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.”

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