We are all unique walking collections of stories. Our stories help give shape to our lives. They are the results of experiences that surprise, comfort, and sometimes even torment us. Best of all, our stories are what connect us to others. The challenge we face is that sometimes our stories start to run the show. Instead of making the most of our stories as points of connection, we allow our stories to use us mercilessly, and disconnect us unnecessarily.
Storytelling is a timeless tradition that goes back to the start of civilization, visible now in cave paintings around the world. Little has changed since then. We live our lives, and tell our stories in the form of narratives or jokes or teachings, often in the hopes that future generations know where they came from and so they won’t make our same mistakes. If we’re really wise, we ask as many questions as the stories we tell. But there’s no denying that stories are how we make sense of what has happened to us, and also how we share the essence of ourselves with others. Because our stories are our history, they are perfect, because we are perfect, no matter how flawed our experiences.
Sharing our stories is all about vulnerability. The words that we choose to share with one another are by their very choice reflections of how we were raised, where we’ve come from, who we are now, and even where we aspire to go. When we unleash those words to others, we are sharing ourselves in such a wonderful, vulnerable and open way, that other people cannot help but recognize themselves in our words and then connect with us. Or when our stories don’t have enough points in common, this may be a reflection of how we don’t connect. Storytelling, by virtue of its need for vulnerability, is vital to connection.
How do you tell stories? What did you do, where did you go, who did you see, why were you whatever you were? How did all of those experiences make you who you are today? The big questions of our lives are wrapped up in our stories, what we choose to share, or not share. Think about the stories you chose to share over the course of the last week versus those that you actively chose not to share. They are the foundation of the connections we attempt to seek from others. Therein lies your power, your purpose and ultimately your destiny.
So when does storytelling become a trap? We choose to share stories that limit our connections to each other, rather than create deeper connections. We choose stories that limit our own vulnerability, and keep us from being fully present. Let me give you an example: I have one regular acquaintance Carla who always jokes through sarcasm and one-upmanship. Almost every conversation is based around a story of how her experience was better than whatever anyone else just shared. Or otherwise how much worse it was, and therefore more amazing, making for a better story. Carla’s stories always create distance. They may elicit some funny jokes or words of fascination, but they almost never create a bond of shared experience. Can you think of a time when your stories achieved the same undesired, even if unintentional, result?
Carla is letting herself get used by her stories. Like all of us, Carla has options. She might simply stay present with the people around her. She can listen to and acknowledge other people’s stories, and respond to those stories without diminishing them. But more often than not, she doesn’t choose a benign course. She chooses to let her own stories blow everyone else’s out of the water. Carla allows her stories to put her on a pedestal, high above the connections happening around her. In those moments, her story is running her. It’s a pretty lonely place to be, and she’s the first to admit it.
Complaining is another common way of allowing our stories to run our lives. I had the great privilege of growing up around many elderly folks, well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s. Their wisdom and warmth was often so generous. But there were also plenty who told stories of nothing but their ailments. My grandmother, while adorable, often fell victim to this. If we had the time to call over, the first ten minutes of conversation were about all of her current ailments, doctors’ recommendations for each, and how all of these were impeding her regular routines. Her stories were endless. Does this sound at all familiar? Clearly, people who do this have great need for a sympathetic ear. But this type of story does little but cut off our own curiosity about others, and what’s happening in their lives. It not only hinders our connection, but doesn’t allow other people’s experiences to put ours into perspective. The connections stay limited because it’s about the stories, not about who we really are.
Curiosity is the easiest antidote to the trap of letting our stories run us. Wondering what is happening around us offers us a constant perspective. Allowing ourselves the curiosity to ask questions – a vulnerable act itself – and to be with those stories, to respond respectfully and honestly, these are where connections are born and become profound. Our comfort zones are usually far more flexible than we give ourselves credit for. We have a huge capacity to process the stories told to us throughout the course of a day, and fully reach out to the people who are sharing. This can be a great reminder to us that it’s always as much about the other person as it is about us, as often as we forget that. Seek out others stories by liberating your curiosity, and expand your own experience.
Listening is another key to connection, and will help you avoid falling into your own storytelling traps. What are people’s stories telling you? Ask yourself what is the meaning behind their story. How deeply are they sharing? Can you share in kind? You will find this type of listening and connecting builds your friendships better than you expected because you shared an important story at the right moment, when you were both vulnerable and open-hearted.
Stories are invitations to get to know us better. We always have copious amounts of stories to choose from, if we are conscious of how rich our lives have been. Listen deeply, and respond wholeheartedly.
Remember to keep your stories in check. When you find them protecting you, elevating you above others, controlling others by keeping them subjected to your complaints, find the awareness to stop the cycle of the story. Your stories will use you to keep you centered solely on yourself. Remain confident in your perfect stories to allow moments to be about the other person. Take the power of your curiosity and listening to connect deeper.
We are after all not our stories. Our stories are just momentary reflections of where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced. When we are fully present, fully generous, and fully alive, we are so much more than the sum of our stories.