You Are Not Your Story
We all have a story. Our story, or stories, emerge from the meaning we make about our experiences in life. Making meaning and the stories are part of what makes us human. And, like all universal human experiences, the stories we have about our lives serve an important purpose. How we relate to those stories guides our actions, informs our worldview, and impacts our quality of life. Given its power, developing an awareness of what one’s currently predominant story is and how one relates to it is a central part of conscious living, and forgiveness when we have regrets or hold resentments.
In The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness, I outline five core competencies (or skills) we can develop to increase our capacity to become more naturally forgiving. The first skill is: understand your story.
As it relates to the need for forgiveness, the story always goes something like: Something happened, and because it happened (and that person/people did what they did), my life (or some aspect of it) is not the way it “should” be. I would be different had that not happened and it is “their” (or “my”) fault.
Unexamined, your unique version of this account and its impact seem objectively true. You believe—even if you wish you didn’t—that what happened is at least partially responsible for your current suffering.
But what happened is not the primary source of our suffering; it is our interpretation that holds much of the power. And, the story is never the same as what happened. The story encompasses grievances, big (trauma) and small (resentments), beliefs, judgments, assumptions, and all of the other experiences one has had up to now.
To be clear, I am not saying that nothing happened or that what happened doesn’t matter. It does. If what happened had not happened, you would be in a different place in life. Your suffering would be different. And so would your blessings and your strengths.
Fully comprehending the distinction between the stories we have and what happened is crucial for healing for several reasons that may sound obvious, but for some reason, they tend to elude our intuition.
What happened is in the past, so we feel powerless when we try to imagine it differently (which is part of the forgiveness process). We know we cannot change the past, and realizing this can be a barrier for many people who decide to work through painful memories but are unsure how to proceed. When we view what happened as the source of our suffering, we feel helpless.
The story is happening now. Test this for yourself. When is the knowing that because, for example, your ex lied to you, you cannot trust others? It’s in real-time, isn’t it? When we can see clearly that the story is always in this moment, we regain some control. We start to see that we are burdened by an imprint of the past, not the actual past. Once we understand this, that imprint is no longer subconscious, and we can choose. This changes everything because it means we play an active role in the story’s creation and, therefore, can deconstruct it if we are willing.
What happened is objective and factual but not retrospectively knowable. Human beings experience the world through filters we call the five senses. And, we filter from a perspective (location in time and space relative to everything else) that no one else holds. Even if we are asked to explain something that occurred ten minutes ago, our recollection would be uniquely ours. All we have is the story. The passing of time and the perceived impact only widen the gap between what happened and our interpretation.
One of the most pervasive and persistent stories I have had is about my childhood (like us all). When I was seven years old, my father kidnapped me and hid me from my family in a foreign country for three and a half years. That’s what happened. The story was that my father was a sick man, and my mother did not care about me. I was a pawn they used to hurt each other and nothing more. I was essentially relevant. For a long time, the painful and traumatic events surrounding this time in my life were a central part of my story. I spent twenty years telling myself, “I am broken because my father kidnapped and abused me. I would be better if that did not happen.” I was saying that there was something wrong with me—I was other than I should be—and it was his fault. I was saying I was powerless today because of what happened in the past.
Through forgiving my father, I was surprised to see the story change. While those traumas did have real impacts on my life, it was untrue that I was powerless. It was also untrue that objectively linking what happened to my suffering was impossible. The feeling of powerlessness came from my story of my victimization, not directly from the trauma. I was doing the best I could with the wounds I perceived. Yes, I was abducted. Yes, it had an impact. But, after I forgave, I realized that even the dark days contributed to making me who I am. I realized I was the lead actor in the way my life unfolded. I was in charge. I came to see that my story was, in part, a way of avoiding responsibility.
My story of brokenness was also a way of making the people I had not yet forgiven pay for what I believed they had done to me. With healing, I came to see that what was done was not done to me. When people hurt others, particularly those they love, they do so out of their pain. It is not about us at all. (This is true for us, too, when we cause harm).
Tips for Learning the Distinction
Let’s close by exploring some techniques to tell the difference between what happened and the story. The simplest test is to ask yourself, “Is it a fact or a judgment?” This can be trickier than it sounds. People really want to believe that the individual who hurt them is “a monster,” or “a liar,” or “cold-hearted.” When it comes to people, one of the easiest ways to know if you are mired in the story versus some broader truth is to look at how the person appears in your interpretation. Is your view of them archetypal or clinical? Is she an angel? Is he an asshole? Ask yourself if everyone who knows the person would have the same evaluation. Would their mother agree? If you’re honest about this, you’ll quickly see that the story is just that—your story about who they are. Now, ask yourself this question: “Does this story make me feel safe or at peace?” If the answer is no, maybe it is in your best interest to let it go.
Another nifty test is to reflect on how vivid the details are in your mind. Interestingly, research shows that the specifics of events become more vivid over time. This is not because we remember more; it is because our minds begin to add details to fit our evaluation of the situation. We fill in gaps, and the bits we add are both fabricated and designed to preserve our evaluation. This is a natural human response, so don’t feel bad. We all do it. Once we know and acknowledge it, we can begin to loosen the hold the story has over us. We can start to take our power back and find comfort knowing we don’t know.
You are not your story. You are not the sum of all the painful things that have happened in your life, whether at your hand or another’s. You are a whole being, complex, and beautifully intricate. And wholly unique. Something fascinating happened as I learned to forgive—I remembered the good times. I saw my beauty and vulnerability through the lens of tenderness and truth. I realized that the story I had simply was not the whole truth, and I let it go. You, too, have the power to write a story that is both truthful and empowering.