Action adventure, fiction, romantic novel, chaotic plot and car chases. If there was a book about your life how would the story go? Would this book be one that is predominantly sad? Or one where it’s basically good. but some bad things happened along the way? What is the book inside of you that you read to yourself over and over? Is there a story that you tell yourself that this is who you are and who you will always be?
Often we get stuck in feelings or in a mindset and we let our past define who we are today. Sort of the “well this is how it always is” perspective. But the reality is that we don’t have to keep telling ourselves this story.
When people come to see me they will talk about past traumas, hurtful things and the heavy emotions that burden them. Often when I ask how someone is they will say, “well obviously not good if I’m talking with you”. They are focused on the loudest thing that is happening at the moment and it is hard to ignore the feelings any longer. Sometimes people feel this way a lot and it becomes the story by which they define themselves, this is their self-talk. If they perceive that bad things are continually happening to them, this is their view or story of themselves.
Our story is the culmination of our past, our history here on earth that reveals triumphs and tragedies. This story is often referred to as our personal narrative and this narrative can inspire us, motivate and make us feel proud. The narrative can also deflate us, irritate and shame us.
So how do we connect to our narrative? Imagine if you met someone from another country and they knew nothing of your life, your customs and experiences. How would you begin to describe yourself? Maybe you would give them what I call the Press Release version of your life. This is the story that is all sunshine and happiness. Or maybe you would give them the woe is me story of all the pain, troubles and heartache. How would you best describe yourself to someone new?
Now compare the narrative you are telling the stranger to the story you tell yourself. Are you telling yourself all the good stuff or just the bad stuff about yourself? The idea is not that we should just tell ourselves the good things and ignore the bad, but to examine the story that we “read” each day to ourselves and see if this story is helping or hurting us.
For example, sometimes people will say to me that they can’t trust anyone and the world is filled with negativity. Right there they are giving me clues about the stories they tell themselves. They are revealing the messages and the outlook they have each day about themselves and those around them. This is more than just looking at the world optimistically or pessimistically, this is about the larger story line that the person has been telling themselves for years.
I worked with someone who had been in prison as a young man and since then had gotten out, married and had children and created a successful company. But, this man came into my office and one of the first ways he identified himself was telling me about his prior offense and incarceration. He was revealing something shameful to me about his past and also he was “reading” a major chapter of his story to me. He was telling me the loudest part of his story that was filled with shame and regret.
I described to him my perspective that clearly this event shaped the course of his life, but it does not need to define who he is, or how he see’s himself. After I gave him my perspective and that I saw him as larger and grander than just someone who had been in prison his whole demeanor shifted. He was noticeably lighter and not as weighed down. What I was doing was looking at him as a whole person, as a whole story. I wasn’t just taking one chapter of his entire life story and saying, Ok, this is who this person is. Cherry picking of his narrative would be unfair and limiting to his whole self. I would be just seeing a slice of his lifetime and that would not tell me his whole story. For him however, despite his success, he was still letting that one chapter of his life define his life story.
I was looking at him as a complete person and a summation of his life events and his whole narrative. What I say is that we are born perfect, whole and complete and along the way we experience life events and some of these are heavy wet blankets that weigh us down. These heavy wet blankets are sometimes very hard to discard and we start to think we are the wet blanket.
So, when I work with someone I see that perfect, whole and complete person inside of them. I recently told this to someone and immediately they just teared up and started crying. This was the acknowledgement they were looking for – that they were Ok, they weren’t damaged.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes from seeing ourselves as whole. This wholeness is comforting and reassuring to ourselves and it rounds out the story. None of us are defined by one chapter of our lives – we are the sum total. I think this comes down to giving ourselves a balanced and grounded perspective of our story.
Sometimes people don’t want to have a different story about themselves because the limiting story they tell themselves allows them to continue to be the victim of their own story. There’s an expression that Victims need Persecutors and Rescuers to complete and carry out their drama. In many ways they are playing all of these roles all at once with themselves as they repeat their victim story not only to others, but also themselves. This victim story serves them and keeps them “safe” from having to move on and heal. It keep them stuck in a perpetual loop of feeling bad about themselves and how others should feel the same way.
As you can imagine, I don’t have a lot of victim story tellers coming to see me. I think the ones who want to stay in victim mode know that I hear their story, but I don’t see them that way. In other words, I see that they don’t have to stay in that victim space, unless they want to stay in that space. When I encourage or point out their victim story often they will get defensive and sometimes not come back. But many times they can hear and see within themselves this story line and then I gently point out how this is so limiting to their healing journey
So, examine the story you are telling yourself and see if this story really fits who you are today, versus ten or twenty years ago? Practice telling people who you are today – sort of the “What do you do” conversation that we get caught up in at parties or gatherings. This is the “who am I” conversation that we need to have with ourselves to better see if our story matches who we want to become.
Robert Jackman, LCPC
Working With Narrative In Emotion-Focused Therapy Changing Stories Healing Lives Working With Narrative In Emotion-Focused Therapy – Baker and Taylor