(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