People are natural storytellers: not just the performers amongst us, who can entertain an audience with their anecdotes, but all of us. By storytelling, I mean the way we communicate and give shape and order to our world. Even from infancy, when we babble incoherently, we’re verbalising our inner experiences, explaining ourselves through sound if not yet through words. To an attentive caregiver, the grunts, giggles and cries of a small child are entirely comprehensible and communicate a range of needs, including the need to be connected.
As children grow, their story-telling capacity becomes more sophisticated, as they develop a sense of past, present and future, of the concrete and the abstract, of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’. As young children grasp for ways to put into words their formative experience of the world, they blur reality and fiction. These ‘play-based’ stories anticipate the way that as adults we find analogies and metaphors to illustrate what has happened to us and how we feel about it, and with some protective distance from the actuality of the event.
Part of the therapeutic benefit of counselling is being provided with an audience, an attentive listener who is there to listen to your story. It can be a relief simply to put into words experiences and emotions you may not have shared with anyone else, or which you feel you’ve told those close to you too many times. But that’s only part of the story.
Even with a captive audience, stories tend not to be linear, chronological or sequential. We tend to be associative, one memory triggering another, and digressive (‘where was I?’). The gaps in our stories or the places of emphasis all have meaning. We may tell our stories differently according to our sense of audience, seeking to achieve intimacy, even manipulate, or to keep the recipient at a distance from the emotion of the experience. One of the aims of counselling might be to take the risk of telling your story, or stories, without the defences we use in our everyday interactions, such as the humour which minimises the discomfort of our experience or the rationalisations which explains it away. Counsellors are active listeners, who reflect back to you what they hear, including such defences, and help you to make sense of your story.
Although in our conscious awareness, our life stories do not start at our beginnings, our origins can have a powerful shaping force on the way we understand ourselves in the present and project into the future. Early attachments, or lack of them, are central to that early (emotional) story, even though we can’t remember those early months and years. The significance of our beginnings is reinforced by the stories we are told about ourselves. The knowledge of being born into a loving family, for instance (which is perhaps the story we are told by our families) can sustain us and give us the confidence and emotional tools to enter into other nurturing relationships. More difficult beginnings may feel like a legacy of loss, either at a conscious or unconscious level. At times of crisis, such as bereavement of the breakdown of a relationship, it can feel like the legacy is being lived out, as feelings of abandonment or isolation resurface. Even for someone with a history of more secure attachment, such losses can feel disorienting, entirely unfamiliar and at odds with the ‘story so far’. The loss of meaning that is sometimes part of bereavement stems in part from this disruption to the life story. Coming to terms with loss can be about reorienting to an unplanned future and finding new meaning in it.
There are some parts of our story that are written for us and some people seem to have little authorship of their own life at all. Despite the protestations of some politicians, we don’t all have equal opportunity to fulfil our potential and to make the choices that would make us happy and keep us well. Even in the most constrained circumstances, however, there is the capacity to act, to be the protagonist in if not the author of our own stories. Sometimes we need a little help to see how. In a counselling relationship, telling the story may lead to changing the story or writing new, more hopeful ones.