“A man is always a teller of stories. He sees everything that happens to him through them. And, he tries to live his life, as if he were telling a story.” Jean Paul Sartre
It’s tough to integrate into our personal story a time in our life that turned us upside down, challenging all that we’ve known and trusted. Take, for example, the 2006 scandal that forced Preacher Ted Haggard to resign as senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when he admitted to paying a male masseuse for sex and using crystal meth. Until the break of this scandal, I didn’t know much about the Preacher Ted Haggard and his spouse Gayle. But, Gayle Haggard’s approach to this scandalous time tells me much about who she is as a person and her deep understanding as to the makings of a fulfilling and worthwhile life.
The questions that weighed on Gayle Haggard’s mind in the days and months that followed the downfall of her husband must have been heavy, to say the least. How does she make sense of what happened, the contradictions in her husband’s behavior? Who is he; who is she now that this has happened? In an interview talking about this difficult time, Gayle said, I asked myself,
I could not have said it better. These are the exact questions that you need to ask yourself at a time in your life when how you’ve thought about yourself is changing right before your eyes. Gayle Haggard decided that her marriage, as she had known it, was worth the fight. She decided to story this hard time in her life as a wife who would fight for her marriage and the beliefs and values for which she stands. This is how she chose to navigate this part of her life story.
We Are All Story Tellers
But, the point of my post today is really about you. You have a story viewpoint from which you articulate the many things that happen to you. Even a short story about something funny that happened to you today, reveals the role you choose to play in life, the values you support, and the way that you handle adversity. It’s your particular take on your life from a first-person point of view. This is the story that you prefer to tell about yourself.
But, the problem is that not all personal stories are the same in terms of promoting our welfare, in getting us from points A to B in our life, and doing so in a way that speaks to our endurance, learning and growth, and resilience. Some of our preferred stories limit development from one stage of life to another and thus keep us stuck at a certain point on our life timeline. They restrict us, rather than open up possibilities in new ways of being.
As I said, I knew nothing about Gayle Haggard prior to 2006, but how she chose to move from one chapter of her life to the next told me much about the personal story that she fashioned thus far. She positions herself as a hero rather than a victim and has courted themes of faithfulness, dedication, resilience and courage in life. This is her preferred story line; it is one of dedication to her religion and marriage. Moreover, her story is one of dedication to herself! She entertained leaving her husband, but concluded that leaving was not the fight she wished to court. It doesn’t matter if she’s right or wrong, or if you or I would do the same. What matters is that she is expressing a personal point of view that at the end of the day is the story that Gayle Haggard wants to tell. Only she will know down the road what this chapter means to the rest of her life. She is the one who will have to make sense of the decisions that she’s made with regard to her personal story.
The Personal Story Approach To Change
There are two schools of thoughts in therapy with regard to the way to bring about change. You can change your behavior or change your dialogue. The personal story approach to change emphasizes the latter. This approach is at the heart of a popular psychotherapy called Narrative Therapy. With this therapy, people learn how to reflect upon and organize their thoughts and feelings into a meaningful dialogue that tells a story about what happened to them.
How do you know if the story you give to the experience is more right than wrong? If it is right, you will start to feel freer and more ready to move forward, as now your understanding highlights your needs and desires and makes sense with the features of the life you’ve lived thus far.
Do not mistake the activity of putting experience in story form as easy or simple-minded. You are not just looking for the silver lining, ignoring the negatives, or putting a positive spin on the things that happen to you. The reflective process that yields the story is a challenging psychological task. You have to:
First, consider your thoughts and feelings, even the ones that you may be trying to avoid or deny. I’m sure Gayle Haggard had feelings of betrayal, fear and doubt. She may have wondered why she didn’t know this part of her husband. Or, she realized that she always knew this about him, but chose to look the other way. Whatever she found, she had to face her inner world squarely.
Second, generate the understanding and meaning from this process that opens you to the role that best serves the aims, goals, and purpose of your whole life.“Who are you?” is the question here. You may decide that you need to exercise more self-oriented aims at this stage of your life. Perhaps, you decide that a complete game change is wrong for you, because you’ve been living the life that feels most authentic to you. I don’t know the details of Gayle Haggard’s thought process. But, from her decision, I can imagine it went something like this: I have lived by the religious principles of forgiveness. What matters most to me now? Is it my hurt and disillusionment with my husband or the principles on which I have based my life? It seems by her story that Gayle Haggard is fighting more for her principles than even her marriage. This is how she understands and gives meaning to this hard time in her life.
Third, pick up on the stories already inside of you that perhaps you have forgotten, missed, or lost. These stories that have been in pushed into the background of your awareness often contain aspects of your personality that you can use to start a new chapter in your life. Many years ago, a patient of mine was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that required him to have a stem cell transplant. This led to a series of losses that led to him being wrongfully terminated from his job, just at the time when he needed their support. He was a very successful businessman, pulling down six figures a year. Everything about this man screamedWall Street. But, so much had changed for him at this time. He had to reach deep inside of himself to find parts, lost in the decisions that he had made in life so far.
He recovered the teacher in himself. He had never really thought about himself in this way. But, in his early teenage years, my patient started to care for others, when he lost his father. This thrust him in the role of taking care of his mother and siblings who never assimilated fully into the American culture. He helped to support them financially and taught them how to get their needs met within the American culture. The teacher emerged into his awareness. Well, to cut to the quick, he began to work for a non-profit agency that found donor matches for people who needed stem cell transplants. And, of course, with his business savvy, you better believe, he helped this agency grow to a newer, more prosperous level. This new story line was truly a game changer for him.
The story framework that results from these three steps should serve as a bridge to your future. This is the story line that will be most instrumental to your personal growth. How will you know it? Your gut resonates deeply with your story. Yes, that’s right, you will say. And, your whole body will relax in response to it.
I’ve said many times to my patients over the years,
“Is this how you choose to story this part of your life experience?” Be careful, because the story you wish to tell about what happens to you is really all you have.You are narrating this life chapter, as you see it. Be sure it’s the story that you wish to tell and that it gives you many options from which to carve out the next chapter of your life.”