Truth Byte #18: Just because you coat your drama with sugar doesn’t mean you can hide is flavour.
Earlier this week I had a new client. When I asked her what brought her to counselling, she started with telling me about her mother’s marriage to her father, working her way through her personal history up until the real reason she had come in to see me. This took 50 minutes. That left us 10 minutes to actually do something about it.
Many newbies to counselling do the same thing.
This is what happens next: She walks away after an hour of non-stop talkingfeeling a bit better for purging some stuff out of her system, but she has probably already told that story to other people a dozen or more times. She leaves her appointment with very few practical applications or understandings into her story. She wonders how anything is going to change if her counsellor just nods and says “uh huh” every so often. What she does not see is how the way she thinks about and tells her life story is the real albatross around her neck.
The thing with humans is that we love stories. We like to tell them, and we like to hear them. Some of us are more gifted in the art of story-telling than others, and some storytellers have guaranteed themes and embellishments that keep their listeners coming back (think Bollywood!).
We have built entire industries around our love for stories, and many brick and mortar institutions to support those industries. My two favorite institutions?Libraries and movie theatres. But some of us prefer to hear our stories at the opera or the playhouse or perhaps from the comfort of our couch as we curl up with a book or watch the latest drama series on the tube. Some of us get our storytelling fix through sharing juicy tidbits about the people we know. (By the way, that’s called gossiping, even when it’s a good story that is supposed to be a secret.)
How we imbibe stories is one side of the equation. The other side is how we tell stories.
Your life is basically a series of events, some of them related to each other and some of them not. But when you tell your story, you link these events into a meaningful and coherent narrative. I had a multi-millionaire once share with us his story of success. He told us at the beginning of the keynote that most people will tell their success story about how “one thing led to another” and how they were “in the right place at the right time with the right resources”, and leave out all the detours and dead ends and fatal errors along the way. But he wasn’t going to do that. He went on to tell us a story about how he made his millions despite all his personal flaws, hair-chilling financial mistakes, and bad business decisions (plus some partner betrayal thrown in for the human touch!)
As a student of the human mind and an avid storyteller, this approach peaked my interest. What this guy did is tell his “sad story” in a way that highlighted the challenges, but also made him look good. It was a story of winning despite the odds, of bad luck turned around, of determination in the face of certain failure, and mostly, of lessons learned. His was a story of growth and transformation…..at a business conference of all places!
That’s not how most of us tell our stories. Most of us string the narrative together and tell either a happy story or a bad-luck-and-things-keep-getting-worse story. Only those will true insight into themselves and honesty about the good that they were “born in to” (such as clean drinking water, a bed to sleep in, and adults who somewhat looked after them) as well as their personal failings and challenges seem to be able to tell the story the way this multi-millionaire did.
Why is that?
Telling a “happy story” would make us happier, right? Why would anyone want to tell a sob story? Why would we care about those detours and dead ends and fatal errors? Or perhaps we should be completely honest with our story, leaving out no gory detail…
This is getting complicated.
Let’s go back to the basics: the brain. We tend to remember things from the past that either have an emotional charge or that we have marked as significant. So when I ask you about your childhood, how you answer me will tell me a lot about how you feel about your childhood, rather than what it was objectively like. That is why some of us have the “have-it-all-but-still-not-happy-syndrome” – we are telling a story that started in our childhood and continues today. And that story is one about never having enough. It’s not a unique story, because there are basically a handful of stories that all humans tell: the story of loss, the story of triumph, the story of betrayal, the story of saving someone or being saved (also known as the Hero story), the story of Divine intervention, the story of nobody cares and so on. So the brain will access memories that will frame your life events as a story. It’s up to you which version of the story you tell.
Ok, so here’s a better idea: let’s all tell a happy story instead. That should work right?
It’s not enough to just “focus on the good” or “think positive”. We actually have to be willing to acknowledge the dark and scary and embarrassing parts of our life story if we actually want to grow and heal the past. If we just put it into the vault, that unacknowledged pain becomes the legacy we pass on to our children. And then they feel bad but don’t know why. Sugar coating your life doesn’t fix the problems or the pain, it simply hides the stench for a little while. It’s like eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in a smelly bathroom….why would you do that?
It’s probably time to acknowledge your true story, the one that includes the shiny and the dismal parts of being human. And why not recruit a weaver of stories to help you do that? If you want to understand your true story better, join us in May for a personal development workshop. Chances are, you will walk away with a whole new way of telling your story.
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