Our stories—the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with others—are not who we are.
Our stories have a life of their own. Our stories can make this life feel like magic.
Our stories can also taunt us; they can scare us. Our stories can make us want to run—or make others want to run—from us.
We run because we feel that our stories are who we are. We run because we will become enmeshed with the stories we tell. However, becoming enmeshed in our story is not bad; becoming enmeshed with our stories—is human.
We all have tales that might be deemed “skeletons in the closet”—narratives that twist our insides into knots when we think about them. We perhaps choose to tuck them safely away in a hidden corner and ignore them, rather than conjure up the horrors they inflict upon our psyche as they are retold.
But is not telling our uncomfortable (perhaps traumatic) tales healthy? Is keeping it tucked away the best medicine for one’s soul?
I don’t think the answer to this is a simple yes or no. In fact, I think the answer is a complicated: maybe, yes; maybe, no; maybe, in time, yes.
I was cleaning out my closet the other day and found a tub in a dark back corner; it was too heavy to pick up. What could it be? My clutter-clearing self said with curiosity. My triceps twinged as I pulled it toward me, into the light. Written in huge letters across the top was the word: Journals.
The words gave me a sense of comfort. The words reminded me that in this box were stories of my life, up until a few years ago.
I’ve lived in three countries and four states. Everywhere I’ve lived, since I was a teenager, I was accompanied by my blank-page bestie. This is my life, I thought with reverie.
Just as I opened the lid to my past, my giggly six-year-old daughter came running in wearing a boa and sunglasses. “What’s that, Mommy?”
“These are my journals, honey.”
“Wow, there are a lot of them!”
“Yes, there are a lot, aren’t there?” I said, smiling, as I stroked the soft leather cover of the one that went with me to Europe.
My curly haired sprite of a daughter suddenly ran off as I stared with affection at the variety of colors and sizes of the friends that held my deepest thoughts and feelings for the past few decades.
A moment later, my girl quickly came back smiling with a book of her own. “This is my journal, Mommy! I write in one too. I tell it my secrets—want me to read it to you?”
I laughed gently. “You want to read me your secrets?”
“Yes!” she said with gusto. “I don’t care if you hear them. I won’t share them with anyone else though.”
“Wow, I feel honored!” I said. I put my lid on my journal box, feeling a sense of grief in the closing of it, and then I sat down to hear my daughter read. As her sing-song voice began, I felt all tickled inside. My writer self was flooded with pride for my daughter’s newfound way of self-expression. My heart suddenly felt very warm, hugging the words: she is finding her narrative voice!
Moments later, the secrets were revealed, and I slid the journals to the back of my closet. A part of me—maybe all of me—was happy with that choice. There was so much pain in those pages—so many stories of woe. Yes, there was joy and desire and romantic intrigue—but often, loss and loneliness trumped the good stuff. Often, I confided about the sludge—because what person wanted to listen to that? The blank page never judged. The blankness seemed to beckon me to fill it—with whatever I chose. I often chose complaints and rants.
Sharing your story—even on a blank page—can be intimidating. The only voice echoing back is the voice in your head, and the only sound is the clicking of keys or the scrape of the pen against the pad. Many of the sessions I spent writing in those journals were riddled with tension. But afterward, I felt relief—as if I just had a therapy session or divulged my inner sludge to a girlfriend over a hot cup of coffee.
Those skeletons you have—they must be exposed to light. Giving them exposure starts to soften their bony structure. However, shedding light on them is often scary.
I recently found a book project I started in 2005, in the wake of two difficult breakups and dropping out of my first attempt at graduate school. In the writing, I shared some darkness from my past. Somehow, the words brought it to light—and somehow, my heart and body and mind felt a sense of relief in the writing of it. As I read the words today, I felt a sense of comfort. My story then resonated even more today. And now, while some of what I shared still stings—and may always sting a little—the sensation has shifted form.
Sharing our story can be dangerous if we’re not ready. But, how do we know we’re not ready? We can’t speak it. We can’t write it. Or, when we start to, we freeze. If we go numb or get hyper-emotional when we start to share a tale, then it’s still too raw.
I’ve been in therapy for a few years. Part of the therapeutic process involves sharing our stories. I’m currently studying to be a therapist, and I sit with clients two days a week as a sort of human journal. My therapist sits with me as my human journal. What drew me to the profession was the profound healing I’ve experienced having a non-biased person just listen. In the listening, there is validation.
My journal could never tell me, “Wow, Sarah, that sounds like it really hurt”—but a human could. When I started regular therapy, I noticed I stopped journaling as much. Somehow that human-to-human sharing fed my spirit’s need to be heard and to express.
Stories need a container to express themselves in. My story—your story, our story—is a living, breathing organism. We humans feel so much. We are constantly processing a myriad of stimuli. Part of the processing involves sharing. Since the beginning of humankind, stories have been celebrated. Oral storytelling, while not as celebrated in the traditional sense today, is alive in containers like therapy—or in heart-to-heart chats with loved ones.
How to tell your story.
What feeds your spirit? Do you love to journal or write, expressing yourself in a more private way? Or, do you love to share verbally with another human? Do you find a sense of relief when you air your grievances to another? I find email exchanges with friends to be just as therapeutic as verbal expressions of narratives.
If you’re not sure, I encourage you to experiment this week. Try contacting a friend for an in-person chat and share a tale (or a woe or a joy) with them, and see how it feels.
Try having an email (or even text) exchange with a friend or family member, and see how that feels. Try a phone call; see how you feel after.
If you have not been to therapy, it is worth a try. Therapy has a stigma in our culture—many think it’s for the “crazy,” whatever that means. Let’s face it, we all have a little bit of crazy. Everyone’s mental health is unstable at times. Our emotions operate on a continuum. Sometimes, we just need a non-biased listener—a human journal—to reflect our thoughts, to validate our feelings, and to just sit and breathe with us when words escape.
What if you can’t tell your story?
I have a few tales I’ve had to wait a decade to tell. I started to write them years ago, and the pain washed through me like a sharp howling wind. When sharing starts feels abrasive to your heart, perhaps it’s not time yet.
There is a gem of truth in that old saying: “time heals all wounds.” I’m going to leave out the all for a moment, because I think that’s a bit overconfident. Time: it heals wounds.
Sometimes the feelings are so raw, they’re not yet ready to be connected to words. When that happens, can you sit with yourself in that place and just breathe?
When my story felt too raw for words, I did yoga, I meditated, and I hiked. I still find that physical movement is where I need to go when my emotions and thoughts are like a scary storm.
Start where you are.
Breathe with yourself in the here and now, and know that it will come—your tale. And when you’re ready to tell it, you might do so a thousand times. Each time it will be a little bit different. Each time you write it (or tell it, or email it, or text it), it will change shape. And as it does, the bones of it will soften. As you keep telling it, the marrow will melt into tissue.
When you leave this earth, your bones will be ashes, but your stories—the ones that you spoke and the ones that you wrote—your stories will be flesh.
Author: Sarah Theresa
Image: Unsplash/Thought Catalog
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Travis May