I feel like she became critical of me after my father died two years ago. I was very close with him, and her father left when she was young, so she couldn’t relate to what I was going through.
There’s a friend at work whose father died a few months ago, and who understands my grief. I wish I could talk to my wife like I talk to my friend, but I feel like she barely tolerates me now. How can I get my wife back?”
So, what you probably picked up on is that this is the same story I read you earlier, just told from another narrator’s point of view.
Her story was about a husband who’s cheating, his story is about a wife who can’t understand his grief. But what’s remarkable, is that for all of their differences, what both of these stories are about is a longing for connection.
And if we can get out of the first-person narration and write the story from another character’s perspective, suddenly that other character becomes much more sympathetic, and the plot opens up. That’s the hardest step in the editing process, but it’s also where change begins.
What would happen if you looked at your story and wrote it from another person’s point of view? What would you see now from this wider perspective? That’s why, when I see people who are depressed, I sometimes say, “You are not the best person to talk to you about you right now,” because depression distorts our stories in a very particular way. It narrows our perspectives.
The same is true when we feel lonely or hurt or rejected. We create all kinds of stories, distorted through a very narrow lens that we don’t even know we’re looking through.
And then, we’ve effectively become our own fake-news broadcasters. I have a confession to make. I wrote the husband’s version of the letter I read you. You have no idea how much time I spent debating between granola and pita chips, by the way.
I wrote it based on all of the alternative narratives that I’ve seen over the years, not just in my therapy practice, but also in my column.
When it’s happened that two people involved in the same situation have written to me, unbeknownst to the other, and I have two versions of the same story sitting in my inbox. That really has happened.
I don’t know what the other version of this woman’s letter is, but I do know this: she has to write it.
Because with a courageous edit, she’ll write a much more nuanced version of her letter that she wrote to me. Even if her husband is having an affair of any kind — and maybe he is — she doesn’t need to know what the plot is yet. Because just by virtue of doing an edit, she’ll have so many more possibilities for what the plot can become.
Now, sometimes it happens that I see people who are really stuck, and they’re really invested in their stuckness. We call them help-rejecting complainers.
I’m sure you know people like this. They’re the people who, when you try to offer them a suggestion, they reject it with, “Yeah, no, that will never work, because …”
“Yeah, no, that’s impossible, because I can’t do that.”
“Yeah, I really want more friends, but people are just so annoying.”
What they’re really rejecting is an edit to their story of misery and stuckness. And so, with these people, I usually take a different approach.
And what I do is I say something else. I say to them, “We’re all going to die.” I bet you’re really glad I’m not your therapist right now.
Because they look back at me the way you’re looking back at me right now, with this look of utter confusion. But then I explain that there’s a story that gets written about all of us, eventually. It’s called an obituary.
And I say that instead of being authors of our own unhappiness, we get to shape these stories while we’re still alive. We get to be the hero and not the victim in our stories, we get to choose what goes on the page that lives in our minds and shapes our realities.
I tell them that life is about deciding which stories to listen to and which ones need an edit. And that it’s worth the effort to go through a revision because there’s nothing more important to the quality of our lives than the stories we tell ourselves about them.
I say that when it comes to the stories of our lives, we should be aiming for our own personal Pulitzer Prize.