Most of us are relentless storytellers, whether we are aware of it or not. We chew on past hurts and grievances, nurturing them along.
We silently rehash our favorite list of injustices, developing personal stories of victimization to explain away current behavior. We even share treasured stories with friends who obligingly listen, make sympathetic noises and then agree. It's just enough to keep the story line going.
One of my favorite stories has its roots in kindergarten. My older brother, Joey, had been quite the cutup in school, always in trouble for something. I can still remember my pretty teacher, Mrs. Hodge, calling my name for attendance on my first day of school. After reading my last name out loud she looked up quickly with a funny look on her face and asked if I was related to Joseph. I reluctantly admitted I was and then resolved in my small head to show her we were nothing alike.
That fall, when report cards were distributed for the first time, I remember anxiously waiting for my name to be called, wondering if I was going to get any of those dreaded D's and F's my brother usually did. I stood up to walk to her desk and passed out cold. When I awoke, I saw I had straight A's.
I have shared that story many times, whenever I needed to explain away something about myself. It usually won me sympathy and extra attention. But recently I told it to one of my wiser friends.
"Wow, Barbara, how long have you been telling that story?" she asked me. At first I was mortified, but then realized that she had done me a huge favor by confronting my story.
Why was I still telling it after 49 years?
After some painful self-examination, I realized I used that story to explain and justify some unhealthy behavior patterns. That story cast me as the good girl, the victim, the pleaser — roles that hadn't served me in a long time.
That is what we often do with stories like my kindergarten experience. We keep them alive because they keep us off the hook. I would never really have to be responsible for my behavior as long as I could continue to excuse or rationalize it away with this treasured story.
Real harmony in life — not just the kind of pleaser behavior you see in my kindergarten story — is built on a solid foundation of self-examination with a bit of self-skepticism. In order to develop and maintain solid, growing relationships you have to be willing to take a few simple yet difficult steps. (For a more thorough examination of this valuable tool, pick up Byron Katie's book, Loving What Is.)
• Identify your internal story line as soon as it starts to ratchet up.
• Allow a little space to grow between yourself and the story.
(This enables you to step ever so slightly to the side of the internal drama, which makes for easier self-examination.)
• Practice asking yourself over and over again if the story line is really true. I usually end up admitting to myself that it might not be quite as bad as I am making it out to be.
• Take some deep breaths and give yourself permission to release the attachment you have to the story, along with any negative emotions it has generated.
• The final key to real harmony is probably the most challenging part of all: Resist the urge to criticize yourself as you practice these steps. Beating yourself up will slow down or even stop the harmony building practice altogether.
Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist who provides coaching services and presents workshops on a variety of wellness and family health topics. To contact her, e-mail her at email@example.com or call (727) 418-7882.