Story Wrangling: How to Create and Craft the Stories that Shape Your Life
Stories? I got a million of ‘em.
So, as it happens, do you.
I work with clients every day on the power of their conscious and subconscious stories to shape their experiences, their reality, their lives. Our individual and collective ability to use the gift of storytelling as our way to process and make sense of the world around us is a magical thing. But like all magic, it trends both bright and dark.
The stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives can make the difference between surviving and thriving, between happiness and despair. Even between life and death.
In one of the group exercises I do, I show random photographs to my clients and ask them to tell me the story of what’s happening in the picture. A seemingly homeless man with a dog cradled under a blanket in his arms becomes, depending upon the storyteller, a scam artist who uses a dog to manipulate strangers out of money, a jerk who selfishly allows an animal to suffer with him on the streets instead of giving the dog the safety of a shelter, or a symbol of pure love, a man who, in extreme and desperate circumstances, still tenderly cares for his companion.
Which one of them is true? I don’t know, and neither do my clients. The photo is like a Rorschach test; we project our belief system onto it and see what we expect to see.
It is the summer of 1967, and I am in my own front yard, hanging about at the end of our driveway. My best friend, Bobbie, is playing with someone I don’t know well from the neighborhood out in her front yard, right across the street from my house. I’m terrified of being rejected if I invite myself over to join them, so I am simply putting myself on display, standing on the big landscaping rock and looking off, self-importantly, into the sky; swinging on the mailbox and humming a tuneless song; drawing with sidewalk chalk at the very very tip end of our driveway.
I am hoping desperately that my friend will invite me over. And I am crushed, after a good half-hour, when she does not. I slink off into my house, telling myself that I am unlikable and unwanted.
It is a very convincing story.
In fact, I’ve told this story a handful of times over the years, and my audiences’ sympathy usually lies with me. “What a little bitch!” they’ll exclaim of my then-eight-year-old best friend. “She must have known you wanted to play!”
In fact, no matter how neutrally I tell it, my listeners still side with me, doubtless because I am the one, after all, standing before them. But I know a different story, and it’s fascinating to me that no one else brings it up, even as a remote possibility.
In this other story, I am not me, I am my Bobbie, playing with another friend in my front yard. After some indeterminate period of time, I notice the girl who lives across the street, my best friend, hanging about in her own front yard. I expect that if she wants to join us, she’ll come over, or at least give me some sign. I glance up at her now and again, but she gives every impression of being oblivious to my presence. She won’t look over; she won’t meet my eye. I feel rejected and defensive, and I wonder what’s wrong with her—or me.
“What a little bitch!” I think. Or would, if I were old enough to know the word.
I tell you this story, the first of many I’ll doubtless pass along, right up front, because it not only underscores my point that our stories create and shape our reality (how good do you think my friend and I felt about each other in this event’s aftermath?) but also because it is such a classic example of the way we all use our painful stories to rein ourselves in and keep ourselves small.
I didn’t ask for what I wanted. Not rudely, not politely, not even cravenly. Instead of stepping up and out into my life and owning my joy and my passion (which, at that time, was probably playing hide ’n’ seek), I hung about, hoping that somehow, I’d be noticed by my friend (or the Universe) and that things would work out. I used my own story (“I am unlikable and unwanted”) to keep myself unhappily contained. It was the first, but not the last, of many, many times I sold myself out and played small.
Are you hanging about on the fringes of your life, hoping your spouse or your boss or the neighbors or the Universe will notice you and reward you? Are you telling yourself stories to make that all right, to justify staying exactly where you are?
Are you tired of playing small and having a walk-on part in this, the only life you will ever lead as you?
Then stick with me, kid. I’m going places. I can’t take you with me, but I can show you how to go places—fabulous places—too.