The Stories that Shape Us
By Jason C. Whitehead
We tell stories to tell the world who we are. Sometimes stories heal, sometimes they cause harm.
There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
Alfred North Whitehead
Therapists are trafficking in human possibilities rather than settled certainties.
We create, imagine, and organize ourselves out of stories. When we first get to know someone, we are often prone to sharing facts and historical details. When we’re ready for them to know us, we tell them a story.
Stories shape our sense of self and how we make sense of experiences. They are how we organize our worlds and communicate who we are to others. But there’s a difference between sitting down and writing a story, and the self-created narratives that shape us. Human stories are often messier than the carefully crafted books we read. Whereas those often have a beginning, middle, and end, ours generally devolve and divert in chaotic ways.
Some of our stories have beginnings that branch off from the middle of a previous story. Some beginnings give birth to second beginnings before a middle arises. Some endings aren’t endings at all. Instead, they loop back to the middle of an old story, providing unsatisfying conclusions, and leaving us stuck.
Although we share some similarities, human stories aren’t as clean as their fictional counterparts. We are messy, chaotic, embedded storytellers. What we don’t fully remember, we’re prone to make up.
Memory research tells us that we often imagine parts of a story so that it’s cohesive. Our brains aren’t computers or databases. When we remember, we’re rebuilding or reconstructing an experience. Every time we tell a story it’s rebuilt from the ground up.
The stories that shape us aren’t old documentaries. At best, they’re historical fiction, part fact and part imagination. The trouble comes when we mistake our memories for complete truths. This tends to make the stories that shape us rigid and unyielding.
Those inflexible stories that we all carry are the reason therapists exist. While there are many schools of thought, I see our role as sacred listeners. Our presence to these reified stories, these half-truths masquerading as whole truths, is an act of creative-responsive love.
Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.
As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realize we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.
Susan Wittig Albert
Our stories shape us, and we shape our stories. Since every story we tell includes a healthy dose of imagination, we are constantly making connections and choices about our stories and identities.
Therapy, as an act of creative-responsive love, attends to these choices in the context of a relationship. It’s the reason why two simple words, “say more,” permeate the culture of our profession. “Say more” is an intervention of the highest order. It is an invitation to a storyteller, an acknowledgement that the story is important, and that there is always more to tell.
For therapy to embody creative-responsive love it must be able to present an open world. It’s a world of choices and accountability. A world rife with possibility and responsibility. There is no need for therapy and therapists if choice and change aren’t possibilities.
Our greatest work is in co-creating the kind of sandbox that allows people to share the stories that have shaped them and question those stories as well. As therapists, our capacity to tolerate ambiguity is vital. We are called into relationships where people are certain the stories they tell are the whole truth. And, we have to both believe them and coax them into expanding a story.
This takes creativity and responsiveness. It is a (sometimes) gentle process of prodding at the cracks in a story. Love is believing a story and believing it’s not the last word. Every story has fissures in it. These are the overlooked details, the tiny moments of glossed over resistance, or the overshadowed moments of resilience and flexibility.
As sacred listeners we’re hearing a story twice. At the first level, we hear what we’re told. We’re letting the story breathe and have life. At the same time, we’re peering into those cracks and fissures. We’re drawing attention to them and asking for more. Creative-responsive love means we don’t settle for a simple story. It means we believe in someone’s capacity to reshape their stories.
For stories to heal, they must become complex, breaking the bonds of rigidity and simplicity. Our questions and “say mores” aren’t the end. They’re the beginning of teaching and embodying ways to question how we tell our stories. The goal of creative-responsive love in therapy is that it becomes an uncontrolled force in someone’s life. Our goal as therapists is to help you embody creativity in your lives so that you are empowered with choice. You can choose how to tell your stories rather than the story dictating how it will be told.
The capacity to choose how we will tell a story is transformative.
In countering the effects of a problem-saturated story, it is important to develop as rich, detailed, and meaningful a counter-story as possible.
Jill Freedman & Gene Combs
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.
Our stories shape us, we shape our stories, and our choices matter. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, which may be attributed to Seneca, but I know it from the song Closing Time by Semisonic. This presents us with an opportunity to explore how stories have multiple meanings and possibilities, and how our choices in telling them matter.
The first story about this quote deals with its origins in Stoic philosophy and ethics. Seneca was a Stoic philosopher (among other things) who wrote around the same time Jesus walked the earth. Early Christianity was heavily influenced by Stoicism. Augustine incorporated Stoic principles, ethics, and logic into his theological writing. Someone also created a series of fake correspondence between Paul and Seneca. I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of Stoic philosophy on early Christianity.
My imperfect story about Stoic philosophy is that it has to do with being intentional in how we approach and engage in life. It is about a responsibility to being present to the world as it unfolds around us and taking in everything we can of life. Hence, this quote from Seneca could be about being present to the beginnings and endings we all experience, as well as the grief and excitement they can produce.
Now, the song by Semisonic complicates our Stoic story a bit by making it contextual. On the surface, Closing Time seems to refer to the last call at a bar. Its imagery, tone, and tempo seem to point us in the direction of life outside the bar when the doors close. In this interpretation it is a story about finding your people and heading out into the world together. It creates some cracks in the Stoic story by giving it some additional context and possibility.
However, the final fissure to the story of the song comes when you look into the history of its writing. Dan Wilson, the songwriter, explained that the song is about the birth of his son. And, when you go back and read the lyrics, the meaning of the song changes and the context for the quote comes alive in different ways.
A nine-word story that takes us from first-century Stoicism to the closing of a bar to the birth of a child. All true depending on the storyteller, but much richer and more complex when taken together. You see, we now have a story (whatever it was we believed about this quote when first reading it), and we have a counter-story (whatever it is we believe having read these different experiences of the quote). Because of this diversity, we have choices to make.
Therapy, as creative-responsive love, is about developing possible choices and stories. It is an act of love to tell someone, “yes, I believe you…and there’s more to it.” We listen to the stories and help explore the counter-stories. We love both who they are, and who they are becoming in all its fits and starts.
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.
Delicious ambiguity. If I had to settle on a phrase that encompasses what it means to embody creative-responsive love in therapy, this would climb to the top of the list. Co-creating and savoring the new beginnings that come from the end of an old beginning is our work together. And it is good, delicious work.
Jason Whitehead is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Associate Certified Coach. He earned his Ph.D. in Religion and Psychology from Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. He is the author of Redeeming Fear (Fortress Press, 2013) and Lead Curator of ReFrame, an app-based discipleship community. Jason loves woodworking, pickleball, and good beer.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love