The Courage to Re-Story
I would like to begin with a metaphor. If our lives are a collection of stories, ideally we experience ourselves as the author, writing these stories. Characters arrive and depart, helping to write bits of the story and filling in dialogue. But with ourselves as author we have creative influence over the story that is written and the direction it takes. Our stories unfold, compiled into chapters and books, filed neatly on a beautiful bookshelf, easy to access when we desire to remember, re-tell, or re-explore. Our primary focus though is on the present, on the stories we are still writing. We are mindful of the here and now, even as we intentionally revisit past stories and glance into the future toward the stories we want to yet write.
But what happens… When unwanted events happen unexpectedly? When people force themselves into our stories, acting out scenes we wish to avoid, staying much longer than they are welcome? When negativity, chaos, loss, heartache, and trauma boldly invade? What happens when what has come before seems to dictate the way this story can be told? When the events that unfold and the characters who have found their way into the story seem to have more power than the author’s desire to take the story in a particular direction
Instead of getting filed on our bookshelf, freeing us up to keep writing, we carry around certain stories or they consume us, often on repeat. Perhaps they block our view or weigh us down. They may be known by those around us or a secret story only we or a few others know. Perhaps we burry them or shove them in a closet hoping that to hide them is to cease to be effected by them. All of these – constantly carrying them, excessively replaying them, or trying to shut them out – cause their own unique problems.
Trauma is a unique type of story. Trauma is a significantly distressing event that creates overwhelming difficulties, often in the form of re-experiencing the event, negative changes to worldview, and difficulty coping with the resulting negative emotions and beliefs. One of the particularly damaging ways trauma effects us is the way it changes our view of ourselves. We can come to see ourselves as defective, overly-responsible for what has happened, chronically vulnerable or unsafe, and powerless with little control or choice. Our experiences seem to teach us and our storylines start to develop themes. Themes like: I am not enough. I don’t deserve love. I am bad. I am damaged. I am stupid. I don’t belong. I should have known better. I cannot be trusted. I cannot protect myself. I can’t trust anyone. I am powerless and weak. I am a failure. I have to be perfect. I am inadequate. I deserved it.
With storylines like these, is it any wonder that we suffer? That we often attempt to cope by avoiding our stories?
As a professional counselor specializing in trauma therapy, one of the tragedies I witness on a near daily basis is the way individuals need to wrestle with not only the trauma of events in their lives, but also with the ways their views of themselves become more negative and distorted. Trauma often has the effect of creating shame, one of my favorite definitions of shame comes from researcher Dr. Brené Brown: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Once shame and our associated beliefs start to settle into the brain, we become more and more stuck. From an author on Narrative Therapy*: “With repetition, stories harden into reality, sometimes trapping the storytellers within the boundaries that the storytellers themselves have helped to create.” In order to get un-trapped and get to re-storying, we need to be willing to own and examine our stories, in order to critique the false and incomplete parts.
From Dr. Brown, “Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
Once we have chosen with courage to face our stories of shame, it is helpful to identify one of our first goals: To edit the false and incomplete parts of our stories. To do this, it is helpful to understand a few of the ways that our brains are effected by trauma and the stories we tell about it. The problem with memories and the resulting stories we tell is that we (and those around us) are always making interpretations. Our interpretations may be more or less accurate based on many factors. There are three kinds of bias and distorted thinking that I want to highlight today:
First, Confirmation Bias is a way of thinking that makes us pay attention to and prioritize information that supports what we already believe. Additionally, we are less likely to look for contradicting evidence, and if we encounter information that doesn’t fit our theories we tend to discard it (seeing it as untrue, an exception, or unimportant) rather than incorporating it into our schemas. So for example: If we have a story that says we are unlovable and unworthy, when our brains are using confirmation bias, every time something happens that supports this idea we put that as evidence into our box labeled “unlovable and unworthy.” But when things happen that don’t fit this storyline, we don’t change the label on the “unlovable and unworthy” box to include this new idea, create a new box to hold this contradicting evidence, or add a new miscellaneous box for confusing information that we have no category for yet; rather we discard this information not letting it call our current beliefs into question. The problem with this is that often trauma (at best) makes our story an incomplete story and (at worst) an untrue story. So we end up with a pile of truths discarded behind us that would actually be quite helpful to us, if we would find a way to incorporate it into our stories.
Second, Negative Filtering is a distortion in thinking that causes us to focus on negatives and overlook positives. This is really easy to do, especially after trauma! Our solution here is not to reverse it, using a “positive filter” instead, only acknowledging the positives and overlooking or denying the negatives. Rather it is to look for the opportunities to tell a fuller, more complete story. So for example: Someone might acknowledge their trauma (the negative) that they were unsafe and abused in a relationship or context in which they should have been able to be safe and respected. Recognizing the positive may be about acknowledging the relief of being out of that relationship, being in a safer context, or having healthier relationship now.
Third, Emotional Reasoning is a way of thinking that causes us to assume something is true because we feel that it is, even if we lack actual evidence. Trauma often contributes to this way of thinking because when an event happens, our brain doesn’t just remember the story of what happened, it also stores other information like our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and other sensory experience. So when new situations happen that seem to confirm our worst fears, the experience of re-experiencing past emotions (like shame, fear, loneliness, disgust) and body sensations (like a racing heart, tightening muscles, nausea) make challenging our feeling that our story must be true that much more difficult.
I could spend a great deal of time teaching about various distortions and biases that our brains quite naturally do, but I simply don’t have the time today. But let these 3 examples serve as evidence that we do not think as objectively and reality based as we assume we do. Our brains are skilled in thinking patterns that keep us stuck and struggling to heal from trauma! When we learn about confirmation bias, negative filter, and emotional reasoning, we start to consider that our current stories do in fact need editing or Re-Storying: And this isn’t about editing out the objective parts of the story (pretending that what happened didn’t happen or pretending that damage was not done).
Re-storying is about (1) challenging our false interpretations regarding what has happened and what it means about ourselves, (2) avoiding the tendency to omit important information that provides a fuller or more complex story that could be told, and (3) refusing the idea that the story ends with the trauma or offending characters in our story getting the last word or action. As we start this process of re-storying (and it is a process!), we begin to see new opportunities. Re-storying creates space to recognize the fuller story that has already taken place that needs to be remembered when that story is recalled. But it is also an invitation to keep writing the story, because you are still in process!
In Process is a valuable concept as I work with clients in my office and in my own life. Embracing process invites us to value both the end goal and the steps to get there. It allows us to be generous with ourselves, to be at peace knowing we are not at the final destination, and to rest along the way. And process encourages us to keep moving, knowing we are unfinished.
When we re-story, the themes that have echoed through our hearts and minds for years can start to shift and change. We start to tell truer and fuller stories; they might begin like this:
I experienced trauma…I was mistreated…I was devalued…I was hurt…I was victimized…I was abused…
And they continue:
AND…I am worthy of love and belonging. I am resilient and strong. I was wronged by someone who didn’t see or respect my value. I know better now. I can trust myself. I am safe now. I can find trustworthy people. I have more power to protect myself now. I can use my voice. I am using my experiences for good. I did the best I could. I’ve learned from my past, I’m healthier now. I always deserved love, kindness, and safety. I am enough.
I want to wrap up with a few take aways:
- Trauma distorts the stories we tell about ourselves – increasing the presence of untrue and/or incomplete stories.
- The stories you have lived do not dictate the possibilities for your future stories, whether they are endings yet unwritten or stories that have not even begun.
- With courage and hope, we can examine our own stories and own the re-storying process, in order to reconnect to our lives, other people, and ourselves. An important note here: When we try to do this for the stories of others, we run the risk of minimizing, re-traumatizing, and re-storying in ways that do not empower the other. The job of re-storying belongs to the author of the story!
- It’s difficult to re-story by ourselves. We need others to help us. This often takes a team and may include personal support people who care deeply, mentors or support groups who understand, a good trauma therapist, trauma-informed spiritual leaders, and wise authors. Re-Storying is a personal, complex, in depth process, that takes excessive amounts of courage, time, energy, and support.
May we each recognize the opportunity for today: To own the creating of our life story.
*Buckman, R., Kinney, D., & Reese, A. (2008). Narrative Therapies. In N. Coady & P. Lehmann (Eds.), Theoretical perspectives for direct social work practice: A generalist-eclectic approach (2nd ed., pp. 369-399). New York: Springer Publishing Company.