Beware listening through stories

On February 3, 2017 my former partner and I shared parallel messages to let friends know what was happening in our personal lives:

This message let a wider circle of friends know what was happening in our internal worlds, but for most of my interactions with people, for months, when asked “how are you?” my answer was “good.” Sometimes I’d be more honest and say, “You know, I’m ok today. I have some stuff going on and I’m not at my best.” But the majority of time, the most people knew was that I was “good”, or “fine”. Just like them, I suspect, I gave the answer we all hope to hear, that all is well.

Here’s what I have learned: there is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them, or even briefly talking to them. It is irresponsible to think that we can.

There is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them.

As I hunkered down to make sure I kept it together during a significant time of transition in my life, and made my way through the world, I realized that no one else knows what is going on for me. A handful of people got close and gave me the gift of love and support, but when I went out to get groceries or went to work, I did not have a sign on me telling others what was happening. Even if I did have that sign — 21 year marriage just ended — they would still have no idea what it meant for me. All they have is their story.

It is not possible for others to know my story and what it means to me. And this tells me that when I see others on the street, or in a workshop or at work, it is not possible for me to know  their story and what it means to them. I can not know by looking, and I can not know by hearing a wee piece of story either. All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. All I have is my story.

It is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them… All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. 

The tricky work of being in relationship with others is in recognizing that my reaction to what others do and say is my reaction. The stories I tell myself about them are my stories. To show up as my best self with them means I have to be aware of the stories I tell myself.

I have learned this because the stories others tell themselves about me are not my experience. Here are a few story pieces a handful of people have shared directly with me:

  • There must be a reason why! There must be someone to blame. Who made this happen?
  • You have lost so much! You are alone, without a partner. This is tragic.
  • You must be lonely.
  • You must not know what to feel, so I will tell you how you must be feeling.
  • You must not know what to do, so I will tell you what you need to know. Here’s how to handle money… here’s how to handle the separation agreement… here’s how to handle the kids.

These stories these dear people carry about my and my situation shape how they offer support to me. As they listen through their story, they act in ways that soothe them, not me. Despite good intentions, they are not supporting me at all. To me, what they say and do can feel disempowering; I sense a pre-supposition that I am broken, flawed, that something is now missing in my life that should be there, that I am incomplete. These stories that are not my own and have the power to deflate me — if I let them.

In contrast, a series of other stories have revealed themselves to me, that recognize and support my journey:

  • It took courage acknowledge the need to separate.
  • It took courage to enact the separation.
  • This is a time of transition, confusion and metamorphosis.
  • This is hard work and you are capable of handling this.
  • I am available to listen, with out judgement, and simply be with you.

This set of stories embodies an entirely different way of supporting me because they are listening for my story; they are not listening through their story. To support me, they put their story aside and make room for me. They trust that I am fully capable of living through a difficult time. When we spend time together, they give me space and room to figure out my next steps without inserting their agenda. If they are uncomfortable and upset about my new reality, they are able to put that aside and not let it run the show.

I have a new understanding about what it means to be heard and supported as we make our way through our lives. For me specifically it means this:

  1. I pay more attention to my own state and ability to be with others. If I am not able to listen for their story (and only able to listen through my story), I need to remove myself.
  2. I pay more attention to the quality of listening in others toward me. If they are only capable of listening through their story, and I am in need of support, I remove myself. If they are only capable of listening through their story and I am capable of listening for their story, I will stick around and be supportive.
  3. I choose to notice the stories I tell myself, check if they belong to me and if they are disempowering myself and/or others.

 

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11 thoughts on “Beware listening through stories”

  1. Dear Beth, you are courageous and capable. Thank you for sharing your insights so we can all better speak our truth, and truly bear witness to other people living their story.

  2. Honest, Brave comments Beth. I have walked some of the same journey although it was a long time ago. I can listen if you need an ear.

  3. I am struck by your courage, resilience, and capacity for growth. These things are congruent with the characteristics of the Beth I met many years ago when you helped to facilitate “Harvesting Community Voice” in Pembina Trails School Division. If you want a professional certified coach to listen to your story and to walk with you in your transition, I am one and I am willing.

    1. Thank you, Lawrence, for your observations. I certainly remember working with you — and the integrity you embody. It’s fun to see the work you are now doing. I am confident you are doing it well. And thank you for your offer.

  4. Thank you so much for the way you clearly (and gently) tease apart the difference between our own perceptions and capacity and others’ perceptions and capacity, and how both offer greatly differing vantage points of the same event. May you continue breathing fully into your next chapter and be surrounded by allies in all of the forms you wish!

    This piece would be so helpful for my prison classes. Is it ok to share with them?

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