Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 13, 2011

Choosing Your Story

I’m always reading something.  Recent good reads include “Nineteen Minutes” and “House Rules” by  Jodi Picoult and “Scared Silent” by Mildred Muhammad. The first two are fictional.  I enjoy Jodi Picoult because she  delves into complex social, relational, psychological,  and ethical issues. I enjoy   good writing and interesting stories, whether they’re true  or not, but there’s something very powerful about  true stories.  I like to read about  real people and what happens in their lives. Even if certain names are changed or events are  slightly modified, I know the story is  essentially true and can  identify more readily with the person who wrote it.  

I particularly  enjoy memoirs that talk about how a person  goes through something very difficult  and comes out the other side still in tact and  strong as a person.  This doesn’t mean their lives are perfect, but it means they have a healthy perspective on what has happened and how they’ve dealt with their circumstances.  Mildred Muhammad’s book is a wonderful example of this type of writing. The book “Scared Silent” is by the former wife of the man who became the DC Sniper. She   turned her terrifying experience of domestic abuse into something good by  using it to become an advocate for those experiencing  similar difficulties. She told her story to help other people.  She could have focused on being a  victim or all the things that went wrong.  She could have become bitter and angry and   could be living out the rest of her life saying things like “Why me?” and “I’m too damaged to  do anything positive with my life.” 

Thankfully, she did not do this. She persevered through some very hard times, including times when she had no money and had to live with relatives.  She even  managed  to make it through  the period of time (over a year) when her husband kidnapped and brainwashed their children. She was often overwhelmed, fearful, and unsure of what to do to try and improve hersituation, but Mildred Muhammad relied on  faith and the people who supported her, as well as her own intelligence and other external resources,  to try and continue moving forward. she went on to remarry and to  create a non-profit organization to help other women and families experiencing abuse.

Similarly, I consider it an honor to hear  stories from my clients about  things that  they’ve been through or are going through.  I often ask them, “What’s the story you’re going to tell yourself and other people about this time in your life?”  I let them know that the way they choose to   look at whatever difficulty they’re facing will help determine how they ultimately  feel about it.  They can  emphasize the parts where they made mistakes, or  they can focus on what they learned from the mistakes. They can focus on what they lost, or they can focus on   an unexpected positive that came out of the situation. If they’ve been telling the story in a way that makes them feel worse and defeated, we can look at other options for  how to  approach the same story in a different way so that it is something more helpful and positive. The type of counseling known as narrative therapy encourages each person to focus on  telling their stories in ways that are strength  and growth focused rather than in ways that are problem focused.

The thing is, we all have a story.  Every single one of us.  No two are the same. We each get to decide which parts of our story  we’re going to focus on and how we’re going to tell it. The words we use when we tell our story  have a lot of power.  They either help us feel hopeful or helpless, angry or accepting.  We can either  tell stories about survival and  getting through hard times or stories of how we’ve been beaten down all our lives. Personally, I think its much more healthy to  make the story about  growth and  the lessons we learn along the way.  If we can learn from everything that happens to us, than no experience is without meaning.  No time is wasted.  Wisdom comes from experience and  we often learn the most about ourselves during difficult times.

God says  He works everything for good if we trust  Him.  I don’t think that means everything that happens is “good.”  It means God has the power to bring something good out of  every situation, even if that something is just a different perspective or  being stronger spiritually.  God is  working in our lives even when we don’t know   it and even when we don’t understand what He’s up to.  Our story can be about hope, faith, and trust because of knowing that. Sometimes,  seeing the bigger picture  comes later when we have more emotional distance from difficulties and  more information to work with. Sometimes, our perspective has to be more philosophical, where we decide for ourselves what the meaning is as our “best guess” and the story we’re going to stick with because it helps us cope psychologically and spiritually. The story we tell ourselves and  others has to ring as possibly true to us, even if it feels strange at first to change around the emphasis. We can admit we don’t  truly understand and that we may not have chosen to go through certain events, but our story  can  be about how we continue to seek  perspective and growth and how we are thankful for whatever good we’ve found in our circumstances. It is important to sift for the gold in every life circumstance.

Pastor Rick Warren says in one of his daily  devotionals, “Mature people develop the habit of extracting lessons from everyday experiences. I urge you to make a list of your life lessons. You haven’t really thought about them thoroughly unless you’ve written them down.” He suggests the following questions to help you do this.  If you aren’t comfortable  with the wording involving God, you can simply say, “What have I learned.”

What has God taught me from failure? What has God taught me from a lack of money?

What has God taught me from pain or sorrow or depression? What has God taught me through waiting?

What has God taught me through illness? What has God taught me from disappointment?

What have I learned from my family, my church, my relationships, my small group, and my critics?

A form of counseling for the terminally ill called dignity therapy also poses some good questions for helping us look at our lives and tell our stories, such as

Tell me a little about your life history, particularly the parts that you either remember most or think are the most important? When did you feel most alive?

What are the most important roles you have had in life (e.g., family roles, vocational roles, community-service roles)? Why were they so important to you and what do you think you accomplished in those roles?

What are your most important accomplishments, and what do you feel most proud of?

What have you learned about life that you would want to pass along to others?

We can all learn from each other.  We can gain wisdom and perspective from each other’s experiences. You may not think so, but your story is important.  Your story is different from everyone else’s.  Some people’s stories have more twists and turns than others. Some stories are more dramatic than others.  It doesn’t matter. Even if you think your story is boring or  that you don’t have anything to say, its your story.  It’s the story of the life God has given you. It might be a story someone else really needs to hear.

For other examples,  consider reading the magazine Guideposts or  reading/listening to StoryCorps, which is on  NPR and can be found through  a google search.  Other searches on  Six Word Memoirs can help you decide what words you want to define your life or a particular time in your life.   You may want to  write down or audio record your stories to share with  family or friends.  If you feel the need, you also might want to  join a support group  to share about particular topics.  Your story is yours.  Once you are comfortable with it yourself, you might just share it with a couple of people. You might just share certain parts of it when you feel compelled to do so. It is important to do what you think is best with the unique life story that  belongs only to you.  No matter what you choose to do with it, the first and most important thing is to claim it, own it, and  truly make it yours.

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