Narratives, Part 1: The Stories We Tell Ourselves
As a therapist, I hear a lot of stories from my clients. I hear about events from the previous week, memories from years ago, and fantasies about the future. There are stories my clients say are minor and insignificant, and there are stories that they feel define their very being. The latter are of particular interest to me. I notice that many of my clients tend to tell me these big, life-defining narratives several times over, and I’m always amazed that regardless of how much time has passed since the last time they told me the story, the way they tell it is almost completely identical each time.
Each of us has a set of stories that we tend to tell over and over again. If someone were to ask you, “so, tell me why you are the way you are?” I’m willing to bet that a few narratives would spring to mind right away. Maybe your parents were alcoholics, or you were an only child, or you were a star athlete in high school. Perhaps you were physically abused, or lived abroad, or were overweight as a child.
It is easy to get attached to our stories, and many of us have a hard time letting go of them. It can be useful to take some time to examine some of the stories we tell ourselves.
Try to identify a story that you have about yourself. Select a story that relates to a specific event or memory from your life. For example, say that you have a narrative of yourself as a person who always takes on the caretaking role in your romantic relationships. As you think about this narrative, you may be able to isolate a specific event. Perhaps there was one time where you gave up the opportunity to travel to Europe for three months because your boyfriend did not want you to be away for that long.
Once you have a particular event in mind, take out three pieces of paper. On the first piece of paper, write out a version of the story where you only focus on its negative aspects. With the previous example, you could write about how demanding your boyfriend was, how furious you were with him, how disappointed you were at missing out on the trip of a lifetime, and how the experience ultimately led to the demise of your relationship. On the second piece of paper, write out a version of the story where you only focus on its positive aspects. With the previous example, you would write about how flattered you were that your boyfriend cared about you enough to want you to stay, how there were aspects of the trip that didn’t seem ideal anyway, and how you ended up growing closer as a result of spending that time together. Then take a few minutes to hold each piece of paper in your hands and take a look at them simultaneously. Notice how it feels to read each version. What emotions come up? Do you feel any physical sensations? How do you feel towards each version of the story? In which ways do each of the stories feel complete or incomplete, true or false? Imagine how your life might be different if the positive version was true, and how it might be different if the negative version was true. Do any wants or needs emerge?
Next, take a few moments to write an entirely new version of the story. Write the story as you want to remember it. For example, you may want to write how sweet it felt to hear that your boyfriend wanted you to stay, and you may also want to remember how disappointed you felt at passing up the chance to go on the trip. Take a few minutes to read this version of the story and see what similarities and differences it has to the negative and positive versions. Notice how this version lands in you.
Stay tuned for another exercise for working with your narratives next week.
Want to talk about some of your stories? Call (415) 658-5738 or visit my Appointments page to set up a consultation.