Whenever I start working with a new client, I explain that our first session will be two hours long, rather than the usual one. This gives us time to walk through the whole of my client’s story – from beginning to the present day. It is not uncommon for me to hear, “Oh gosh, I won’t need that long!” And yet, when the time comes, every minute of that precious two hours is needed.
We aren’t used to telling our stories this way. We are more likely to drop elements of our experiences into conversations instead, offering some context here and a little detail there. Our nearest and dearest hear longer chapters, these build intimacy and trust, but they are likely to be told out of order – prioritized instead by whatever is happening in our present to trigger an echo with past, requiring our story to step forward and explain.
And this is what our stories do – they explain who were, where we have come from, and how we have arrived where we are today. But for explanations to be effective, they need an audience. And they need an audience who understands.
Many of us have painful experiences of feeling misunderstood. This may be because of cross-cultural expectations or assumptions we have been caught up in (in the case of Third Culture Kids or expatriate workers) or because of our own society’s misunderstanding of our situation or experiences (in the case of many of us with chronic illness and pain). Either way, we can feel burnt by misunderstanding and hesitant to risk another attempt to tell our story. And yet, the need to tell it remains. We need to tell our story to make it real, restore our authorship and invite connection.
Telling our story makes it real.
For those of us with complex and fragmented stories, our stories can take on an unreal quality in our minds. They just won’t be told in a straight line, change language halfway through and our own character goes through frequent and dizzying metamorphoses. For some of us, certain chapters only seem to make sense to certain audiences and so we learn to compartmentalise for coherency’s sake. Finding a listener, an audience with people who will accept and understand all the pieces of our story is crucial. And the telling of our story to such an audience helps to make this story real. The words that narrate the fragmented elements of our selves ground our story, and bring it from mythology into reality. Telling our story makes it real.
Telling our story restores our authorship.
My daughter is fascinated by the narrator of any theatrical piece at her school, or even on her own entertainment DVDs. The narrator holds all the power of the piece, guides the story, and sets its tone. How many of us feel our stories have been told for us? Does the narrator hold our voice, or that of someone else’s? Our parents? If our family worked abroad, perhaps the sending organisation’s? Or our church’s? Where is our voice?
Telling our story is an opportunity to use our own words to tell of our own experiences. While we may lean on well-worn narratives from the past, we have a new invitation to forge new sentences and suggest new interpretations. We can become our own authors again, positioning ourselves as writers of the story, rather than having our story run away from us.
Telling our story invites connection.
Choosing our audience is important here. It’s important to protect those tender places in our story from indelicate and insensitive prodding. The worst culprit for this is sometimes our own selves. We reject our own experiences where they shame or worry us, where we have felt rejection from others we can take this and turn it on upon ourselves. We are author but we are also our own first audience. Do we receive our own stories compassionately? Gently? Do we connect with our own stories, accepting all the chapters with love and hopefulness?
We need connection. Connecting with our story connects us to our self. But it also has power to connect us with others. Where we have felt ourselves to be ‘terminally unique’ (Bennett 1993) we may overlook those universal experiences of loss, excitement, marginality and transition that are in fact shared by many whose stories look, on the face of it, entirely different from our own. Where we can use our stories to invite connection, sharing of experience, our sense of isolation dissipates and we invite relationship into our next chapters.
We need to tell our stories. It can feel risky, painful, vulnerable… but all the good stuff – groundedness, power and relationship – lie on the other side of story. If you need an ear to hear yours, get in touch here. It’d be my honour.
Bennett, J., 1993. Cultural Marginality: Identity Issues in Intercultural Training. In Paige, E. M., ed., 1993. Education for the Intercultural Experience. Intercultural Press: Yarmouth, Maine. pp. 109-136
Most interesting and insightful piece, Dr. Rachel. For many years, I’ve been jotting down memoir pieces, not to go into a big book, but to share as seems appropriate with sibs, children, grandchildren, and fellow MKs. Now in my winter years, I feel impelled to fill in some missing pieces, and I’m working intently on doing that. The big clock is ticking . . . Thanks for assembling those thoughts cogently, and for passing them on to us.
Thank you for reading, Dan… and sharing your experience of telling story. Those missing pieces are important, and leave such a legacy of story! I remember when my grandmother wrote of her war-time experiences, and how significant that was for explaining her to me a little more. More story = more richness of self!