are we the stories we tell?

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. ― Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Humans tell stories to give significance to our experiences, to share them with others so that we feel less alone in the world, to put life events into perspective, to provide entertainment, to celebrate our triumphs and to heal our wounds. Each story is a snippet of the journey on which we find ourselves; a moment out of time.

How Do Stories Serve Us?

There are myriad ways that the scripts we create make a difference in our lives. There is power in prose.

Dan McAdams, PhD, a Northwestern University psychology professor provides perspective: “Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives.”

Recently, a friend inquired about the benefits and bane of telling our stories. She indicated that some of those tales we retell can be detrimental in moving forward in our lives. She wondered how she could rewrite her life script and show others how to do so as well. There are stories we are told about our value that can strengthen us, while those that cast us as less than priceless can continue to cripple us and hamper our progress. It is up to us to decide which ones we will continue to read and write.

Taking Pen in Hand

  • Listen to the words you use to describe your life or events in it. If you notice repetitive verbiage, that is a signal that you may be immersed in and perhaps invested in a particular view of your circumstances.
  • When you hear yourself tell this story, does it bring up pleasant or painful memories? If pleasant, do you want to up the amps on the feelings that accompany the mental movie? If painful, ask yourself the purpose of continuing to tell the story. Is it to glean support or elicit sympathy?
  • Consider if telling the same story allows you to remain entrenched in your current circumstances or relinquish responsibility for making changes that could dislodge you from it.
  • Do you cast certain people (yourself included) as villain or hero in the narrative? Are you willing to change roles?
  • Ask if it serves you to keep believing any story about yourself.
  • Ask “what’s the story I’m telling myself about….?”
  • Know that you have the option at any time to rewrite the narrative.

A Therapist Rescripts History

I consider myself a professional storyteller. Most clinicians with a great deal of experience have become so by intention or default, since we hear so many of them in our practice. We are privileged listeners. People open their hearts and minds to us. I consider it a sacred trust that I never take for granted.

Back in the 1980s, when I was entering the field of substance abuse education, I was teamed up with a man who had many years of experience speaking on the topic. I would marvel at his ease of communication, while I recited by rote, shuffling cue cards. At times, I felt incompetent and definitely lacking in confidence. I asked him how he did it. He smiled and said one word initially: “Stories,” and then added, “When you have stories to share, your presentations will improve.” All these years later, I wish I could recall his name and contact him to assure him, “I finally have stories.” They have come from life observation and serve to enhance my ability to use pertinent examples for clients, students and readers.

Like everyone, I have my stories that resulted from my life experience and continue to shape my reality. Some of them were told to me by my parents, such as “You can be or do whatever your heart desires, as long as you can support yourself.” Good news, right? Couple that with health issues in childhood, so I told myself that I had limits to overcome, and thus became an overachieving Type A workaholic who crashed and burned a bit more than two years ago with shingles, heart attack, kidney stones and adrenal fatigue. The story I had told myself was that I was invulnerable and invincible; impervious to the challenges that others face, because I have emotional resources, support and professional expertise to weather any storm.

Lost within that mix was a normal human being, not the Wonder Woman persona I had adopted to function at peak level. Even when my body is approaching fatigue, I motor through. Yesterday was a day such as that. After a workout at the gym, I went to an iconic annual cultural event in historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, called Musikfest. I had been there several times before; once two months post-heart attack in 2014. On that day, I traipsed up and down the hilly terrain and through the streets of town, incredibly mindful of the need to stop and rest, as I enjoyed the melodies and harmonies.

Fast-forward two years later and I am back to my previous pattern of pushing past my limits. The temperature was in the 90s with high humidity. Although I had plenty of water and took occasional rest breaks, I still managed to exhaust myself; drenched in sweat at 8 p.m. when the temps had lowered likely to a balmy 80 degrees.

When I awoke this morning, following a night of fitful sleep, I had a headache and sore throat and along with it the thought, “I don’t have time for this. I have too much to do over the next week to prepare for teaching and travel.” It was then that I realized how close I came to teetering over the edge into workaholism; picking up the storyline where I had left off. Instead, I prepared a cup of peppermint tea to soothe my throat and pulled a lavender- and mint-filled neck wrap out of the freezer to ease the tightness in my neck and chill away the heat. I refrained from rushing through my day. At that moment, I rewrote the story.

In January 2016, I embarked on a journey that was part vacation and part education and edification when I took a writing workshop with integrative medicine pioneer, author and teacher Joan Borysenko, PhD. It was called Writing Down the Light. The locale was the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in Nassau and provided the ideal place to continue my personal edits. While I was there, I found myself pondering the trajectory my life had taken, based on what I thought was so. I took the proverbial red pen and crossed out what needed to be excised and reframed the meaning. While I value my ‘herstory,’ because it reflects where I once was and how far I have come, I am acutely aware that it need not define me.

There are two types of stories we tell ourselves that may not serve us to continue rereading:

Victim Story: “He did this to me. She took this from me. They hurt me and now I can’t heal or have what I want. It’s her fault that I drink. My parents told me I would never amount to anything, so how can I succeed? I was born with health deficits, so I can’t catch up. I was orphaned at an early age, so I believe that no one loves me.”

Hero/Heroine Story: “I have to take care of everyone, practice savior behavior and be on all the time. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done, or done right. I am the go-to person for my family and friends. They count on me, so I can’t take time off. I am indispensable at work, or want to be sure I am seen that way to maintain job security. I need to be essential in the lives of those I know. If no one needs or wants anything from me, of what value am I?”

The third and healthier alternative:

The Ever-Adapting Plot Twist: “I know that there will be times when I am on top of the world and others when I feel as if I have fallen into that proverbial hole in the sidewalk (as poignantly described by actress and poet Portia Nelson and oft-repeated in recovery circles.) If I allow myself to be malleable, it will be easier to climb out. To quote musician Elvis Costello, “Every Day I Write The Book.”

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place, but it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

As you rescript, know that your history is not your destiny. The rest is still unwritten.

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