Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Talk Therapy: Your Own Reality Show On Demand

Sharing our stories lays the foundation for our truths

What many people like best about therapy and counseling is that for one 50-minute stretch each week, they are the undeniable star of their very own show. The counselor invites self-revelation through simple prompts, such as “Tell me about yourself,” or “Share with me a little about what brought you here,” or the gentle request, “Tell me more.”

These simple invitations to open up to a caring and impartial stranger can let loose the flood gates that have been built up and maintained over a life of hard knocks, relative ease, emotional trauma, repressed reactions, or any or all of the other varied travails that contribute to our tendencies to keep on our game faces and to never let them see us sweat. Or cry. Or moan and gnash our teeth, for that matter.

Yet when we are in a room in which the focus is totally on us – our personal experiencing of life and its ups and downs and kicks and lifts -– an empathic professional can make that room a safe space for bringing to the surface the most authentic self we can be. And the story begins…

Some clients may want to “begin at the beginning,” sure that every intricate detail and tiny scrap of a story that began even decades ago may be an important aspect of the solution to the struggle that brought them there. Others, for instance, may want to provide laborious details of the argument that was the breaking point that drew them to your office. Still others may want to tell you the story of exactly what “the other” did that wronged them so. Many of us run from blame and responsibility in relationship issues. We assume that we are the wounded party, even when facts might tell otherwise. But it might not be until we are able to share our story aloud that we are able to “hear” our own truths.

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It is often through the act of “telling your story” that allows you to take ownership of the role you played in the drama, the comedy, the tragedy, or soap opera of your life. As we recount our stories in that sacred space of the therapist’s office, we are able to be safely nudged to rethink our recollections, to “say again what you just said,” so that we can hear our stories from a new perspective. Talk therapy is therapeutic, in part, due to the intrinsic value found in simply sharing our narratives with a caring, empathic, and unconditionally accepting individual.

Counselors don't so much focus on pointing out the holes in our stories, but in helping us find the whole of our stories.

Sharing our narratives makes them real, breathes life into our experiences, and validates our very existence. Working with older adults, I often hear them mourn the loss of the people who knew them “since the time they were born” or who knew them “as a child.” As people drift from our lives, we may feel that we are losing a part of our narrative… no one is there to chime in with assent when we ask, “Hey, do you remember when…” The narratives grow sketchier for some of us as we age. We have a harder time receiving validation of our stories and our lives because those who knew us then are no longer here with us now. It is essential that we reach out to and connect to those older adults whom we love and treasure and value in our lives. We must listen to them with respect and empathy as they tell, and often re-tell, their stories and their lives. Open up your heart and listen to a life that may be well-lived or hard-earned or someone’s burden to bear.

Not all of us can spare the cash or co-pay required to keep our personal “talk therapy variety hour” running for too long at the local therapist’s office. And many of us have a hard time justifying the expenditure or the ignominy some feel in seeking a professional listener. Thus, it is essential that we recognize that our fellow women and men may all be in need of a space in which to tell their stories and make real their lives. In telling our story, we are creating our reality. Without an audience, we are only rehearsing. So listen patiently to that man on the plane, the woman in the seemingly endless line at the store, the older adult next door, your child, your partner, your parents, and your grandparents. By merely listening, we are a part of the creating.

When we invite others to share their stories with us, we are helping to lay the foundation for the construction of their truths.

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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