How can old stories ever change? Photo by Ian Sane (CC BY 2.0)

The Evolution of Your Story

If we wish to know about a man, we ask, ‘what is his story — his real, inmost story,’ for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique.
— Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Tell me your story,” I say. The man opposite me settles into his chair and smiles a little. He’s not the first person to be asked that question and he won’t be the last. He sits there in that blue chair, sharing with me an intimate and fragile moment. It’s the moment of vulnerability, when he decides how much he can trust me with. In the moment between smile and shrug of shoulders, between request and answer, he asks himself a thousand questions and one question all at once. His hands lift slightly, palms skyward. “What do you want to know?” he asks, laughing awkwardly, or perhaps nervously.

That’s a good question. What do I want to know? In the same way that he doesn’t quite know what to tell me, I don’t quite know what I want to hear. Paradoxically, of this I’m certain — whatever he chooses to share with me, I want to hear it. I don’t, however, have a specific story I’m after.

Actually, I’m after several.

Stories of Innocence

Oliver Sacks, exploring a patient with dramatic Korsokov’s (in this case, not remembering their stories of self, their autobiography, the internal narrative of their own history; effectively not knowing who they are or were, and so creating a new story for every single instant of the day), made clear that each of us has a story to tell. In my experience, we all have a personal identity story we tell ourselves and we all have a story we tell others about ourselves. And then there’s the actual story, the one that happened, which is usually different again from all the others.

When I sit with a client and ask to hear their story, I expect to hear the story they want me to hear at that time. Woven through the way they tell me their story, I hear the story they tell themselves about themselves. And then I also hear snippets of a truer story, the one they may not know is there, or the one they may know is there but choose to ignore for perfectly good reasons, or maybe the one they know is there and acknowledge but that I just haven’t earned the trust to hear it yet. All of those are fine as it’s their story to tell. I have no authority to demand of them one story or another, and I can’t possibly know the truth or necessity of one story over another.

It’s Not About the Facts

You see, this is not about getting our facts right. My client who sits there has a very good reason to tell their story the way they do. Much the same as a movie director has a very good reason for interpreting your favourite book into a film the way they did. It’s not about facts; it’s not about the narrative fitting the factual outlay of events, in precise chronological order. Our minds don’t store history that way. They store it rather through meaning, associations, connections and value. And the story, as with all of our biological processes — yes, storytelling is a biological process — serves, above all other things, one very important purpose: to calm the milieu.

Things change to keep the internal environment feeling safe

Inside of us, at our core, is a milieu, a mess of things happening. A mixture of dynamic processes, chemical reactions, pushes and pulls, things floating passively through spaces, fluids and along fibres. This milieu, the internal background in which life emerges, has some very specific parameters for life to continue emerging. The body maintains those parameters, dynamically and continually, through feedback from the environment within and without. Things change to keep the internal environment feeling safe.

That’s what the storytelling does. It keeps the person feeling safe. I know it’s not always that way, I know we can and do override it, but generally, and especially in a vulnerable place such as seeing a healthcare practitioner, the storyteller will reflexively protect their sense of wellbeing. They will keep themselves safe. And so the story they tell will reflect that felt need. It’s perfectly fine for them to have different narratives because this is about survival.

The End of the Chapter

Often, when someone comes to us for help, they feel like this part of their story has reached the end of the chapter. They either feel as though there is no more story to be had — no change can come — or they believe that they can see how the story will end. This thinking is what I call the inevitable conclusion.

I see the inevitable conclusion most often with clients who have long term pain of inconsistent patterns. What I mean is, someone might come in with low back pain, and though they tell you it’s in a specific spot (“Is it in one particular location?” to which they answer, “Yes, definnitely!”) when you ask for them to point to the place it hurts, they will offer you a very broad location (all across the lower back in a band) or they “can’t quite remember where I feel it, but it’s there”. Often they’ll also have some dull, underlying aching sensation. When they perform movement tasks, they may complain of pain and it is rarely in the same place — it will move around.

These clients are often diagnosed by an x-ray as having a “disc problem” or a “vertebral degeneration” or some such thing. And the client has decided that the story is written on their back. The chapter is finished because the practitioner has told them the outcome (“I’ll probably need surgery one day”). So they give up. They write the story and believe no one can edit a new one.

Except They’re Sitting Opposite Me

The thing is, they’re sitting opposite me.

They really do have a hope of something changing. They just haven’t realised who the author of their story is. I can assure you, it’s not me and it’s not you.

And there they sit, opposite me. Next to me. Next to you. Opposite you. There they sit. It’s an instant, just a moment, an opportunity as fragile as a snow flake. In the nano-breath between what’s your story and oh heck, what on earth am I doing here?, there floats, imperceptible perhaps, a flicker. It’s like a cinder, a lidded dream that’s let loose.

That moment, that hope of a dream, hovering somewhere between you both, within you both, with its fragility and its potency, is why they speak. The mouth opens and the story begins, if only because you didn’t blow away their dream and they chose to believe that maybe, perhaps, just maybe this person can help me write a new story; or at least, write a new ending to this chapter.

In case you hadn’t heard, the author of this story is the client. It always was and it always will be. We are more like consultants there to help them see the bigger or smaller picture. Whichever pictures they put meaning into, really. We listen. Then we ask questions. We reflect back to them the story they’ve told and if necessary we ask more questions.

All of this is for one purpose, I suppose. It’s to help the client hear the story they tell and imagine how that story might change. How they can have ownership of it. Learn to tell the story differently and maybe to tell a different story. Perhaps as well as put meaning into their story, they can draw new meaning from it. Own it.

To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re-possess, our life stories. We must ‘recollect’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.
— Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Choose Your Own Adventure

When the client comes to me and sits in that blue chair opposite me, feet sliding on the floorboards, they think their life is a textbook that’s written by experts other than them. But really, it’s a different kind of book. It’s more of a choose your own adventure.

Do you remember those? I do. They were popular at school for a time. You get to the end of a chapter and you choose what the hero gets to do. It goes something like this:

Annie runs, panting, around the corner. The walls on either side loom larger than life and her feet ache from all the running. The corridor seems to close in on her as she nears the end. Oh no! The end of the corridor! A scuttling sound echoes behind her and her heart pounds in her chest. The Story-listener must be close by! Breathing is difficult as she nears the end of her run, and she quickly realises she has a choice to make. Should Annie:
A) Pretend everything is okay and smile? Turn to page 75.
B) Turn around and share the real reason she came today. Turn to page 42.

I think when a client comes to us seeking help, they’re really saying, “Hey, I want to rewrite my story a bit. Not a complete makeover, just a change to the way this part of it ends. What do you think?” We as the Story-listener have a chance to offer them that. To create the moment of opportunity. The moment when we help them move from change being impossible to improbable to just maybe possible.

If we can create an environment where the impossible change can be seen as perhaps not so much impossible as improbable, then we have a different currency to deal in. A different story to tell. We no longer deal in the hardened, concrete tales of rigidity but in the fables of maybes and what ifs. Sliding ourselves along the line from never-going-to-happen right up to I-wonder-what-maybe-could-happen? gives the client-author a few new possibilities; life becomes a multi-choice choose your own adventure and all of a sudden, the client feels powerful.

I Wonder What Could … ?

Don’t finish that thought. Just let it hang there, unanswered for a time. Let the wonder remain a question and the question remain unanswered. I wonder what would happen in your clients’ lives if you did that? If you let them do that? We can’t really know, can we? And that’s the glory of having an unwritten story. It’s full of adventures waiting to be discovered.

As the client potters along, discovering wonderful things about their body/their emotions/their self-beliefs, we can reflect on the possibilities that their new insights can open up. We can wonder out loud for them what might happen if … and then we can invite them to wonder for themselves what might happen if … or we can wonder if they can discover something worth wondering about. Of course, we never know when that might happen, just as a good story never reveals the plot twists too early. But we can wonder with them what the end could be rather than what they first seemed so certain it would be.

Wonder, you see, opens up the realm of possibility. I am a fan of the fantasy genre, but I don’t read voraciously or indiscriminately. I’m selective in my readings. I like stories that have great characters, truly creative and unexpected twists, quality dialogue. And some kind of mystery.

Mystery History

Way back when, around the turn of the millennium — no, not that millennium — two before that. In the first century Greek and Roman religious world there were a number of ‘mystery religions’. They were generally very bloody with lots of animal sacrifice and blood sprinkling going on. They all had something in common; the word ‘mystery’.

To the ardent disciple, the mystery was a secret ritual and associated dogma that gave them an experience. That experience was the means by which they felt union with their deity. The mystery experience led them to the divine.

I wonder if the client, sitting opposite us in our space, can have some similar revelatory experience as we tell each other the great stories of life. Not necessarily a union with their deity but more an experience, an insight, that comes from seeing their story as one not yet written. A mysterious experience and a wonder full thought when all of a sudden, out of nowhere as it seems, they see the beginning of a brand new chapter. A chapter in their story that they once upon a time had thought would never end happily ever after.

The rigid beliefs about their sacred story are not easily shifted. Understandably, because their story is so sacred to them, their beliefs about it are sacred. We cannot hope for success or respect in most of our clients if we try to prize their sacred beliefs from their grip without first hearing their story and it’s reason for being. For remember, their stories serve a noble purpose. They protect and bring some kind of stability to their internal milieu.

What we do have is an opportunity to wonder together with them if their story, which served such a grand purpose for a time, could be written differently now. To wonder what might happen; what could happen; what is actually happening right now? Tomorrow? Next week?

When we hear their story and the heart behind it, we can begin to see how that story could change. We won’t tell them to change it, though, will we? We will rather help them see a multitude of possibilities and sit with them in the questions that their new story might bring.

So we visit our friend again. There he sits opposite me, hands in the air and face expectant. “What do you want to know?” he asks.

My response? What, exactly, do I want to know? The stories. His stories. The ones he thinks are most important regarding why he’s here. I just want him to talk, I want to hear how he talks about it, how he changes his story in our short time together, how he uses language, talks about emotion, understands people. I want most of all to hear him. To hear his soul bare itself to whatever extent it chooses, to narrate his need.

“You know what?” I ask. I lean forward in my chair to press into the bubble of his personal space just a little, just enough. My palms spread upward and my body is open, inviting. “Tell me why you’re here. You mentioned your back and hips on the phone. I’d love to hear how that story began,” and the rest, as they say, is his story.