I’ve been telling my story for a while now. The same story, almost word for word. It’s become so familiar that I never question it, or expand upon it. I just accept it as my truth.
And yet…those people who are part of that story (family for the most part) would definitely question it.
It’s not that they would accuse me of lying, or even challenge whether particular events occurred. What they would question is whether my story is the whole story.
If you were to ask me what are two words that characterized my childhood I would say “sad” and “lonely.” But I was raised with an older brother and a younger sister and both have completely different perspectives on our childhoods and what happened. My brother can barely stand to look back; my sister says it was all absolutely fine, while I tread the middle path —aptly so as the middle child—of something in between.
The single story snag
The problem with my single story is that I’ve become so used to telling it, I now believe it’s all that ever happened. That simple one liner of “sad and lonely” has become a rather pathetically sad and lonely narrative in itself. I’ve focused so much on this single storyline that the flesh on the bones of my story—the joy, laughter, learning, travels, great relationships—has been left somewhere in a dusty closet along with my old toys and journals.
Yes, there were many scenarios that made sad and lonely the dominant thread, but there were also some really great subplots that have made the story of my life to date so much more compelling than the single liner that I have allowed to define me.
The problem I see when we tell our stories—be it about one thing that happened to us, or our whole life story—is that when we remember, we first remember the bad, and the bad can become the only story we ever tell.
That single line story can shape our whole sense of identity. For a long time telling my “sad and lonely” story diminished my sense of self-worth and had me believing this would always be my story. But it never needed to be. I learned to lean on it and use it as a crutch, as a convenient way to make excuses for my behaviour in the present. Looking at the bigger picture didn’t serve me.
The convenient story
Sometimes we tell a single story because it’s what suits us and makes us look better to others. We may play a victim role in the story, leaving out the parts where we feel vulnerable, or even guilty in some way ourselves. The convenient truth is often only half the truth, and after a while we start to believe it is the whole truth.
But even the convenient story can let us down because it is often problem saturated, which leaves us focusing our time and attention on everything problematic that has occurred and not allowing the good to take up any space in our memory and hearts.
The real story
As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realize we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole. – Susan Wittig Albert
The real story—the one we have forgotten, or simply don’t want to see—is the only story that can heal us and help us move forward. This means accepting and looking for the following:
1. Other people’s perspectives (not judgements)
2. You own culpability (in what ways did you contribute to the problem-saturated storyline? Did you embellish it? Did you take on the role of victim?)
3. Judgements of others who form part of your story
4. The need to blame
5. Forgiveness (who do you need to forgive? Could it be yourself?)
6. The good that surrounds the story and has emerged from it (joyful memories, the parts that have made you stronger, the desire to create change.)
Imagine your problem-saturated story as a black dot on a white page. How much do you focus on that single black dot? And how much, if ever, do you see the white space surrounding the story?
Re-writing the story (writing challenge)
If you could write in one sentence either the summarized story of your life or the story of a specific event that caused you trauma, what would that sentence say? This should be a familiar line to you, like my line of, “I had a sad and lonely childhood.”
Consider, as you look at your one line synopsis, how perspective, culpability, blame, judgement, forgiveness, and the good could turn that synopsis into a very different story.
You could try this with many different storylines of your life. Try to move away from dualistic thinking, where the story is black and white, and look instead at all the colours in between.
Re-authoring your story to include compassion for yourself and others, as well as looking at the good in addition to the bad, will help you to heal and move on. It will also loosen that story’s attachment on your life, allowing you to grow and let go.
Feeling brave enough to share your one sentence story synopsis in the comments? I’d love to hear and open up the conversation!
Image credit: Eric Prunier