Most people I work with agree that they are seeking guidance because they want to be the happiest they can be. The process begins with them telling me their stories. Every story is unique, but always includes other characters and emotions. No one can tell a story solely about himself because we cannot exist without the existence of other people, and the quality of our existence depends on the kinds of emotions we generate.
When we tell our stories, we tell them as seen through our eyes, as interpreted by our minds, and as felt by our hearts. We describe the characters according to how they behaved and how they made us feel – the basis for how we view them and ultimately ourselves. The settings for our stories are the circumstances that surrounded us. Since we are central to those circumstances, we have the innermost vantage point from where it is easier to look out than look in. Therefore, when we tell our stories, we focus on our feelings, our thoughts, our expectations, and what happened to us. It’s our side of the story.
We are not one dimensional so neither are our stories. All of our stories have other sides that come from the other characters and observers. These are the sides we can’t, don’t, or won’t see, partly due to our limited knowledge base at the time, partly due to our alert system trying to protect us from additional pain and injury, and sometimes because of stubbornness and pride.
If we haven’t acquired enough knowledge, maturity, or experience to question or challenge other people’s ideas or actions, we will just accept them as the way it is and not see the other sides. This way is easy since it is easier to stay with what we’ve been conditioned to believe than it is to think independently and risk rejection, criticism, injury, or failure. Therefore, we can’t see the other sides.
We can also be blinded by fear, anger, shame, and guilt – our survival emotions. If we’ve been hurt in the past, our subconscious mind remembers it so we can avoid pain and injury in the future as a way to continue to exist. Therefore, we have a subconscious storehouse of painful memories. While our subconscious mind has good intentions, the imbedded bad thoughts and feelings it maintains causes us to have more distress in the present and influences how we view our situations, ourselves, and others, so we don’t see beyond our own pain.
Pride (the self-serving kind) and stubbornness are the most destructive attitudes and behaviors we can have. We should have pride in ourselves, for each other, and in what we do, but not the kind of pride associated with stubbornness. Pride is an extremely high sense of self that puts you above others. When you have this kind of pride, you have it all, including all the right answers. This position limits you from seeing beyond yourself. Mix two parts pride with one part fear and you get stubbornness. Stubborn people don’t want to let down their guard for fear of being wrong, failing, being rejected, being mocked, being criticized, or being disappointed. They won’t move beyond what they are guarding to see other sides. They become controllers, aka “control freaks.” Even if they if they admit there is another side, they manipulate it so it fits into their point of view. Proud and stubborn people won’t consider the other side(s).
Being the observer in my clients’ stories allows me to see their situation from an outside and distant view point. I liken it to an experience my family and I had when we went to one our annual Notre Dame Football games. My husband acquired tickets for what sounded like extraordinary seats. The section had a special name; something like “Field Box.” Thinking we hit the seating jackpot, we were eager to get seated. The seats were field level directly behind the Notre Dame players, who by the way, never sit down during the game. Our seats gave us a prime view of their seats. We were so close to the players, it was like we were in the game, but our position didn’t give us visibility to see what was happening with the plays. There was no Jumbo Tron to watch and we couldn’t stand up because of the people sitting behind us. In order to see where the ball was coming from and going to, we had to twist and turn to look around the wall of players. Being “in the game” limited our view and awareness of what was actually going on. We were more aware of our own misery and did not enjoy the game.
The people who tell me their stories are like my family and I were at the game. They are or were in “it,” and similarly to us, were or are unable to see around the obstacles to know what is going on. Therefore, they are more aware of their own discomfort, which in real life situations includes feelings of fear, anger, contempt, resentment, disappointment, sadness, guilt, and shame. I, on the other hand, am like the television crew in the blimp that hovers over the football field. High above the field, I see the big picture – who’s on the field, where the players are going, where the ball is coming from, and how the plays unfold. This panoramic view allows me to take in more information from which I gain a better understanding of what happened and why it happened.
While we cannot distance ourselves from our own stories, we can look at the bigger picture. When I work with people, I help them do this. After a detailed discussion about the client’s life experience, I ask about parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents. It’s amazing how this historical view can change the client’s current view. For example, Sally came in because of anxiety and panic episodes. The panic episodes worsened over the past few months, soon after her mother’s death. After a thorough assessment, I asked about her childhood and her parents. She described her mother as “a saint,” and her father as “Satan.” She despised him, describing him as an, “uncaring, selfish, drunk.” She focused on how loving her mom was and how bad her dad was; how bad he made her feel and how he mistreated her. Now, the security and loving part of her life was gone and she was panicked.
I asked Sally to tell me her parents’ stories. She talked about how loving and kind her mom was despite all the tribulations she endured. Unenthusiastically, she talked about her father’s history. He was one of the older children raised in a large poor family. His dad, a heavy drinker, abandoned the family. He had to help out with the finances. Apparently, they went to church, which she added, “Seemed to do him no good.” He was a firefighter, got married and started a family. Then, he was stricken with a serious illness that impaired his health so he had to quit his job. After being off for a long time, he got a less than rewarding job and at that point, started drinking in excess. His bitterness and mean spirit, especially when he drank, caused a great deal of trouble for the family and especially Sally, who at one time adored him. He sorely disappointed her.
I reviewed the story with Sally from my distant point of view. Looking at the big picture, we first talked about first responders; how there isn’t a whole lot of people who choose that field, how they don’t get paid very well, how necessary they are for our existence, and how the people who do that kind of work do it because of their passion for it. Their desire to help people is so great that they are willing to lay down their lives for others – a most selfless characteristic. “No one has greater love [nor stronger commitment] than to lay down his own life for his friends.” John 15:13
We went on to talk about how disappointing it must have been for her dad to have the job he loved taken away from him. His life was filled with losses (and these were the only ones Sally knew about) – the loss of his father, the loss of his families’ security, the loss of an infant daughter, and the loss of the job he loved. How does one overcome these severe losses? Loss always adds grief. When we talked about the grief process, we agreed that he could have easily been stuck in the process. In those days, therapy wasn’t popular and there weren’t the kinds of resources we have today for help and support. The cultural attitude was to “man up” and move on.
Grief is a miserable process. The denial, bargaining, anger, and depression phases of the grief cycle are inescapable when we suffer a loss, no matter how big or small. We grieve when we are disappointed and we are disappointed when we don’t get what we want. Sally’s dad didn’t get what he wanted and needed – just like Sally.
Sally and her father were more alike than she cared to admit, but after she looked at the bigger picture, she felt more compassion and empathy for her father. It didn’t change her situation and she still had to correct the effects from how she was treated, but compassion and empathy allowed her to forgive her father and gain more peace and satisfaction in her life. She was happier.
When you tell your story, what do you see?
Stop, look, and listen. Stop focusing on yourself; be an independent thinker. Don’t let past pain prevent you from gaining insight; look at the bigger picture. Listen to the views of others, not to approve or correct, but to gain knowledge and wisdom because “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18
Seeing all sides paints a happier picture.