yellow and orange, and it had black tights to go with it.

“That’s my costume! I want that one.” Ella shouted, bouncing up and down in front of the store. It was exactly her size, so they bought it for her. As soon as they got home, Ella pulled the costume over her head and slipped her legs into the tights. There were fluffy pink antennae sticking out of a barrette that she fastened onto her head. Then her grandmother helped her slip the wings over her shoulders and attach them to her back. After Ella put it on, she ran around the garden, jumping and hopping and smelling flowers. Her grandparents got so tired from watching her that they had to sit down. As her circles around the yard grew smaller and smaller her Grandpa called out to her, “Hey, there’s the prettiest butterfly I’ve seen all year. Now do you know what it’s like to be a butterfly?”

Ella stared out into the woods beyond the garden for a few moments. She wanted to agree and say: yes, I know just what it’s like to be a butterfly. She almost said it, but instead she looked her grandpa straight in the eye and said, “Grandpa, I know a lot about what it’s like to be a girl running about in a butterfly costume, but no, I don’t know what it’s like to really be a butterfly.”

They all stood there for a moment and then her grandma smiled at her and went inside. There was something about the way her grandma smiled that made Ella run after her calling “Grandma, Grandma! Do you know how I could find out what it’s like to be a butterfly?” Her grandma sat down at the kitchen table and looked at a picture of her own grandmother that was hanging on the wall. It was a faded brown photo of a tall, old woman standing next to a tree with a deer sniffing her outstretched hand. Ella glanced at it, then back at her grandma. “You do! You do!” She sang as she danced around the table. “You know how I can find out what it’s like to be a butterfly.”

“Yes, I do,” Grandma agreed. “But it’s not going to be easy. What you are asking for is to see and feel the world as if you were something else. It’s hard enough understanding how other people see the world, let alone a flying butterfly! It’s not something you can read about or observe or pretend….”

“I know, Grandma. I tried all those other ways. It did teach me some things and some of it was really fun. But it didn’t teach me what I really want to know.”

Grandma paused until Ella was quiet and listening again. “It will take time and a lot of patience, so I want you to think about it. If you decide you really, truly in your heart, want to know, then I do know a way you can learn it. But you’ll have to do exactly what I say. And even then you won’t know until spring.”

“Oh yes, Grandma, I want to know. I’ll do everything you say. If I do a good job can you show me by Thanksgiving?”

Grandma just smiled at her and said, “It’s not about showing you. It’s helping you to learn in a different way. I want you to think about it for three days first. Then, if you still want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly, I’ll help you.”

She stood up and started to prepare dinner, as Ella pleaded, “But Grandma, I already know. I’ve known all summer. Please, please, can’t I start now?”

Grandma handed her a bowl full of peas in the pods. “Shell these and we’ll have them tonight with some basil and thyme from the garden.” Ella chewed on her lower lip and tried not to say anything else about butterflies while she helped her grandma with dinner.

Three days later she ran over after school and told her grandma, “Yes. I want to know what it’s like to be a butterfly. I’ll do whatever you tell me.”

“Okay, we’ll do it in the spring. That’s when it’s butterfly time,” her grandma told her.

Ella thought the winter was the longest one ever. Every time she tried to get her grandmother to talk about butterflies, she’d look outside and say, “It isn’t that time of year yet, just think about caterpillars for now.”

When the weather finally warmed up, Ella announced to her Grandma, “I saw a caterpillar today. Can you teach me how to be a butterfly now?”

“Well,” her grandma replied, “that’s a sure sign of spring coming if I ever heard one. If you’re going to learn to be a butterfly, you’d better do what the caterpillars are doing now.”

“They’re eating all the new leaves off the azalea bush you love so much.”

“Little girls don’t need to eat that kinda stuff, but you’ve got the right idea. It’s time to eat and drink a lot,” Grandma said. Then she quickly walked outside to see if she could convince the caterpillars to eat another plant instead of her favorite flowering bush. For the next few weeks Ella ate and drank everything her grandma gave her. She also watched caterpillars, just in case there was anything else they were doing that was important, but all they seemed to do was eat.

One Saturday morning, two weeks later, when Ella sat down at the breakfast table, she noticed there was nothing there: no juice, no fruit, no cereal or toast, not even a muffin. Her grandma patted her gently on the shoulder, while saying, “Go up to your room and put on your most comfortable clothes. Bring a warm sweater too.” When Ella came down, they went out to the garden together. Near the woods was an assortment of cardboard, blankets and the plastic sheets her grandpa used to cover the vegetables when it got too cold at night. Grandma sat her down and explained how she could use all these things to build a nest big enough to crawl into. She finished by saying, “To know what it’s like to be a butterfly you’ll have to build a cocoon for yourself and stay in it until you know. Do you still want to do it?”

“You mean I’ll have no food or water? And I can’t get out and play at all?”


“But Grandma, it took weeks and weeks for the caterpillars to change!” Ella said, remembering how she had watched them last year.

“Well, for little girls it usually takes one day and one night. I won’t think badly of you if you decide not to do it. I’ll still love you and be proud of you just the same. It’s your choice.”

Ella bit her lower lip and tried to quiet the uneasiness stirring in her stomach. “I want to do it.”

So Ella, with the help of her grandma, built herself a cocoon. The blankets made a soft, warm nest with the cardboard forming the sides and top and over it all they draped the plastic to protect her from the dew. While they were working on it, Grandpa came by asking questions. “Shouldn’t she take some water in at least? Won’t she be too cold at night? What if she gets scared?” He kept talking on and on as the two of them worked. He walked away shaking his head after they crawled underneath the cardboard together to try to arrange the blankets so there would be a little room to squirm around in.

Just as the sun started to peek above the trees, they finished the cocoon. Then it was time for Ella to climb in. Her Grandma closed up the entrance, reminding her once more, “If you have to come out before one day and one night are finished, I won’t think badly of you.”

The first hour passed quickly. Then the second hour took longer. By the eighth hour Ella decided she knew exactly what a caterpillar feels like while it’s waiting to be a butterfly. It was very boring, a little scary and she got very thirsty and hungry. By the time the sun was setting and it was getting colder Ella wanted to crawl out very badly, but her grandma had said that if she emerged too soon, she’d have to wait until next spring to try again. So Ella huddled in her small dim cocoon waiting for something to happen.

As it got darker and darker, the noises from the crickets and bugs got louder and louder. The birds began to sing even though it was nighttime. They all seemed to be saying, “Come out. Come out.” It was coming from the top of her cocoon, not the bottom where the opening was. As Ella squirmed up to try to hear better, she noticed there was a lot of room near the top.

“Why didn’t I use this space before? I wouldn’t have felt so squished all those hours waiting in here,” Ella said to herself as she kept crawling.

There seemed to be a light up there too. As she crept toward it, it got brighter and the sounds got louder. Soon she found herself in a circle of crickets, birds, and bugs. There was even a fluffy owl. They were all dancing around a gathering of fireflies, so bright it looked like a fire burning in the middle of their circle. When they saw Ella, they crowded around her, urging her to join them.  As she danced with them, she bounced up into the air. With every jump she stayed airborne a little bit longer. Then she was floating in the sky. Looking behind her she saw huge yellow and orange things attached to her back. She was so surprised she stopped waving them and she drifted back to earth. She stood up on her six thin legs and twisted around to look over her shoulder. There were big, beautiful, butterfly wings coming out of her back, just like the costume. But now she had an extra muscle extending from her shoulder blades down the center of her back that made her wings open and close. Ella gently rose back into the air. She felt connected to everything: the other insects, the trees, the rocks; she could even taste the air and knew there would be rain the next day.  Looking around she saw all the creatures and plants as her friends. Some might eat her as a butterfly and some she might eat, but not tonight, because they were all celebrating together. Ella danced in the air, fluttering around and around the circle.

In the morning she squirmed out of the cocoon she’d built for herself. She crawled out the bottom where she had come in a day ago. The top looked as small as when she and her grandmother had first made it. She slowly unbent, until she was standing tall and straight by the time her grandparents came over to her.

“Well,” her grandpa asked, “do you know what it’s like to be a butterfly now?”

Ella looked up at them. “Yes, grandpa, I know.”

“Tell us: what’s it like?”

“It’s well, um, ah, um,” Ella tried to say. “It’s just like … Well, you know it’s kinda like … um.”

“You mean you didn’t find out?” her grandpa asked. “All that work and time and you still don’t know.”

“I know. I know,” said Ella. “I was a butterfly.”

“So tell us: what was it like?” he asked again.

“Being a butterfly is just like … well it tastes of dew … I mean it’s … floaty … ” Ella frowned and tried again. “I’m sure it’s, it’s … maybe kind o … ” She moved her arms and waved her hands at them, but the words didn’t come. “I can’t explain it!” Ella said, with tears in her eyes.

Her grandma knelt down beside her. “That’s all right Ella. Some things just can’t be said in words. After all, butterflies don’t talk in words, do they?” Ella shook her head. “And you do know inside how it feels to be a butterfly, don’t you?” Ella nodded. “Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean your experience wasn’t real.” Ella nodded again, a grin starting to spread across her face, as she remembered the feeling of being a butterfly.

Her grandpa sat down next to them. “I understand,” he said. “There are some things you learn in books, some things you understand by watching. Pretending is a good way to discover things too, but when you want to know what something feels like, it helps to learn through experience. So instead of trying to explain it with words, why don’t you show us, in your own way, what it’s like to be a butterfly.”

“I can do that,” Ella agreed, nodding her head. Her grandparents got comfortable on the ground, with their backs against a tall tree, while Ella walked a few feet away. First, she reached to the ground as though she was eating armfuls of grass and leaves. Then she hugged herself tight and knelt on the ground, covering her head with her hands. She stayed still a long time, then her grandparents heard her humming. As the sound grew louder her arms started to lift. Her head rose slowly, with her eyes tightly shut, and an expression of pure joy on her face. Her hands floated higher, pulling her whole body up. She started to twirl, dipping and fluttering her arms. She was humming loudly now and her arm/wings pulsed with the sound.

Her grandparents looked at her in awe as she circled the garden. After the third time around she came back and stood in front of them. “Can you tell now, Grandpa, that I know what it’s like to be a butterfly?” Ella asked.

“Yes, I certainly can,” he agreed. “You also showed me how you can’t put that kind of knowing into simple words.”

Grandma looked up at Ella and said, “Not only do you know what it is like to be a butterfly, you’ve also learned that if you want to know something, you can always find a way to explore it.” Then she smiled at her granddaughter. “Even though sometimes the way you learn it is kind of strange and magical.”

“Yes, that’s true,” said Ella, thinking of the circle of creatures she was dancing with. Then her stomach rumbled. “And I discovered something else too.”

“What?” they asked her.

“When you lie in a cocoon for a day and a night without food or water, you get hungry. Can I have something to eat now?”

“Certainly,” grandpa said. “In fact, we fixed your favorite breakfast to honor all the effort you put into learning what it is like to be a butterfly. Come on,” he said, standing up and holding out his hands to both of them. “Let’s go!” And they all walked into the kitchen together.

Using Stories for Yourself and Others: 

Within the story of “The Butterfly Girl,” Ella explored various ways of learning. All of them are equally valid and speak to different ways of knowing the world. Often western culture, especially in schools, will emphasize intellectual, verbal knowledge over other avenues. This story can be used to help those who learn easier by observation, imitation and exploration. It can also be helpful for those whose first language isn’t English. Living in the United States they may need to rely on other ways of knowing, than just using words.

“The Butterfly Girl” also validates that knowing, without the ability to verbalize, is valid and should be respected. In the story the grandfather said. “There are some things you learn in books, some things you understand by watching. Pretending is a good way to discover things too, but when you want to know what something feels like, it helps to learn through experience.” 

If you have an opportunity you can share the story with children. After reading it you can explore it more. Ask them: what learning styles do you prefer? Which one is more foreign to you and harder to do? What other ways are there to gain knowledge that weren’t shown in the story? What can you learn from nature that is different than the human world? 

As an aide in exploring these different learning styles you can have children place their hands on their heads for book knowledge, on their legs and arms for physical knowledge, over their hearts or stomachs for internal knowing (like what Ella did when she curled inward to gain the wisdom to share her knowing with her grandparents.) Having them stretch their hands out shows learning from others. You can also create pictures for each one. For those who learn verbally, you can create words and names for each way of knowing. 

So far we’ve explored how our thoughts affect us. Then we looked at how we can affect others: either by them picking up on our energy, or by how we change our inner world when we are around them. We took a tour of our mind to practice consciously changing our stories. Then we got to read an actual story and see how the messages about different ways of learning affect us. Now it’s time for the last exercise. Let’s write the story that makes our lives work best. First we have to get to know the main character.

Write it as if you were giving it to a child or your best friend as a special gift for when they aren’t feeling good. 

EXERCISE FOUR: Write a Character Description. 

Open up a new page on the computer where you can write and edit, or get some paper and a pencil and eraser (not a pen or marker). You can also use a journal if you have one. Write a character description for the most remarkable, amazing person you can imagine. If it helps, think of a favorite character in a movie or book. Or imagine writing this for your best friend. 

You can either leave a blank space for the name or put in a name. For example:  

(Jose/Jane/____) is the most amazing, wonderful person. (Jose/Jane/____) is such a gift to the world. (He/She/neutral) is just amazing. (Jose/Jane/____) is creative and smart. Everything (he/she/neutral) does is just right and always enough. 

Write it as if you were giving it to a child or your best friend as a special gift for when they aren’t feeling good. 

Now when you have it as the most supercharged, positive description you can, fill in your name in the blank places. This is especially easy if you did it on the computer and you can use the find/replace editing option. If you wrote it out on paper, either fill in the blank or erase the other name and put yours in. Also change the pronouns so that it fits the one you prefer to use for yourself. Now reread it with your name and check how you feel. 

Was it hard to insert your name? Did you avoid this exercise because you guessed where it was going? Or did you edit what you wrote thinking I might ask you to put your name in? If it was hard, try it again just to see what it feels like to read a wonderful description about yourself. What happens to your body as you read it? Do you smile reading it? Do you feel warm and fuzzy in your middle? Or are your shoulders hunched up for fear someone will see what you wrote and think you are so stuck up. Is there embarrassment lurking in your stomach?

Now take several deep breaths. Read it again, this time out loud. Pretend someone you respect wrote this about you. Breathe some more. Smile as you read it. Keep breathing deeper and smiling broader until you’ve read it about ten times. Put it by your bed and read it every morning and every evening until you know this character so well you can write stories about yourself and how successful you are and what a wonderful life you have.

Remember that YOU write the script for your life. The external world might give you the subjects, places and people to interact with. It will give you the challenges and surprises. But the inner-script and character description are totally under your control. You can also influence the scripts of those around you either directly or subtly. And others affect your script, so be aware of who you let edit your life. Writing the best story for yourself not only helps you. It makes the world better, because you will feel better.


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