The healing power of storytelling — even when it hurts

“Tell me your story,” a new friend might implore. Or perhaps a child making the transition into adulthood sits you down and demands, “Tell me your story — the real one, not the cleaned-up version.”

Our stories define us, especially because just like the human face, no two stories are exactly alike. And as research increasingly bears out, to tell your story is to be heard in a powerful way. But for many people, sharing the less-than-sunny sides of one’s personal biography isn’t easy. And that’s where a talented personal historian can enter the picture and help make the act of painful storytelling more palatable.

Sharing stories helps build (and even repair) bridges

One of the beauties of telling your life history — missteps and all — is that it starkly illustrates that the path to success is never a straight line. The lesson learned — that stumbling and sometimes getting tossed around on the way back up— is an essential part of any biography. Compelling stuff. Why? Because it’s dramatically, utterly and wholly human.

In a blog post on the “Entrepreneur” website, Matthew Toren writes, “It’s uncomfortable admitting to others your failures, struggles or other moments of weakness. That’s true for everyone, yet opening yourself up to moments of vulnerability is surprisingly gratifying. Fear is something we all experience. Be honest and open with the world about the good and the bad. You’ll be amazed at the reaction you gain from others.”

Along the same lines, from a blog post by Sherry Hamby PhD, tiled “Resilience and . . . 4 Benefits to Sharing Your Story” in “Psychology Today, “There is a lot of good advice out there about increasing resilience. I want to focus on the remarkable benefits of sharing your story. Emotional, autobiographical storytelling can be a path to truly owning your story. Further, by ‘giving it away,’ you can use your own journey as a means to help others on theirs.

She continues: “I have been surprised at the power of emotional, autobiographical storytelling. Emotional, autobiographical storytelling means writing about events and people that have mattered to you in your own life— not just describing the facts of your lives. Research shows that even brief autobiographical storytelling exercises can have substantial impacts on psychological and physical health even months after the storytelling. “

Let’s bring the issue of sharing difficult stories back to a personal level. Years ago, I’d been estranged from one of my children for a substantial period of time. In addition to simply missing him down to the cellular level over several painful years, there was shame attached to the emotional separation. Let’s face it, when a child stops communicating with his mom, many outside observers question the quality of that mother’s parenting.

Together again

Finally, when the chasm between my son and I was repaired more than a decade ago, I wrote a story about my experience for the “Chicago Tribune.” Titled “Out of the Picture,” the piece detailed the long journey to our reunion. It ended with these words from my son: “By the middle of my college years, I realized I missed my mom. After a slow, gradual and difficult process, we began rebuilding. Now things are great between us. A willingness to set aside past differences and acknowledge that we really love each other were critical factors in our reconciliation.”

Writing the article ushered in an unexpected sense of peace and closure. What’s more, I received phone calls and letters from people I had never met that wanted to share their own experiences of reconciliation. Publishing the story brought me a great dealing of healing and was also reassuring to others still in the midst of their reconciliation journeys.

As a personal historian, I understand that sharing difficult experiences is decidedly not for everyone. But nobody can underestimate the power of such stories to lift others up from their own tender and painful places. I like to think that a talented and compassionate personal historian can help a challenging life chapter unfold, and in the process, help the storyteller recover, bruises and all.

Bestselling author Melody Beattie puts it this way: “Live from your heart. Share from your heart. And your story will touch and heal people’s souls.”

The Power of Siblings: My Sister, Myself

Celebrating Easter in our Sunday best, 1960, with Leslie at left

Celebrating Easter in our Sunday best, 1960, with Leslie at left

A 2010 article in Time Magazine titled “The New Science of Siblings”
revealed fascinating developments about how siblings shape each other — for life: “At research centers in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere, investigators are launching a wealth of new studies into the sibling dynamic, looking at ways brothers and sisters steer one another into — or away from— risky behavior; how they form a protective buffer against family upheaval; how they educate one another about the opposite sex; how all siblings compete for family recognition and come to terms —or blows—over such impossibly charged issues as parental favoritism.

“Siblings,” said family sociologist Katherine Conger in the Time story, Davis, “are with us for the whole journey.”

Wow — that’s a torrent of influence. I focus frequently on the sister-to-sister relationship because my closeness with my older sister is hard won. True to our surname, we battled many storms to achieve our current connection.

Leslie and I share a sibling story history as dramatic as any I know. Two years older than me, Leslie (“Lolly”) was a protective sister when we were growing up in rural Ambler, PA. We played together most of the time; there was only one other girl in the small enclave that passed for a neighborhood.

When our attachment waned as Les approached high school, her absence left a huge chasm. After all, she was smart, funny, and cool. While I wasn’t conscious of it at age 13, I think I hoped she’d be there to help me navigate own adolescence. However, it wasn’t in the cards. My lovely Leslie struggled with some serious personal challenges during her teens. As a result, we didn’t share secrets, midnight snacks or boyfriend anecdotes for several years.

Our closeness rekindled when I followed her (Was it conscious? I don’t know.) to American University in Washington, D.C., where we both pursued journalism degrees. (Dadles and bets in  '30s (2) was a well-known Philadelphia newspaper reporter). Our boyfriends were fast friends, and the foursome we shared still wins top billing among my fondest college memories.

In our fifties, Leslie and I were estranged for about eight years, amid a variety of difficult circumstances — including our difficult and sometimes divisive mother. When our mom died almost six years ago, Leslie and I were instantly, deeply reunited at our mother’s funeral when, to our surprise, we reached for each other’s hands and held on tight throughout the service. After that, as the saying goes, we never missed a beat. When I threw a book launch party in 2014, Leslie’s the one who collected money from sales of Bright Lights of the Second City, greeted guests, and helped pack up the whole shebang. A year earlier, when my husband and I renewed our wedding vows, my big sister walked me down the aisle.

When my phone rings these days, my called ID often flashes “LESLIE,” calling from Portland, OR. We sometimes talk thrice daily; it requires that degree of conversation to cover: the joys and challenges of adult children; the abundant love of grandchildren; fantasy vacations; the ups and down of men, jobs, and aging; and always, always, always our shared passion for liberal politics, a wide range of social issues, books, movies, music and a plethora of social issues. (Not to mention just plain sister silliness, even at ages 62 and 64.)

Leslie often reminds me that the sister-to-sister relationship is often regarded as the closest and most enduring a girl — of any age — can enjoy. Amen, Sister!

Visionaries share personal history tidbits

Two years ago, I completed a book, Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose. As a lifelong interviewer of accomplished individuals, writing the book was a professional pinnacle. It introduced me to the personal histories of 50 renowned Chicagoans, including Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, jazz great Ramsey Lewis, and broadcast legend Bill Kurtis.

Soon after my book was published, I read a post on Oprah.com titled “5 Breakthroughs You Can Learn from These Visionaries.” The piece, packed with a couple of fascinating video clips, sprinkles nuggets of stellar advice delivered in neat, concise but totally believable little packages. They exemplify the kind of inspirational cheerleading messages that can help us breathe more easily — if we remember to follow them when, for example, we’re panicking about whether (1) our new project is as viable as we first thought, (2) our problem-solving approach is actually making said problem more manageable, or 3) our new take on a classic situation will appeal to anyone but us.

Take Philippe Petit, for example. He’s the high-wire artist who boldly scaled a wire between the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974 — a more innocent time when the terror of 9/11 was simply unimaginable. See the astonishing You Tube video here. Ever emphasizing his rarely matched pursuit of perfection, he proudly says, “people label me a madman of detail, and I don’t refute the title. I work towards perfection for thousands of hours ….”

On another front, paleontologist Neil Shubin, Ph.D., agrees with many individuals profiled in Bright Lights of the Second City that luck is, quite often, an underrated factor in achieving one’s desired outcome. (See Shubin here on “The Colbert Report.”) Bright Lights front cover lo-resHe is also quick to remind us that tenacity trumps many other characteristics. When talking about how he and his team found the snout of a Tiktaalik roseae (a 375-million-year old fossil). Shubin emphasizes, “we could have given up — it had been six years! But we didn’t.”

Read the Oprah.com post to meet celebrity stylist June Ambrose, cellist Zoe Keating, and Jad Abumrad, cohost of WNYC’s Radiolab. They each contribute insights that can stimulate us to live our lives more creatively .