The stories we tell of our lives and those that are told to us can shape who we become. Each of us absorb our stories from many different sources; the families we grew up in, our culture, and our faith traditions to name a few. It is not the things that happened in our past that define us but the stories we attach to them.
The stories we receive from our family, faith, culture, and society become the lens through which we view reality. For the first ten to twelve years of our lives we are not aware of the stories that hold us. We are unaware of the impact they are having on our identity or view of self.
As we grow and learn to speak, we long to talk about what we did and what happened to us. Developing our capacity to tell stories well depends on having someone who is willing to listen. If our family and culture encourage us to relay our experiences in detail, we gain confidence in our ability to express ourselves. If our stories go unnoticed, ignored, or suppressed, we become guarded and fearful to give voice to them.
Many have felt the urgency to express the unspoken words inside our hearts, the anxiety of words longing to come out and be acknowledged. Sometimes the stories inside us feel too large to be carried inside any longer. Those of us, who are counselors, have the privilege of serving those we counsel; we help them to ferret out the story inside them. We encourage counselees to find the courage to express the words. We invite them to gain awareness of the stories they have absorbed by giving voice to them whether they are good, bad, ugly, or beautiful.
Counselees tell a story to get a story. The stories they tell themselves both, consciously or unconsciously, have tremendous power over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. We encourage them to turn toward, not run away in fear, and tell the story of their suffering. This is not to rehearse the pain but to face the fear, to understand the desires, surrender the desires to God, and learn how to love God and others.
We and they are not dependent upon the stories that others have driven into us. Each of us by the power of Christ in us has the capacity to author a new story. As counselors, we often meet people who live accomplished lives, who are still living out of an incomplete untruthful, or limited narrative. They may be enabling a story line that they are not even consciously aware of participating in- a story that has been imposed upon them by others. They are stuck simply because they are unaware that they can write a different story from which to live and grow.
We do not have to live the stories we have absorbed and remain dependent upon the stories others tell us about us. This leaves us in bondage to outside authors and ill-equipped to mine the meaning of our experiences. We tend to think about what happened to us constructing a story about our past, perceived present, and imagined future into an internalized, evolving narrative identity.
We become the story we tell ourselves, this story has characters, episodes, imagery, settings, plots, and themes. This story we tell ourselves has the potential to provide our lives with a sense of unity and purpose. “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 3:12-14).
Research into the relation between life stories and adaption shows that those who find redemptive meanings in suffering and adversity, and who construct life stories that feature themes of personal agency and exploration, tend to enjoy higher levels of mental health, well-being, and generativity. (See Dan P. McAdams, The Art and Science of Personality Development). Rather than being drawn to repeating the stories that hold them they now have the capacity to author a new narrative.
Counselees of all ages need a counselor who is willing to mine the meaning of their stories with them. To encourage them to dig deeper, to unpack them, to grieve the losses, to see their life in the light of God’s truth and how He is active in it.
It is not what we have experienced that defines us but rather the stories we tell about our experience.
Diane tells the story of her life. Her parents divorced when she was 11. Her mother moved her and her sisters to another state. She lost her home, her school, her church, and her friends. She said her life fell apart. She lived her teenage years lamenting what she had lost and trying to find a way to return home. She kept telling herself that when she got back home things would be better.
In her later teen years she came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and began to see a redemptive story at work. She discovered profound meaning in the unexpected suffering she experienced as a child. It did not mitigate the brokenness and pain she felt, but she began to see a different story about the fruits of the heartbreak. She has grown to see that through the heartbreak of her parents’ divorce and subsequent feelings of displacement, she experienced in moving to another state, she found her vocation. Those devastating experiences increased her compassion, her willingness to be vulnerable, and her commitment to minister to those who experience heartbreak.
Her story and our stories are stories that point to resurrection, inviting us to look for the revelation of signs of new life, grace, and greater love. How is God redeeming your story?
“Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).