You Are Not Your Story

We all have a story. It is a part of the human condition. And, like all universal human experiences, it serves an important purpose. How we relate to the story we have about our life guides our actions, informs our world view and beliefs, and impacts our quality of life. Given its power, developing an awareness of what your story is and how you relate to it is one of the central components of healing.

In The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness, I outline five core competencies we can develop or improve to increase our capacity to become naturally forgiving. The first one is to understand your story.

As it relates to the need for forgiveness, the story goes something like: “This thing happened in the past and because it happened (and that person did it), things are not okay. Something is wrong.”

Unexamined, this is what is real to us. We believe that, because something happened, things are the way they are. But, in reality, something occurs between the “offense” and the need for forgiveness. It is our thought about what happened. The story we have is never what happened—it is our interpretation of it.

This is important because what happened is in the past, so when we try to imagine what happened differently (which is what forgiveness ultimately is), we feel powerless. We can’t change the past. Our body tightens, our breath becomes shallow. We feel helpless. And, in truth, despite how vivid and real it seems in our minds, we can never truly know the past. That doesn’t mean things didn’t happen. They did, or the need for forgiveness would not exist. But, because we experience life through our senses and individual point of view, the factual “what happened” simply doesn’t exist. What we know is the story we have about what happened.

For example, when I was seven, my father kidnapped me and hid me from my family for three and a half years. For many years after, this event and the events surrounding it were a central part of my story. I spent 20 years essentially telling myself: “If my father hadn’t kidnapped and abused me, I wouldn’t be the way I am. I would trust people and not fear intimacy.” What I was saying was there was something wrong with me—I was other than I should be—and it was his fault. I was saying I was powerless in my life because of what happened in the past.

After I had forgiven my father and the other people in my life, I realized I was making up much of my story. I say that with absolute compassion, not judgment. I was doing the best I could with the wounds I perceived. Yes, I was abducted. Yes, it had an impact. But, something magical happened after I forgave. I realized I always had the power to choose. 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 my way of avoiding my power. It was also my way of making the people I had not forgiven pay for what I believed they had done “to me.”

With healing, I came to see that nothing was ever done “to me.” When people hurt others, particularly those they love, they are doing so out of their own pain, validating a false belief about themselves. It is not about us at all. (This is true for us, too, when we cause harm).

When we can see clearly the story is always happening now—in this moment—we begin to regain our power. We begin to see more clearly that we are burdened by an imprint of the past, not the actual past.  It is something we are choosing; this changes everything because it means we play an active role in its creation and therefore, can deconstruct it if we are willing.

Let’s close by exploring some tips on how to tell the difference between what happened and the story. The easiest test is to ask yourself, “Is it a fact or a judgment?” This can be trickier than it seems. 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 story versus who they are is to look at how they appear in your interpretation. Is your view of them archetypal? Is she an angel?  Is he a devil? Is he the most amazing kid you could ever have? Ask yourself if everyone on the planet 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, consider it might be in your best interest to loosen your attachment to it.

A nifty test for events (it works for people, too) is to examine how vivid the details are in your mind. Interestingly, research shows that details of events become more vivid over time. The reason for this is not because we remember more; it is because we begin to add details to fit our judgments about the situation. We fill in gaps, and the filler is both fabricated and designed to defend our position. This is a natural human response, so don’t feel bad. We all do it. Once we know and acknowledge this, we can begin to loosen the hold the story has over us. We can start to take our power back and find comfort.

You are not your story. You are not the sum of all the painful things that happened in your life, whether at your hand or another’s. You are a whole being, complex, and beautifully intricate. And, wholly unique. Something interesting happened in my life as I learned to forgive—I began to remember 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.