Care to tell me the story of your life? I’m a good listener. It is my job. I’m a psychologist, that’s what I do.
The way you narrate your life and explain who you are speaks volumes. Lots of people think they have the great novel in mind. I’m more interested in autobiographies.
At times, patients have trouble looking back. They go through an existential crisis: “It’s just not how I expected my life would be,” they say.
“What did you expect?” I ask.
“This may sound stupid,” they reply, “but I thought there’d be more of a story.’”
There always is more of a story. Therapy sessions prompt conversation and the story flows, it evolves as the patient explains who they are, with feeling. Emotional highs and lows emerge. The person’s true personality, traits, goals and values are unveiled.
In psychology, your life story develops as you assimilate facts and events, pick them apart and weave them back together. You shape your identity by what you choose to include and the way you talk about the things that come to mind.
I help patients sort through what is important to them––how and why those things were important––and how circumstances affected their lives.
The process varies from one person to the next. Not only are there individual differences in how people think of their stories, they vary in their ability to engage in narrative storytelling.
Normal, healthy adults can produce a life story. After all, relationships involve sharing chapters of our story. We’ve all done that.
The twist is life rarely follows the logical progression taken by novels, movies and plays. Ones where the clues finally make sense, guns left on mantles go off at the appropriate moment and the climax comes in the third act. In that context the word ‘story’ seems like an illogical way to frame your life’s chaos. The trick is to remember where stories come from in the first place: story lines come from our imagination and our life and reflect the way we make sense of the world around us.
All that can be a complicated undertaking. People contain libraries. Someone might have a large narrative for her whole life, and different narratives for various parts of her life: career, romance, family and faith. There may be narratives within each realm that intersect, diverge, or contradict each other, all filled with micro-stories of specific events.
My therapy sessions have patients do “autobiographical reasoning” about events. We identify lessons learned and insights gained in life experiences that mark development or growth.
There are consequences to both telling and not telling. Suppose a patient tells too much and discloses information that makes them vulnerable. Once a secret is revealed they are no longer the only one in control of the information. On the other hand, a patient might fear the way I’ll react to a story, so they keep it to themselves and miss out on the enrichment that comes with a back-and-forth therapy conversation. Patients that withhold discussing a particular event limit their potential for growth.
If a patient expresses concern about something because they think it’s wrong when, in certain circumstances, it’s merely inappropriate, we talk about it. In the end, they have richer, more elaborate memories.
This is the premise of my talk therapy and performance coaching.
(Continued next week)