What will you do with the stories entrusted to you?
In life, we don't always choose our stories. Sometimes they choose us. Then, we must decide what we will do with them.
As a psychologist, part of my job is to help clients tell, edit, and take authorship of their own life stories. In her book "Atlas of the Heart," Brene Brown describes a concept called "story stewardship." She explains, "Story stewardship means honoring the sacred nature of story—the ones we share and the ones we hear—and knowing that we've been entrusted with something valuable or that we have something valuable that we should treat with respect and care." Unfortunately, people often struggle to tell their stories fully. We also have difficulty treating other people's stories with the reverence they deserve. Brene developed two descriptions that capture the storytelling breakdown aptly: narrative tap out and narrative take over. We need to address these problems and get serious about creating narrative trust.
Narrative Tap Out
Connecting with someone about their story requires courage. If someone shares something heavy with us, it takes emotional bandwidth to hold what we hear. When people are hurting, part of them is often desperate to share but they don't always know how to. Sometimes, as people talk, they divulge details or make evocative statements that are opportunities for us to be curious and ask questions. Disclosures of this sort can be a bit of a test. "Are you paying attention ?" "Do you care?" These moments can feel scary, especially if you are unsure how to respond. Sometimes people ignore these subtle invitations by glossing over vulnerable revelations. Other times listeners blatantly shut them down out of discomfort (e.g. changing the topic). I think sometimes we tap out because we're tired. It's possible to grow numb when inundated by stories of hardship and pain. Our compassion can fatigue when we consume a high volume of trauma narratives through the media or the nature of our work. If we're burned out, we may not have the energy to be present for the story that needs our witness.
Conversely, We can tap out of sharing our own stories, too. Authentic self-disclosure takes courage. There are a million stories we tell ourselves that stop us from sharing–even when these things have the potential to be impactful for others. "It's not important." "They'll judge me." "I'm ashamed." "People can't possibly understand." "Nobody cares." Silent stories hurt the people who hold them in secret. Sometimes the only way out of a problematic narrative is to talk it through. Untold stories can also rob the rest of the world. Tales of struggles can contain lessons, perspective, and reassurance to the people who have the opportunity to hear them.
Narrative Take Over
People make things about themselves far more often than they should. Sometimes these take-overs-gone-wrong are well-intentioned. We try to communicate "I understand" and go on to provide a personal anecdote. Our story is usually of something that we think is in the experiential vicinity of what someone is sharing with us. This, however, is not empathy. It's stealing the spotlight when someone else needs to be seen and focused on. We would all benefit from telling ourselves frequently, "THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU."
When we hear peoples' stories, we often assume similarity and sameness. We are especially prone to do this when there aren't obvious categorical differences delineating diversity (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation, SES). We think we "get it" when we simply can't. There are almost always dimensions and facets that comprise another person's identity that we likely have no clue about.
When someone dares to step forward and speak up, listen. Just be. It's one of the most powerful things you can do. Hijacking conversation doesn't create connection, it breaks it.
People won't give us an honest look at their true selves until we have earned their trust. Trust is hard work. It's difficult to attain and can be lost in an instant. How are you consciously creating the conditions in which people are willing to give you an accurate picture of their lives? Most individuals carefully edit and leave things out, initially, until they know they can trust us. Yet, the things that are concealed tend to create the most problems. What makes it more likely that someone will be willing to trust you with their story? Presence. Deep listening. Empathy. How do we lose trust? Failing to do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it. Distraction. Overpromising and underdelivering. Importantly, it's not mistakes that break trust but the mishandling of their aftermath.
If we can't get better at handling stories, everyone loses. When people don't share, their struggles live in the dark, buried by fear and shame. Pain and isolation grows. They buy the lie about being the "only one." This can lead to an unproductive head spiral. They manufacture tales that explain why everyone else has it together and they’re a mess. When we fail to be empathically receptive to other people’s stories, we risk relational misfire. Too often, we operate under mistaken assumptions without considering someone's context. What good are we missing out on as a society because we don't simply slow down long enough to look and ask?
Everyone you meet is living a story that you know nothing about. Be curious. Have compassion. There are people in your life that want you to witness what they need to share. Show up and shut up. People don't want your trite platitudes or quick-fix solution–they're desperate for your presence.
Find people worthy of your story. Be thoughtful about how, when, and with whom you share—but don't keep the hard stuff hidden. Choose courage. Pain shared is pain divided.
Stories are powerful. They send us places. Where is yours taking you?
Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart: mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience (First edition.). Random House.
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The fact that so many people provide a personal anecdote naturally should tell you that it is not hijacking the conversation, it’s a normal way to show compassion and empathy via shared experiences. There are enough problems in this world not to create one unnecessarily.
Listening to someone does not equate empathy.
Listening without a reaction is actually quite harsh because where you were naked telling your story, you now also feel alone and exposed.
Relating to someones story to give them perspective does not mean you are hijacking it. If you listen and try to relate, what you are doing is trying to understand. You are offering back your own experience to see whether you understood the feelings of the person reaching out to you or whether there is more there for you to understand. You are creating a bridge that allows you to reach them and for them to reach you so you can properly come together in a safe space.