Stories. How many stories can you tell about your life?
I think story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience. Every piece of art tells a story. We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music. Stories, all.
Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.
Stories are prisons and torture chambers. They brainwash and manipulate. They can be powerfully limiting.
The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.
Think about a story from your own life. Something painful. Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times. It’s important. It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself. It’s a place from which you look at the world. It’s absolutely True. You know. You were there. It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.
Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.
Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk. In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels many things. There’s conversation. After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience. Every one of those stories is partly true. Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete. The truest story is the one all four people tell together. If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives. They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.
The thing about story is that we create it. Something happens. We have an experience. We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared. We have thoughts about our feelings. We make up a story. We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt. We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it. We behave as if our story is True.
Now we have a story that imprisons us. The story has all our power. We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story. We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story. Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety. They must never question it, add to it or take away from it. Our story becomes us. A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.
We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.
A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white. As a story teller, a writer and a human being, I question that. What is truth, really? If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying? What is the truth? I was charmed, you were horrified. So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin. And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.
There. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it. Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.
See what I mean?
Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it? Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life? Are yours right and mine wrong? Are mine right and yours wrong?
Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?
Some people lie, deliberately and with intent. We all know people like that. We learn quickly not to trust them.
Some people distort. They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others. They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness. Am I prepared to call them liars?
No. But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.
Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion? I hope not. I’ve my own set of distorted stories. I think we all have.
Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story. They invalidate yours in favor of theirs. They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re unfair, mean, disloyal, bad, a liar. They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.
So what do we do about story—ours and everyone else’s?
Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story. It might be partly true. It might not be. It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view. Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.
We could ask others about their stories. We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences. We could, in short, build healthy connection.
If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.
We can build trust and respect with ourselves. We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it. We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others. We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.
We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us. Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship. In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.
We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets. Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice. Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior. Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black and white thinking.
In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives. If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them. If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others. If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story. We can’t control what others say and believe about us. We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves. We can be responsible for our own stories.
For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in. Same subject, different writer. It’s titled Who Are You?
Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher, Byron Katie, who asks, “Who are you without your story?” I highly recommend her.
Do your stories about yourself limit you? Do your stories about others limit them? Can you consider another version of one of your stories? What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?
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