The psychologist Jerome Bruner described this beautifully — he said, “To tell a story is, inescapably, to take a moral stance.”
All of us walk around with stories about our lives. Why choices were made, why things went wrong, why we treated someone a certain way — because obviously, they deserved it — why someone treated us a certain way — even though, obviously, we didn’t. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE STORIES WE TELL ARE MISLEADING OR INCOMPLETE OR JUST WRONG?
Well, instead of providing clarity, these stories keep us stuck. We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens.
The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become. That’s the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it’s also their power.
Because what it means is that if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives. And today, I want to show you how.
Now, I told you I’m a therapist, and I really am, I’m not being an unreliable narrator. But if I’m, let’s say, on an airplane, and someone asks what I do, I usually say I’m an editor.
And I say that partly because if I say I’m a therapist, I always get some awkward response, like, “Oh, a therapist. Are you going to psychoanalyze me?”
And I’m thinking, “A: no, and B: why would I do that here? If I said I was a gynecologist, would you ask if I were about to give you a pelvic exam?”
But the main reason I say I’m an editor is because it’s true. Now, it’s the job of all therapists to help people edit, but what’s interesting about my specific role as Dear Therapist is that when I edit, I’m not just editing for one person. I’m trying to teach a whole group of readers how to edit, using one letter each week as the example.
So I’m thinking about things like, “What material is extraneous?”
“Is the protagonist moving forward or going in circles, are the supporting characters important or are they a distraction?”
“Do the plot points reveal a theme?”
And what I’ve noticed is that most people’s stories tend to circle around two key themes. The first is freedom, and the second is change.
And when I edit, those are the themes that I start with. So, let’s take a look at freedom for a second. Our stories about freedom go like this: we believe, in general, that we have an enormous amount of freedom. Except when it comes to the problem at hand, in which case, suddenly, we feel like we have none.
Many of our stories are about feeling trapped, right? We feel imprisoned by our families, our jobs, our relationships, our pasts. Sometimes, we even imprison ourselves with a narrative of self-flagellation — I know you guys all know these stories.
The “everyone’s life is better than mine” story, courtesy of social media. The “I’m an impostor” story, the “I’m unlovable” story, the “nothing will ever work out for me” story. The “when I say, ‘Hey, Siri, ‘ and she doesn’t answer, that means she hates me” story.
I see you, see, I’m not the only one. The woman who wrote me that letter, she also feels trapped. If she stays with her husband, she’ll never trust him again, but if she leaves, her children will suffer.
Now, there’s a cartoon that I think is a perfect example of what’s really going on in these stories. The cartoon shows a prisoner shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out. But on the right and the left, it’s open. No bars. The prisoner isn’t in jail. That’s most of us.
We feel completely trapped, stuck in our emotional jail cells. But we don’t walk around the bars to freedom because we know there’s a catch.
Freedom comes with responsibility. And if we take responsibility for our role in the story, we might just have to change. And that’s the other common theme that I see in our stories: change.
Those stories sound like this: a person says, “I want to change.” But what they really mean is, “I want another character in the story to change.”
Therapists describe this dilemma as: “If the queen had balls, she’d be the king.” I mean — it makes no sense, right?
Why wouldn’t we want the protagonist, who’s the hero of the story, to change? Well, it might be because change, even really positive change, involves a surprising amount of loss. Loss of the familiar.