– that triumphant tale of your strength in times of hardship, the aching recount of your loss, the stories of your love, your births, your deaths, and all the moments that will shape you forever –
is more powerful than you think.
In the era we live in, story and the idea of story-telling has come to reign supreme.
To be sure, humans have always been a storytelling people: across cultures and intersecting privileges, the ability to weave others into our own reality and to express ourselves and our creativity through the written or spoken word is one of the greatest gifts we possess.
But like with all great gifts, story comes with a shadow side, and must be wielded carefully.
Storytelling is often inherently vulnerable, and because we’ve totally fucked up what Brene Brown was trying to say about vulnerability, we deify storytelling but so often do so in unsafe, untested forums like social media, and do so as a form of social currency: to get likes, to receive validation, to build audiences, and even to make a living.
Because in the world we live in – this digital, content-driven world in which we express stories about ourselves every day, possibly at a rate and volume that is unprecedented in history – our stories are no longer always the healing tools or wise parables they once were.
Though many would (accurately) argue that storytelling is the oldest form of connection, the difference is this:
we no longer work with stories in the way we used to: there is no threshold of healing or understanding to pass before we share, sometimes with hundreds of faceless, nameless people at once.
you can work with your story skillfully, to your great benefit, healing and self-awareness
or your story can take over your life, reigning supreme over your decisions, relationships, and well-being, even if it’s to your own detriment.
Let me explain.
Stories are, in fact, all that the past and future are made up of.
The present is the only space in which we can experience the evidence that supports what we think of as reality (as in, the actual real-life feel of the chair you’re sitting in, the taste of the coffee you’re drinking, the sound of the music you’re listening to)
The rest is a story.
What you experienced at a party last night, for example, might be totally different than what your friend, who also attended the party, experienced. And your experience is based on your very unique, rich and layered perspective of the world – a perspective crafted by every other experience you’ve ever had in your life. For example, if you were bullied as a kid, you probably noticed that the hostess of the party was being verbally abused by her partner in a quiet corner of the room. The next day, you might recount a story about how awful the party was, and how worried you are about the hostess. Your friend, who met someone at the party with whom she had a meaningful conversation where she felt truly seen and heard, will tell a story about how wonderful that very same party was.
So. Stories are perceptions, and they’re perceptions only you can have of the things you’ve experienced, because you view your story – and everything that happens to you – through the lens of all your past experience
(and, for even more nuance, you also see through the lens of who you are in the world, be it a woman, a person of colour, a person living with a disability, or a wealthy person)
And: EVEN if you *think* you’re recounting Reality or The Truth about what happened, it is STILL a story. Sorry. It is. Because you will inevitably unconsciously remember some things and forget others, notice certain things and totally ignore others, and emphasize certain things in the recounting of the experience, and not others. There is no Absolute Truth; there is only your perception of the truth, as you’ve seen it through your own lens.
**and that’s the important thing: usually we are completely unconscious of the ways in which we shape our own reality. But I’ll get back to that.
Can I give you an even more profound example?
I was the doula in attendance at a woman’s birth. The events of her birth were different than she desired or expected, but also very normal, natural, and not unusual at all given the circumstances. She was happy, smiling, and seemed to be integrating the changes to her expectations well. But when she recounted her experience to me weeks later, it was one of trauma, insurmountable challenges, and fear. It was a very different story than what I had witnessed: she had stopped telling the stories of how she was triumphant, how strong she was, or how she had summoned the courage to make difficult decisions, and told only the stories of how challenging it was and how much pain she experienced. All of these things may have been true – because life is always both / and, and because it is not for me to decide what her experience was, but I did notice what she was choosing to share. Although I cannot know this for sure, I began to wonder if she had created a story that helped her make sense of the disappointment she felt at having a different birth experience than she desired. That is, to oversimplify it, if I make a story that birth is scary and hard and impossible, then it’s okay that my birth didn’t go as I thought it would. As narrative coaching pioneer David Drake says, “a key function of story is to use them to distance ourselves from uncomfortable pieces of our underlying narrative.”***
The interesting thing is: she has continued to tell herself and everyone around her a story of how painful and awful birth is.
Which brings me to the other thing about story:
We make our stories true by telling them. They start out as unconsciously formed perceptions – tender, liminal concepts that could easily be transmuted into tales of triumph or fear or joy or anger – but as we begin to tell them to ourselves and others, we begin to solidify them in our minds.
In fact, telling a story in the same way over and over again actually rewires our brains, forming “grooves” of habitual synaptic connection that we fall into, so that we can tell and retell our stories without consciousness. The brain is super lazy that way. It tries to automate everything. What happens is that it can be really hard to start thinking a different way – to become conscious of your own thoughts and start to reframe your perspective; to write a different story, as it were.
And you know what else?
Our stories are also shaped by who we tell them to.
(Yeah. I know. This gets fancier. Stay with me).
It’s like this: we all unconsciously shape the telling and re-telling of our stories based on who’s going to hear them, and what we think they’ll resonate with and understand. This is not about you trying to please other people by telling them what they want to hear: it’s a completely unconscious process that is hardwired by our very innate, very human desire to connect and belong. So. To give you a somewhat blunt example: if you were in a room full of cheerleaders or positive psychology experts or something, you might tell your story of breaking up with your partner as a triumphant tale of self-awareness and autonomy. If you were in a grief support group, you might tell a story of loss and pain.
As my buddy (okay, not my buddy at all, but prolific story researcher) David Drake says,
“there is not a singular true story, but rather a constellation of situated retellings.”
I wonder if you’re starting to see the power of your story?
I wonder if you’re starting to question how or why you began to tell your story the way you tell it – what past experiences or present re-tellings might have shaped it into what it is now?
This is what developmental coaches call the “subject-object divide.”
In a nutshell, when you are living out your story unconsciously – which most of us do most of the time – then you are subject to the story. The story HAS YOU.
When you become conscious of the story you’re telling yourself, you can see the story objectively. That is, you can see that YOU HAVE THE STORY.
And when you have the story, you can choose it
or you can change it.
That is the power of story. It is not in the telling and re-telling, it is in what might happen when we see story for what it is
our unique way of seeing the world
its potential: for our healing, the healing of others, and for the profound transformation of our lives, our choices, our relationships and our way of relating to the world.
What stories have been shaping your life?
Are they serving your greatest good…or are they protecting you from completely engaging with the fullness of your life – be it joyful or challenging?
Can you think of a time when sharing your story has been healing?
What about a time when sharing your story only served to reinforce the kind of thinking that created it?
Who or what safe spaces do you have in your life that allow you to fully process and heal your stories – to allow you to see them as a lens through which you’re living that you can choose to continue to use, or to change?
(here’s a hint: safe spaces for stories are usually trusted others, who know you well enough and who know how to hold space well enough to create a sense of safety and compassion when it’s needed, and who can also tell you the truth about yourself, even when you don’t want to hear it)
I wish you brave spaces to fully meet with the truth of who you are,
and the courage to own every part of it.
**I want to be extremely clear that I am in no way gaslighting those who have experienced trauma. My client may have experienced trauma in her birth experience that I was not aware of. But whether or not she did experience trauma isn’t my point: with the right support, it is possible to process our trauma stories and experience post-traumatic growth. We need look no further than Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor that went on to write about meaning and happiness – wisdom inspired from arguably the most horrible trauma that could be inflicted on another human. But this is also not easy work, and it’s not work that may be possible for those who experience intersecting oppressions that prevent them from seeking or receiving skilled support. What I would like to highlight is that I believe we – and my client – tell and re-tell our stories of trauma in search of healing and meaning and growth, but we often do so in ways that are not conducive to that growth (that is, on unsafe platforms like social media, or to friends and family who are not skilled at holding space) and can even be re-traumatizing. What I hope is that we develop the discernment to know when storytelling is healing, and when it’s not.