“A man is always a teller of stories. He sees everything that happens to him through them. And, he tries to live his life, as if he were telling a story.” Jean Paul Sartre
All of us have a point of view on the things that happen to us that we articulate in form of a story about our lives. We story family struggles, the loves of our lives, friendships, and ups and downs of circumstance and the ways we manage them. We even story the funny things that happen to us through the day. Our stories disclose our goals and aspirations, fears, identity and self-worth, the roles we choose to play in life, the way we handle adversity and the values and beliefs that we hold dear. We may not choose what happens to us, but the stories we give to experience are ours alone.
It’s easy enough to narrate the good times in our lives into meanings that fit with our purpose, goals and dreams. But, it’s harder to make sense of experiences that turn our lives upside down and challenge all that we know, believe and trust. How are we to understand such experiences? But, even more, how do we integrate their meanings into a cohesive narration of our lives?
Take, for example, the 2006 scandal that alleged that Preacher Ted Haggard had sexual relations with his male masseuse and also bought and used crystal methamphetamine. This scandal forced Preacher Ted Haggard to resign as senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Until this scandal broke, I didn’t know much about the Preacher Ted Haggard. But, in the days that followed, I learned a lot about his spouse Gayle Haggard and how she coped with this difficult time in her life.
The questions that weighed on Gayle Haggard’s mind in the days and months that followed the downfall of her husband must have been heavy, to say the least. How does she make sense of what happened? How does she make sense of the contradictions in her husband’s behavior? Does she stay or does she leave?
In an interview Gayle Haggard talked about the effects of the scandal on her marriage and on her emotional well being. She asked herself: “Who am I going to be in this story? What do I really believe, and what do I really value, and what’s worth fighting for, for me?” I could not have asked better questions of her, if she had been my patient. She reflected upon the makings of a fulfilling and worthwhile life. Could she make sense of what has happened relative to the life she had created thus far and the life that she wants for herself in the future? These are exactly the questions that we need to ask ourselves when circumstance has challenged everything we thought was certain and real.
Gayle Haggard decided that her marriage, as she had known it, was worth the fight. She decided to story this hard time in her life as a wife who would fight for her marriage and the faith, beliefs and values for which she stands. This is how she preferred to narrate this difficult life chapter into her entire life story. Her meanings helped her to move forward with her life rather than to stay stuck in the past.
Is Your Story Moving You Forward or Keeping You in the Past?
The problem is that not all personal stories are the same in terms of promoting our welfare, in helping us to meaningfully move from points A to B in our lives, and to do so in a way that allows us to endure, learn and grow. We may prefer understandings that limit our development from one stage of life to another. Our stories may emphasize blame and victimization that pin us to the past. Gayle Haggard could have blamed her husband for ruining their marriage and her life. I’m sure she felt this way, at times. But, she concluded that divorcing was not the story that she wanted to tell. It doesn’t matter if she was right or wrong, or if you or I would do the same. What matters is that she is expressing a personal point of view that at the end of the day is the story that Gayle Haggard wants to tell. Only she will know down the road what this chapter means to the rest of her life. She is the one who will have to make sense of the decisions that she’s made with regard to her personal story.
The Personal Story Approach To Change
There are two schools of thoughts in therapy with regard to the way to bring about change. We can change our behavior or change our dialogue. The personal story approach to change emphasizes the latter. This approach is at the heart of a popular psychotherapy called Narrative Therapy. Here, people learn how to reflect upon and organize their thoughts and feelings into a meaningful dialogue about their lives and the things that happen to them (good or bad).
How do you know if the meanings we give to a life happening are more right than wrong? If it is really right for you, you will feel freer and ready to move forward with your decision and life. The meanings you give to the experience will highlight needs and desires that make sense with the features of the life you’ve lived thus far. Too, you will have a certainty in heart, mind and spirit that minimizes your doubt. The line between what is right or wrong for you lessens, as you have intuited meanings that move you forward and give greater fulfillment.
As you can imagine, this activity isn’t easy. You have to deeply immerse yourself in authentic and sometimes very painful reflections to make sense of such difficult times. We are not just looking to turn lemons into lemonade, by ignoring negatives or putting a positive spin on things. Oh quite the contrary! The reflective process that asks “Who am I going to be in this story? What do I really believe, and what do I really value, and what’s worth fighting for, for me?” can be a daunting psychological and spiritual task. You have to:
First, consider your thoughts and feelings, even the ones that you may be trying to avoid or deny. I’m sure Gayle Haggard had feelings of betrayal, fear and doubt. She may have wondered why she didn’t know this part of her husband. Or, she realized that she always knew this about him, but chose to look the other way. Whatever she found, she had to face her inner world squarely.
Second, generate the understanding and meaning from this process that opens you to the role that best serves the aims, goals, and purpose of your whole life. ”Who are you?” is the question here. You may decide that you need to exercise more self-oriented aims at this stage of your life. Perhaps, you decide that a complete game change is wrong for you, because you’ve been living the life that feels most authentic to you. I don’t know the details of Gayle Haggard’s thought process. But, from her decision, I can imagine it went something like this: I have lived by the religious principles of forgiveness. What matters most to me now? Is it my hurt and disillusionment with my husband or the principles on which I have based my life? It seems by her story that Gayle Haggard is fighting more for her principles than even her marriage. This is how she understands and gives meaning to this hard time in her life.
Third, pick up on the stories already inside of you that perhaps you have forgotten, missed, or lost. These stories that have been in pushed into the background of your awareness often contain aspects of your personality that you can use to start a new chapter in your life. Many years ago, a patient of mine was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that required him to have a stem cell transplant. This led to a series of losses that led to him being wrongfully terminated from his job, just at the time when he needed their support. He was a very successful businessman, pulling down six figures a year. Everything about this man screamed Wall Street. But, so much had changed for him at this time. He had to reach deep inside of himself to find parts, lost in the decisions that he had made in life so far.
He recovered the teacher in himself. He had never really thought about himself in this way. But, in his early teenage years, my patient started to care for others, when he lost his father. This thrust him in the role of taking care of his mother and siblings who never assimilated fully into the American culture. He helped to support them financially and taught them how to get their needs met within the American culture. The teacher emerged into his awareness. Well, to cut to the quick, he began to work for a non-profit agency that found donor matches for people who needed stem cell transplants. And, of course, with his business savvy, you better believe, he helped this agency grow to a newer, more prosperous level. This new story line was truly a game changer for him.
The story framework that results from these three steps should serve as a bridge to your future. This is the story line that will be most instrumental to your personal growth. How will you know it? Your gut resonates deeply with your story. Yes, that’s right, you will say. And, your whole body will relax in response to it.
I’ve said many times to my patients over the years,
“Is this how you choose to story this part of your life experience?” Be careful, because the story you wish to tell about what happens to you now is really all you have in the end of life. You are narrating this life chapter, as you see it. Be sure it’s the story that you wish to tell and that it gives you many options from which to carve out the next chapter of your life.”
I hope today’s post gave you much food for thought about your own lives. You deserve the best life possible. Make sure how you are formulating your life experiences into a personal story allows you to endure, learn and grow, and to narrate the psychologically and spiritually healthiest version of the life that you are living.
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