"Matt" came into my therapy office because he was depressed. He'd been through a lot in the past year, and he was in rough shape.
He'd been a victim of domestic violence for years and recently got divorced. He'd been unemployed for several months, and despite many interviews, wasn't able to land a new job.
After several sessions, it became clear why he was struggling to impress potential employers: He couldn't stop talking about the painful experiences he'd endured. Even during initial interviews, he felt compelled to talk about what it was like to be a man who was physically abused.
He thought that telling everyone about his past — immediately after meeting them — made him authentic. He'd been reading piles of self-help books, and he'd learned that baring his soul and being vulnerable were the keys to becoming better.
Matt was convinced he was "owning his story." But in reality, his story owned him. He needed to heal from his past in a healthy way if he wanted to improve his future.
How to Know if Your Story Owns You
If you feel like you must tell your story to everyone — regardless of the time or the place — your story owns you. Getting it off your chest reduces the anxiety you feel about "holding it in."
Perhaps you feel like you have a "secret." Or maybe you worry that someone will be able to tell you have a secret just by looking at you. Revealing your story — whether it's a bad childhood or a long history of addiction — is the quickest way to relieve the tension.
That means your story still has a lot of power over your life. And your identity is tied up in what happened to you.
The Dangers of Letting Your Story Own You
Choosing to keep your story to yourself doesn't mean you aren't authentic. It means you have self-respect, and you understand the difference between secrecy and privacy.
You don't need to force yourself to be vulnerable to everyone you meet. In fact, when you meet someone and say, "Hi, my name is Sally, and I have a long history of being abused," you're actually putting the current relationship at risk. After all, there are many other facets to your life than your story: Perhaps you're a talented piano player, a wonderful parent, or a prolific pastry chef. Blurting out your most traumatic experiences first may prevent other people from learning those things about you.
Additionally, people may feel sorry for you when they hear your story too soon. And pity makes it difficult to be on equal footing with someone.
Letting your story own you can also create professional problems. I've worked with several clients who made their stories so prevalent that it interfered with their ability to do their work well.
How to Own Your Story
When your pain is raw, it can feel like the whole world sees there is something "wrong" with you. But that's not true. Everyone has experienced pain, and they won't see you as being any different.
You also might think that talking about it as much as possible helps you process your past. But talking about it too much may actually signal that you're reliving your painful memories and staying stuck in the past.
If your past continues to haunt you, or it feels like it defines who you are or limits your potential, talking to a mental health professional could help you build the mental muscle you need to heal from those emotional wounds.
Whether you have a history of drug addiction, or you had a rough childhood, talking about your emotional wounds can make you mentally stronger. But it's important to be intentional about when you share your story and with whom you share it.