Tell Me About It…

We have no control over many of the things that happen to us in our lives but if we can make sense of what has happened, we will usually construct a narrative to explain it to ourselves.  This narrative is more than just a story, it’s our escape hatch after trauma.  It’s what we can use to help us to overcome whatever horrible disaster has befallen us. Climb over it. Make good our escape.

Dan Siegel maintains that people who have horribly traumatic childhoods make excellent parents once they can make sense of their own story – no matter how awful.

No matter what happens – once you can look it in the eye and make it your story it loses its power to control you.

We have told stories since forever which means they are commonplace in our societies.  But common as they are, they are still essential to our well-being, safety and resilience.

We explain away myths and legends as primitive ways to explain the natural world – and they did indeed have a function in this regard – but it’s possible that they mean more than just that to us. It’s possible that they explain truths and experiences that are too subtle or difficult to approach in other ways and it’s possible that they allow us to construct narratives that function like ladders on which to climb out of the holes into which we may have been thrown.

If this wasn’t the case, then why do we still love to tell and hear stories? Whether it’s science fiction or vampires, rom-coms or action adventures surely our attraction to stories – myths – is because they are still fulfilling the same purpose for us that they have since time immemorial?

20 Comments

  1. What an interesting perspective! And I very much agree with his message that there are many, many kinds of truth, and an emotional truth is something that needs to be constructed. x

  2. I was very touched by your post and in particular Dan Siegel’s reflections. I seldom write about my childhood. I have big gaps in my memories, for very good reason. At the moment one of the things I am doing is trying to write things down – so that I can sit comfortably with my story. I don’t think it is something I will ever share but I believe you sometimes have to work hard in this life to accept and sit with your emotional truth rather than have it define you. I am so blessed to have got to the point where I KNOW that I am a good parent and I have been able to take control away from some of the emotional stuff that lingers unhelpfully in my head and heart. I love the way that you ALWAYS manage to make me think, reflect and question. Keep writing your wonderful posts you fantastic lady 🙂

  3. As I started to tell my stories, without the shadow of third person or the pragmatism of distance as my normal protection this was both wrenching and uplifting at once. Is that possible?

    You always cause me to think, consider options and even at times say to myself it is okay. Thank you for that.

  4. The story is so important to healing. However…I’ve been wondering lately about the construction of the story. They say some stories actually inhibit becoming well again. Trauma changes the brain and it also changes the story, it can trap us in narrow and split view. We need to see our stories as evolving, as we evolve. The rigid or calcified story can trap us in the role as the victim we may have once played. Just thoughts. As a writer I’ve really seen how the act of writing itself changes my narrative. I can become accustomed to a certain voice, per say. Oh, this is my voice. And I will express myself through that voice which is so clear. But just because it is a strong voice, or artistic, does not mean it is a reliable voice, or a reliable narrator. We can become so entranced with our stories we won’t let them go. As a therapist, I can tell you that the least well folks often have very strong stories they bring into the work. They are old, old, stories and they are there to support to person, were built to protect, almost like a castle. Then there are people who have a few things figured out, they’re open to revisiting their past and open to new interpretations. These are the healthier, less rigid folks. Both have stories, but in one the stories are closed, the other they are open.

    • Such good points and very important. I like the way you describe stories that are constructed like rigid armour – I imagine they get constructed because they had a very definite use once but become sort of calcified and brittle and cause damage instead of protecting. My father has dementia but the thing is that the narrative part of his brain is obviously not damaged though other parts are and so he has ‘stories’ about everything. And because he has complete (and quite insane) stories full of exquisite detail he believes they must be true. He believes them so much that he has made police reports on the basis of his ‘stories’.

      Just today he told me a long convoluted story about how a Creamery Manager in a village in Co. Limerick here in Ireland is working with Barrack Obama trying to get grants for his creamery. That’s one of the more benign stories. A lot of his stories cause great distress to himself and people like me and my siblings – so I really do know there are stories that are not helpful.

      But what I like in general about the idea of constructing one’s own narrative is the idea that we aren’t just victims. We aren’t just condemned to be altered and warped and destroyed by our experiences but each of us has an integral system for recovering from trauma via our own narrative faculty. Some of us write in order to understand everything (I do anyway) but everyone can access this same facility in order to search for understanding and recovery. I wonder if the difference between stories that help and stories that harm is that the former are tools and the latter are weapons? Even in a case of dementia like my Dad a lot of the destructive ‘stories’ are based on fear and therefore weapon-like. I don’t know. It’s just a thought.

      • I think you hit the nail on the head, with the tools and weapons comparison. It seems the factories for creating weapons, if we believe they are necessary, will produce somewhat endlessly. The primitive parts of our brain, which house those pathways designed to insure our survival, are wide and not easily overgrown. The higher functioning pathways are quite different. They must be created, and they are easily overrun, which means they must be maintained. The primitive pathways apparently maintain themselves. Pretty fascinating stuff, this brain science.

        I’m sorry about your father.

  5. I think our stories offer us shelter as they help shape the world into something we can hold onto. And we have to let them go, like letters in bottles, or balloon notes into the sky. A really good story, belongs to everyone, and our individual ones are interwoven into tapestry of our common history… It is there that we get to live forever.

    The mechanics of our capacity to tell and retell, to be audience and orator, are one of our strongest biological gifts. How many times have the details of the name of the fella who gone done something escapes us, but his actions, and our understanding continue past.

    We get to build our stories, every single waking moment, and for some, we get stuck on one page, rereading it until it makes sense, never realizing that sometimes, we’re missing out on the rest of the book that helps clue us into the pages we’re stuck on.

    I don’t have any comforting thoughts for the troubles with your father but there’s a piece of me that wonders if digging back into the primary stories he knows, the ones that helped shaped him as a child, can’t help a bit. I want to say maybe I’ve read something about this before but then again… I might just be making something up ‘in hope of’.

    I am sure you can tell why I’d love this post. Thank you for sharing.

    • I’m glad you liked it, Erik and I agree with pretty much everything you are saying about the importance of stories. Also like your description of ‘getting stuck on a page’ – it’s like Patrice was saying as well. As for my poor father – it’s actually the case that his ‘stories’ are often rooted in things that really did happen in the past. However, he is difficult to help as he is so convinced that his stories are reality – sometimes scary reality – but I appreciate the suggestion and will look into it some more. Thanks.

  6. OMG, I couldn’t watch this video this morning when I posted earlier…I just read what you wrote, which got me blathering. Now I’m crying instead of eating my lunch because Ken Burns is so frickin’ awesome. I’ve never heard him talk before, he’s got a strong presence. What he said about trying to bring the dead back with his stories resonates for me, more than I can say.

    • It’s a great video – I am sorry it made you cry – though maybe even if he sort of makes fun of himself for the idea perhaps he is really onto something? Perhaps this storytelling is part of healing loss as well – even in non-filmakers? How do we remember anybody? The childhood of our children? Our own childhoods – with the children we were? Those we have loved? Those we have lost? Maybe these stories are, in some ways, as real as anything else?

  7. Facebook has not done well (so far – I’m sure they will regroup) on the market because most people really do not want shallow connections; most of us want meaningful dialogue. Most of us value exchanging stories that inspire growth and change. Which is why Creating Reciprocity is my new default page (no pressure).

  8. How very affirmative and timely for me to read this post the day after I had completed a closely,typed three page letter to each of my adult children sharing what I am learning about my own traumatic past and how it helps me to understand the challenges they are facing as adults. I very deeply appreciate this post. Our “stories” we MUST tell–and then read back to ourselves frequently.

  9. Interesting observations even if I’m inclined to question Dan Siegel’s premise. It is encouraging for though…

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