“In the end, we all become stories.” – Margaret Atwood
A good story sticks with you. A character you root for. A setting you find familiar. The story is the vehicle for the lesson shared.
The learned lesson imprints on my mind and soul when it occurs from a story. A cautionary tale which warns of the devastating effects of risky behavior or the how-to directions to decipher through a family recipe passed down through generations are meant to teach us something about ourselves. Whether through someone’s pain or triumph, the lesson remains with me because of the story.
Whether it’s standstill traffic pissing them off or the agony of loss, as a therapist the story is my glimpse into their experience, their perspective. The lens of perspective is tinted with the individual’s identity, and it is that identity which shapes how they interrupt the world around them. Perspective is key in understanding.
Therapy is essentially three parts. Listening, Validating and Trusting.
Listening is just that, shutting our mouths and opening our ears. Listening to understand is empathizing with one’s perspective or position. Remaining present with the storyteller and holding the space for them to share important details is the active part of listening. It’s not difficult to spot the difference between waiting to speak and active, compassionate listening.
We all need to have our experiences validated. Validation does not require someone co-signing all our life’s decisions. It does allow for acceptance of our purpose. Contentment is finding peace and purpose in our day. That’s it. We all want to know our experience matters and to find a way to rest with solace at the end of the day.
Entrusting our stories and experiences to someone else is a sharing of ethical responsibility. When a person takes advantage of this human exchange, there is an immediate void in the experience. The storytelling then becomes a source of pain and doubt. Trust separates healers from predators.
I do not meet people on their finest day. Most people do not seek help from therapy when life is sunshine and rainbows 24/7. Most people come in hot with their hair on fire seeking answers to extinguish the flames.
Once a person travels the distance to find a therapist, schedule the appointment and then show up to the session they hope to find some relief by unloading the charred baggage at the feet of the authority on peace (who does not exist).
There is no answer waiting to be uncovered or classified document given out to therapists upon graduating therapy school (which also does not exist).
The story is not complete. The next chapter is waiting to be written.
Trust that if you are still smoldering from the fire, your story is not complete.
Trust in the healing of being the storyteller.
You came in hot and showed up on fire. Your freedom lies in the ashes that remain and the story you create.
When we risk vulnerability and tell our stories, we allow others to learn from and find hope in our experience. We are not defined by a single chapter or event in our story. We are the entire book.
One person’s struggle is not uniquely theirs. Struggle is universal. I don’t have to be you to relate to your struggle. We can find a common ground built on empathy and learn from each other.
I’ve worked with folks from different countries who spoke different languages and yet still we found a place of understanding and healing.
A young, single father let me in his home to listen to his story after being misunderstood most of his life. His story read very differently on paper than it did when I heard it on his living room couch. Since I listened to understand this man who is the expert on his own life, I was able to share lessons I learned to empower him to express himself and communicate his family’s needs. He finished his own chapter as the hero because we both were willing to be vulnerable and learn.
I met a woman who’s story looked familiar from ones I’d seen before. A story which consisted of selling her body to support her addiction. However, when I listened rather than sent her own her way, I learned she wasn’t selling anything. She was the victim who couldn’t find the words to ask for help. I even used storytelling to give her the words she didn’t have to help her find safety and write a new chapter on her own terms.
As a collector of stories, I listen and learn from each person I’ve seen and share these lessons to help the next person. My grandmother, who as a girl walked to school in the snow uphill both ways while dodging a bull in the field, continuously told us that story as we were growing up to define the struggle of actually getting to school. She was very animated when telling about how her father, my great-grandfather would use a pitchfork to keep the bull at bay while her and her siblings would cross the field to get to school each day. She typically pulled this story out when my brother or I would complain about school. She had to fight to go to school and we merely had the privilege of complaining about it. My grandmother went on to graduate from nursing school which was not a typical story at that time. I hold on to her diploma as one of my treasures because her struggle laid the path for me to finish graduate school.
Therapy works best when the storyteller is brave enough to go the distance, learn the lessons and continue their story. A good therapist will not tell you what to do. A good therapist will set the table and allow you to pick your seat and invite the rest of the guests and even plan the menu. They may guide you and make suggestions on the appetizers or wine choice, but you are the expert on your story and your life.
You are the guru at the top of your mountain.
You are the extinguisher for your fire.
You are the freedom in the ashes that remain.
And if the story isn’t going the way you want, there’s nothing like a good plot twist…