We all have a story to tell. Some of our stories are filled with humor, adventure and pursuits of happiness. Others are stories of ventures gone bad, risks never taken or straight up defeat. Still others are tragedies beyond belief-stories of loss, pain, sorrow or betrayal. These stories make up our very existence; be they epic adventures or sober tragedies, they make us who we are and how we view the world…or do they?
In my practice with families I frequently find each person holds their own version of the “family story.” Often we are unaware of the many versions of the “family story” held be each individual in the family which they perceive as gospel truth. Every person remembers their version through their own lens, personality and experiences, and holds it as fact. This is how they have seen it in their mind’s eye ever since the incident took place. The idea that others have different perceptions from theirs may come as a shock.
Just for fun, take and incident from childhood (either yours or your child’s) and ask each of your family members point of view. For instance, let me share a family “legend” from my childhood. I call it a legend, because it has been told now through three generations and grows in color and detail with every decade!
We were camping in the high country of the Wallowa Mountains as we often did when I was a child. My sisters and I were fishing with my brother. I remember being so proud to have caught several fish that day, something of a rarity for me. My sisters also caught several fish, but I don’t remember my brother catching any fish. He may have, I just don’t recall it. I also remember enjoying freshly fried fish over the campfire complimented by my father’s famous fried potatoes and onions. Everything always seemed to taste better in the mountains, over the campfire…I can almost taste it as I write this now.
Now that is my version. How I remember that day in time in Eastern Oregon long ago. However, my dad has another version altogether different. He is a great story teller, and this fish story gets more and more dramatic with every re-telling. It goes something like this. “Sabrina and her sisters wanted to go fishing one day in the Wallowas. It was a great day for fishing, but they didn’t have any bait. So they asked their brother to catch them some grasshoppers. The girls were a little squimish about catching these creatures in their bare hands, so their brother obliged their request and caught enough grasshoppers for several castings. Then the girls asked him to put the little creatures on their hooks for them, becuase it was entirely too disgusting to poke a hole through the grasshoppers. Once again he obliged them kindly. Fish started to practically fly out of Mirror Lake and as they did, their brother started to gut the fish faithfully so that his sisters wouldn’t have to get their hands bloody and messy (he knew they would be too squimish for this task as well). After a long day of fishing, we started to get ready for dinner. The girls all held out their plates extended for some fried fish and potatoes. As their brother came up with his plate, ready to share in the catch of the day, all three sisters said in unison “What do you think you are doing? YOU didn’t catch any fish, and you don’t get any fish for dinner either!”
If you ask my brother what his memories of this day are, he will tell you he doesn’t remember the day at all. Maybe he blocked it from his memory altogether.
You can see each person’s perspective is very different. This was a light and humorous story, however, often the stories I hear are filled with much sadness, pain and hurt. If we don’t listen to each version, we don’t give that person a chance to find out what other people experienced. Telling our stories can be very healing, especially when they are received with the honor and respect each deserves. The temptation to correct the story or minimize the emotions felt is often strong, especially if we feel guilty about what the other person experienced. I try to have families ask questions of the story teller to find out as much as they can about their perspective. When we are able to tell our story in an environment that has been proven safe, there is often a great feeling of relief. It is as if a light has been turned on in a dark space of our mind. This rings especially true when loved ones are able to just simply accept what they hear without judging or condemning the teller.
The practice of writing and telling our stories is a tool used in Narrative Therapy, one of the methods sometimes used in my practice.
Does our story make up who we are? Is that story set in stone or is it able to change with time and insight into what others perceived as well? Can we change our story through telling it and gaining more understanding of what everyone else was experiencing?
What is the story you have to tell?