Day 11: You might as well be the hero of your own story.

(Note:  This post is an adaptation of another chapter for a potential book.)

(More important note:  If I ever refer in this blog to somebody I’ve worked with, I will have changed the name and any identifying details.)

In her first therapy session with me, a woman I’ll call Selena told me how she had stopped using crack cocaine 10 years ago, after years of addiction starting when she was only 14.

I could see Selena’s shame and regret as she told me how unavailable she had been to her children when they were young.  She also told me about her mother, who had raised her children for her. Her mother had been — and was still, the day of our meeting — very disappointed in Selena.  Selena said, “She always talks to me like I’m no good.”

As Selena told me her rich, complicated story, she looked weary and sad, and her language about herself was painfully judgmental. She was owning responsibility for the consequences of her choices, but she also seemed beaten and hopeless about the future. She seemed to agree with how her mother saw her. I waited for her to say something positive about herself — at least to show some pride about how she’d stopped using drugs on her own and had been sober for a decade. Also, I could hear that she was doing so much to repair the relationships with her grown children, and how that was going very well.

And she revealed so many admirable qualities in her first meeting with me, including empathy, humor, and creativity.  But when I asked her to name her positive qualities, which I do during every first session, she couldn’t name a thing. She said, “There’s nothing positive about me.” When I reflected back those positive qualities I had witnessed in her already, she didn’t buy it.  She said, “I’ve screwed up so many things in my life, how could I see myself those ways?”

While I wanted to respect where she was — and certainly not invalidate her experience —   I also wanted to invite her to see things a little differently. On impulse, I said to her,  “This is what I’m thinking, Selena.  Why not see yourself as the hero of  your own story? You might as well. It’s your story, for heaven’s sake.”  And we talked about stories in movies or books, where a hero could screw up, alienate people, and even make a total mess of things at times. But the hero was always the hero.

The way I invited Selena to be the hero of her own story is straight out of Narrative Therapy, one of my favorite ways of working with people. Narrative Therapy focuses on the stories we tell about ourselves, including how we describe and present ourselves as the protagonist — the main character of our story. There are so many different ways to tell ANY story, and as we tell the story of our lives to ourselves and others, we are constantly making choices. We are  picking and choosing different details and interpretations, as we make meaning of our complex lives and the parts we play.

I have to admit that, as I’ve told the story of my life to myself and others over the years, there have been times where I haven’t seen myself as The Hero of my own story. Instead, I’ve been the The Loser. Or The Villain.  Or The Victim. Or some unimportant cast member, like Girl in Crowd with Squint.

Not being the hero of your own story may very well be the hardest thing to endure. We can always, somehow, meet and move through anything — including pain, suffering, and tragedy. But not  if we’ve torn our best selves out of the picture, leaving behind a void — a powerless, scorned creature stripped of possibility.

My most unbearable experiences of this — of not being able to see myself as the hero of my own story — were two  clinical depressions, at ages 22 and 45. During both bouts of depression (each lasting about six months, though they seemed much, much longer), my critical self judgment went through the roof. I found it impossible to see myself as worthwhile in any way, much less the hero of anybody’s story.

Actually, when I was depressed, I rewrote the positive parts of my story up until then, to make them fit my new narrative conclusion — that I was a worthless, weird, and pathetic person. For example, I was pretty well liked in high school and got elected to class officer my freshman and senior years. When I got depressed at 22, I rewrote that story completely. I decided that I had been such an object of ridicule and dislike, that my classmates had voted me in as practical jokes, laughing at me all the while. ( By the way, I came up with that imaginative and dastardly plot device on my own, about the same time that Stephen King was using a similar motif in “Carrie”) (although in King’s version, the humiliation was real, not imagined, and pretty much everybody got killed).

When my clients concoct such false, negative stories about themselves, I often acknowledge and admire their creativity, but I also invite them to look at the consequences of their negative narrative choices, which can be so miserable and painful.

Think about the stories you tell about yourself, dear reader, and how you describe yourself as a “character” in those stories. Do you tend to tell certain types of stories about yourself?

And if you’re  accentuating the negative, could you tell those same stories differently?

Think about it. You might already be telling the story of yourself quite differently at different times — depending on your mood, your distance from the events, and  how you happen to be seeing and judging yourself (and life in general) in the moment of the telling.

Inviting somebody else in — to hear your story and to give you feedback — can often help you tell the same story quite differently.  Different people add very different  perspectives.  (See, for example, “Rashomon,” a movie built on just that.)  Some people have perspectives that might be helpful, while others won’t (like Selena’s mother).

How about you? What stories do you tend to tell about yourself and how do you present yourself as a character? If you tend to tell stories about screw ups and disappointments, how does that make you feel?  Compare that to how you feel when you tell stories showcasing your good qualities (or something you love, something you’ve accomplished, or somebody who is important to you).

In every negative story you might tell, there are the seeds of a thousand different ways to tell it, authentically and with more positive shadings.  This isn’t an Everything is Beautiful,  rainbows-and-unicorns claim on my part — it’s  always true. There’s no way to tell any story completely and perfectly, capturing all the complexities and nuances of all the characters and details involved. Therefore, every story we tell contains different tales with different conclusions, and we make choices at each point in the telling.

So, again, why not make yourself the hero of your own story?  I don’t mean a simplistic, perfectly good hero, but a complex hero who makes mistakes. A hero who feels not only “positive feelings” like  joy and optimism. but also “negative” ones like anger, fear, sadness, disappointment, and despair.

I hope, I hope, I hope  that you can see yourself as your own hero,  as much as you possibly can.   Because it HELPS, more than anything else I’ve ever seen.

© 2013 Ann Koplow

Categories: personal growth | Tags: , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “Day 11: You might as well be the hero of your own story.

  1. Lawrence J. Siskind

    In my story, I heroically help the Girl with the Squint get elected class officer by fashioning a sturdy coalition to defeat Status!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Gene Phillips

    This is definitely my favorite post so far (I am catching up). I like the narrative theme, the actual stories, and all I learn from them.

  3. Tami Malone

    This is so great in my story I am a victim . As of today all is changing I am a HERO!

  4. Tami! You go, girl! You’re my hero, right now!

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  17. Ann

    I wrote a series of posts about feeling like a Monumental Fuck Up a couple of months back, now I’m wondering if I was accidentally doing narrative therapy? Interesting.


    • I would say that we are always doing narrative therapy, in a way. As we get wiser, we get more mindful of the stories we tell and learn to look for more options (rather than getting stuck in unhelpful stories).

  18. I found this post very helpful to me, given the things that are on my mind these days. Thank you.

    Have you ever thought of the question of guilt, though? Guilt is my particular issue. In my case, I feel guilty because I put a child up for adoption thinking that she would have a better life, but she didn’t; I recently reunited with her and learned that she did not have a good childhood. (She’s doing well now, though.)

    I was in therapy for about a year and I think my therapist hoped that I would just stop being so hard on myself. It’s not difficult for me to reframe my story in a different way, by remembering that I believed that I was doing the best that I could for my daughter; I trusted the adoption agency and even sought out an agency in a different province because the adoption rules were more favourable there. I could just think about those things rather than on how it turned out for her, or on the suddenly-obvious fact that the minute you relinquish your child, you can’t protect them anymore.

    But — I’m not really interested in letting myself off the hook. I want to focus on my guilt and the outcome for my daughter and learn to live with the guilt. That feels the most honest thing to me.

    I read Dan Shapiro’s book, Delivering Amelia, during my search for answers or at least kindred spirits. Dan Shapiro is a psychologist who often treats doctors, and Amelia was an obstetrician who came into his care after she was responsible for a serious brain injury to a baby. She becomes suicidal during her therapy (although it’s not really clear why).

    Shapiro ultimately sidesteps the question of guilt, though, by letting Amelia off the hook. She is exonerated in a court case, where it’s shown that the brain injury might not have been caused by her negligence (although she was negligent). She goes back to work. Shapiro considers her cured.

    But, could she have been cured if the trial had gone the other way? If she’d been found really and truly guilty, and not just coincidentally careless?

    Is there a way to retell a story of guilt, or deal with it in any other way, without denying the guilt? Has any therapist ever successfully treated a guilty person, who cared about what they had done and who didn’t find denying it acceptable? I am not talking about the kind of guilt that can be let go of by reminding ourselves that we all make mistakes, but something bigger, where another person was harmed.

    I read a memoir recently called Half A Life, in which the author recounts the story of living half his life with the knowledge that he had struck and killed a fellow student with his car when he was a teenager. Guilt is one of the issues he deals with, although from the start he makes it clear that he’s not actually guilty of any wrongdoing — the police found that the girl had for unknown reasons steered into his car. This is a beautiful piece of writing, and a searing look into the soul of the author — but not exactly a story of guilt. Rather, a story of two victims, one who died and one who was profoundly but invisibly affected. It is also a story of shame (he is heart-breakingly open about the things he did on the day of the accident that later seemed callous).

    Hmm, I hope that I haven’t overstepped the boundaries of the comment field with this tome. But your post gave me hope for an answer to this question that has been plaguing me (and, through me, my therapist as well)

    • You have not overstepped the boundaries.

      I appreciate, more than I can say, your comment.

      When I work with people, I often ask them if a thought helps them. That is, does a particular way of thinking help them move forward, connect better with others, get their needs met, etc.? At the same time, it’s helpful for people to be validated exactly where they are.

      In general, when I ask people if guilt is helping them, they say, “no.” I’m not sure what you would respond, at this point in your life.

      And perhaps that doesn’t matter. Perhaps guilt needs to be your companion on your journey now, in some way, and you are trying to figure out ways for that to work.

      Here’s another thought I have for you, this morning. I have witnessed people embracing difficult feelings whole-heartedly, in a new way, and that being healing. I wonder if loving the guilt would be helpful in any way, I wonder if that resonates for you at all.

      I doubt this response does justice to the depth and beauty of your comment, but this — like anything else — is a beginning.

      • “Loving the guilt” — Yes. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but that is the hidden path I’ve been looking for in the weeds. Thank you. I will try this.

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  22. Just wonderful and very much worth rereading.

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