On Valentine’s Day 2013, at a small community center in New Hampshire, I attended a workshop with Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Lakota-Cherokee shaman and narrative psychiatrist. The workshop began with a talking circle in which each of the forty or so participants shared a personal story about love.

At the beginning of the day, I was excited. I’d read all of Dr. Mehl-Madrona’s books, and I was eager to learn everything I could. But as the time passed, I got bored. There were no limits to how long people could talk, and by lunchtime, we were only part way through.

At lunch, I vented my frustrations to my journal. I imagine I wrote something like, Why is everyone taking so long? People should have time limits! We’re supposed to be learning something here!

I returned to the second half of the circle, which meandered along like the first.

Then, after the circle completed, Dr. Mehl-Madrona invited a participant to work with him one-on-one, with everyone else witnessing.

He instructed her to tell him about a break-up that still felt emotionally raw but to only share the bare bones—the observable data, the facts that she was aware had actually happened.

Dr. Mehl-Madrona told us that our stories are like meat that covers the bare bones of what’s happening, that can make the facts harder to see and generate confusion, distress, and disconnection.

Each time the participant started telling a story—judging something that she or her ex had done—Dr. Mehl-Madrona paused her and invited her to label it story.

As I listened to Dr. Mehl-Madrona guide my fellow participant to distinguish her stories from the bare bones, I realized that I’d been telling myself a story—steeped in white supremacy cultural narratives about how teaching should happen—that judged Dr. Mehl-Madrona’s circle-centered approach and held me back from perceiving the hidden lessons the other circle participants shared.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

In his book, Remapping Your Mind, Dr. Mehl-Madrona writes that the closest equivalent to the English word self in the Lakota language is the word nagi, meaning the swarm of all the stories that make us who we are.[1]

Each of us is viewing ourselves, the people we interact with, our circumstances, and the world around us through channels of perception that contain all the stories we’ve gathered about who we are, what is possible, and how the world works.

Faced with infinitely complex challenges, frustratingly incomplete information, and a universe that is far too vast to perceive it in its entirety, we humans rely on stories—theories, opinions, interpretations, assumptions, beliefs, and so forth—to fill in the gaps and make sense of it all.

We tell stories to connect, learn, grow, heal, and answer the question why. We humans need stories like we need food.

But not all stories serve us well.

Like debris on a car windshield that accumulates over decades, many of our stories make it difficult to see ourselves, our people, our situations, and our paths forward clearly. We mistake our filtered views for reality itself and don’t realize that we’re looking through a lens in the first place.

Our stories can either support us to honor our needs or hold us back. For example, if we think there’s something wrong with me for taking so much time to reach my vision, we’re less likely to keep going; if we believe crossing the gap between where I am and where I long to be requires time, patience, and support, the journey can become easier.

We get to choose the stories we tell ourselves.

At that New Hampshire workshop, Dr. Mehl-Madrona taught us that, although many people believe that we have to get rid of our stories to liberate ourselves from them, the truth is that we don’t have to convince any part of ourselves to change its mind. If we try to convince the storytelling part of ourselves that it’s wrong, it may cling even tighter to its beliefs.

In A Liberated Mind, Dr. Steven C. Hayes—creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)—shares study after study that demonstrate that trying to erase our limiting beliefs is a futile endeavor. Hayes writes:

There is no delete button in the human nervous system. There is nothing in all of psychology called unlearning.”[2]

Our beliefs are neurological patterns, and once a pattern is established in our brains, it’s hard to get rid of.

In fact, if you try to not think about something, you’ll discover it’s impossible.

Try it: Don’t think about an elephant. Don’t think about a peanut butter sandwich.

As Dr. Mehl-Madrona taught us, a far more effective strategy for releasing the grip of old stories is to bring awareness to the stories we’re telling ourselves and separate our stories from what is actually happening—the bare bones.

When we witness our stories and the bare bones, we gain the observational distance needed to get curious about whether our old stories serve us, and if not, to choose a story that serves us more.

Part of ourselves can even believe an old story while the rest of us chooses a new action.

It’s what we do that matters.

Each time we choose a new action, we strengthen the neurological patterns associated with our new action. With repeated practice, our new action becomes habitual, the old story loses its power, and we embody the new story.

With that in mind, I share with you the Bare Bones Practice. Grab your journal, get as comfortable as possible, and here we go:

The Bare Bones Practice

One: Do your best to embody a compassionate witness perspective.

Throughout this practice, aim to have two parts of yourself present—a loving yet gently-detached observer and a part who’s activated and sharing its stories. See your story-telling part through the eyes of the compassionate witness, turning toward yourself with warmth and genuine curiosity.

If you notice that you start becoming more emotionally activated or more convinced that your stories are true, please try to shift back to a compassionate witness perspective. If you cannot do this at this time, pause the practice, do whatever helps you feel more settled in your body. If you choose, you can return to this practice at another time.

Two: Choose a recent situation to work with in which you felt emotionally activated.

Choose a moment that’s not deeply shaming but that you feel kind of embarrassed to talk about—aim for about a 3 on a scale on which 0 is not at all activated and 10 is extremely activated. Write down a few words to name the situation.

Three: Open your journal so that you have blank sheets on both sides, and write Bare Bones on the top of the left page and Stories on the top of the right page.

Four: Write the Bare Bones on the left page.

To help yourself find the bare bones, you might ask yourself these questions:

  1. What did you actually observe? What did you do or say? What did other people do or say?

    Bear in mind that our memories are fallible. You might be convinced that someone said something while they’re convinced they did not. Unless you made an audio recording or wrote down what was said, you cannot prove who’s correct.

    In this case, the bare bones might sound like, “I think I remember so-and-so saying xyz. They say they did not say that.”

  2. What sensations or emotions did you feel in your body?

    Physical sensations and emotions are bare bones. False feelings like unloved, abandoned, or disrespected are stories—interpretations or assessments of people’s actions.

    You can refer to the Body Sensations List and Emotions Wheels from Chapter 18 for support naming your sensations and emotions.

  3. What do you need?

    Our needs, such as the ones you’ll find in the Needs List in Chapter 1, are bare bones. So are wants or preferred strategies, as long as we take responsibility to name them as what we want.

    There’s a fine line here. The thought that someone else should or needs to do something is a story. For example, I need you to support me or I need you to listen to me are stories.

    In contrast, acknowledgement that we want someone to do something, like—I want my partner to take more initiative with the kids or I wish my boss would ask me more questions about my work—are bare bones.

Five: Write the Stories on the right page.

As soon as a part of you starts telling a story, write down what it says on the Stories page. Listen with gentle curiosity, allow this part to vent, and write down all the stories without filtering, editing, or arguing. One sign you’re really capturing your story is that you might worry what other people would think if they read what you wrote. You can tear up the paper or even burn it when you’re done.

Again, look out for false feelings such as “I feel unheard or taken for granted or betrayed.” You can look at the false feelings list in the Body Sensations list to identify other false feeling stories you might be telling.

If you hear part of yourself start telling a story and another part reacting with  “I don’t actually believe that,” or two voices in your head arguing about what’s true, keep in mind that these thoughts are probably coming from different parts of yourself. Write it all down, even if the stories conflict with each other.

To help bring your stories to light, you may ask yourself:

  1. Who’s talking? If various parts are piping up, it can help to name each one to distinguish them from each other. For example, you might name the active parts your Judge or People Pleaser or Voice of Doubt.
  2. What is this part telling me that this situation means? About myself? About other people? About the world?
  3. What is this part assuming is true about this situation?

Here are some examples of stories you might be telling yourself, along with what the bare bones might actually be:

  • Story: They must not be interested in me. I’ll never find a partner. I should just stop trying.
  • Bare Bones: I long for companionship. I really want this new person I’m dating to call me. They haven’t called, and I feel really sad about that.
  • Story: If I ask for more one-to-one meetings with my supervisor, she will think that I’m a burden. If I am honest about my needs, my job might go down the drain. It’s not worth asking for more support. No one ever hears me.
  • Bare Bones: The tasks that my supervisor is asking me to do far exceed the time I have, and we haven’t had a one-to-one check-in in nearly a month. I feel really stressed out. I have a need for more realistic expectations and mentoring support.
  • Story: Oh my god. Maybe Kai is sick. If he gets sick, then we’ll all get sick. But how could he have gotten sick? I’m a good mom. I made sure that he hasn’t gone anywhere so he doesn’t get sick. But if he gets sick, I must be a bad mom.
  • Bare Bones: I’m sitting here on my couch, typing on the computer, when suddenly, I hear my son cough in his bedroom. It’s April 2020. We’re in the midst of the first covid lockdown. I feel really worried about my family’s health.
  • Story: I need you to listen to me.
  • Bare Bones: I have a need to be seen and heard. I wish that you would ask me questions about my day and reflect back what you hear me say. Would you be willing to schedule time three nights per week together for us to do that for each other?
  • Story: I should just get over it.
  • Bare Bones: I feel really sad.
  • Story: He needs to give me some space. Why doesn’t he give me some g**d*** space?
  • Bare Bones: I have a need for solitude.

Go back and forth between the two pages—writing the Bare Bones and your Stories, asking—What else? Is there anything else?—until you feel like you’ve dumped all the bare bones and stories out of your brain.

Six: Look for new stories that might serve you more.

To do that, you might do the following:

1.  Acknowledge what you observe, feel, and need. For example:

  • Old Story: I should just get over it.
  • New Story: I have a need to grieve.

2. Read through the Bare Bones, and look for glimmers of resonance, relief, relaxation, or recognition about next steps.

  • Old Story: They must not be interested in me. I’ll never find a partner. I should just stop trying.
  • New Story: Dating is so incredibly vulnerable. I wish I could just wave a magic wand and immediately transport myself to a loving, committed relationship.

3. Look for shreds of truth in your stories. Our stories are often oversimplifications, generalizations, or assumptions that contain shreds of truth. These shreds of truth are new stories. For example:

  • Old Story: No one ever hears me.
  • New Story: When I tried to share a challenge with my supervisor, he changed the topic and didn’t offer support. I felt hurt and also concerned. It’s going to be hard for me to do my job well until I better meet my need for support. I want to make a more pointed request for help addressing these challenges.

4. Ask yourself: Given what I know now, do I need to ask any questions or gather any information? If so, make a plan to do so. We cannot observe all that is from our limited vantage point, and to make well-informed decisions, we often need to listen for other perspectives.

  • Old Story: Oh my god. Maybe Kai is sick. If he gets sick, then we’ll all get sick. But how could he have gotten sick? I’m a good mom. I made sure that he hasn’t gone anywhere so he doesn’t get sick. But if he gets sick, I must be a bad mom.
  • New Story: I’ll go ask Kai how he’s feeling and maybe take his temperature. And I’ll continue looking out for guidance about how to keep my family healthy during this time.

    One of the questions that we often need to ask in order to find clarity are requests. When we make a request, we receive information from the other person’s response, which then helps us get clear about our next steps.

  • Old Story: I need you to listen to me.
  • New Story: This feels really vulnerable for me to say, but it is important to me that there’s a fairly even exchange of giving and receiving in my relationships, and right now, things are out of balance here as I usually listen far more than I share. I’d love it if you respond with follow-up questions sometimes when I share. Would you be willing to do that?

From now on, do your best to notice when part of you starts telling a story and then, get curious about the Bare Bones and what story might serve you more.

May you discover a story of liberation and love in the nooks and crannies of your life.

[1] Lewis Mehl-Madrona, Remapping Your Mind: The Neuroscience of Self-Transformation Through Story. (Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2015.)

[2] Steven C. Hayes. A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. (New York, NY: Avery, 2020.)


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