Very early in life we begin learning language and relating to the world in part by making associations; If I cry, mother will come. If I throw a block, everyone will turn toward me. If I take a nap, daddy won’t yell. Etc. These associations, coupled with our observations of the environment are woven into stories we tell ourselves. We come to believe that some of them represent truth.
A mother who goes back to work full time after years in the home may be the foundation for a child’s story that he had been too difficult to care for. An overheard and rather innocuous statement such as “I can’t wait to get back to work!” may be interpreted incorrectly and turned into a tale of unworthiness.
This happens over and over again to individuals and it can be more complicated when we share stories of experiential traumas over time. I was in a conversation not too long ago with three ladies from my family. We had all attended an event more than 20 years ago and yet as we sat there reminiscing, we all had different recollections of how things went down that day. Imagine how that plays out from grandparent to child to grandchild across many generations.
Keep in mind that as stories are told, we tend to color it from our position, our stance; both physically and perceptually. Furthermore, we are apt to wrap it in the emotional envelope of how we experienced it at the time or, how we imagined it to be. I tend to think of the stories that came from Holocaust survivors and their agreed perspective that it was tortuous and horrible yet there were some who found light and others who surrendered to the darkness of it all.
This is one of the intrinsic elements that make us individual human beings. People raised in the south have heard stories all their lives about their heritage as have people raised in the north, east, and west. Some of those stories are laden with the hatred their forefathers coveted. Others were woven with hope and perseverance. Some stories fostered helplessness and fractured into positions of surrender. Others defied the cultural climate and pushed boundaries; creating new stories with happier endings.
It’s important to wrap our minds around the fact that we create stories as a way to categorize people, places, and things. These same parameters are applied to conceptual ideas like love, religion, gender, and most anything we think to save for reference.
If my mom and dad fought all the time, I probably have a story in my head that justifies marital discourse. If my brother got away with punching me most days, I might tend to think that bullying is normal. If I am consistently treated unkindly or belittled, the story I weave might leave me feeling unworthy.
All behavior is driven by emotion of some kind. Emotions are born through our stories. They are neither right or wrong but may definitely be based on a fictional story rather than one of truth. For example – one’s value is never determined by how someone else treats you.
All of this is to help you stop and think about your stories… do they need rewritten? When you see someone behaving poorly, think about what their story might be? What is the underlying motivation for the action or inaction you may be witnessing? What story have they been told or are they telling themselves?
Culture is created and often delineated by these stories. Be curious. Take time to learn. If you are a couple in distress, talk about the stories you grew up with and the ones you tell yourself now. If you are a family in distress – check the stories and cultural ideology you operate from and talk about the differences. If you are a person in distress, seek these same understandings as they pertain to the space you occupy in the world you live in.
Know your stories and listen for all the rest.
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