When It’s Not Whining, And How It Can Help

“Narrative becomes the way you make sense of chaos.
That’s how you focus the world.”
Dennis Lehane

Have you ever known someone who, when you ask them a question, not only answered but went “on and on” with a story that may have started years before the question you asked?

Maybe you’ve had, or have, a client who does the same thing?

Or maybe you find this true for yourself, that you must tell “the whole story” to “get to the point” or “ask your question. You may not mind this, may not realize it, or may, in fact, find it frustrating. Would it surprise you to know that is a demonstration of a particular type of intelligence?

Here’s why many of us  feel the need to tell our stories:

1. Narrative Intelligence

We all have this form of intelligence, called Narrative Intelligence, to some degree. Some people more, some less. Those who have a high narrative intelligence process information through listening and telling the story of what has happened. They’re looking to see how “what they want” (or the answer to your question) relates to what is happening now, what happened in the past, even to what will happen—all in an attempt to control and change their outcomes.

“Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the web: they might as well not exist.”
Steven Pinker

When we catch ourselves telling a story over and over, we may actually be trying to make sense of, or rewrite, what has happened or what is happening. Unfortunately, that “writing” (by telling that story over and over) is digging the results of that story deeper and deeper (anchoring it) into our beliefs, and thus into our creation process of what we’ll experience next.

2. It is Said That Confession Is Good For The Soul

We have this idea of confession in our world—that by telling another, we are cleansed. We want to feel better, to be free of all the baggage of emotions that accompany whatever we have experienced in the past. Whether it is freedom from sadness, embarrassment, or guilt, we want to release those feelings and move forward without them.

“Well, if storytelling is important, then your narrative ability, or your ability to put into words or use what someone else has put into words effectively, is important too.
Howard Gardner

I think behind the impulse to confess, is the desire for forgiveness. And ultimately the only true forgiveness is self-forgiveness. And that, we control ourselves. No story told to another, no story told one more time will free us in a way we can grant to ourselves by simply forgiving ourselves.

3. We Want A Witness

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Maya Angelou

We don’t know it, but we want a witness. The concept of “bearing witness” is centuries old.

“In legal terms, witness, is derived from a root meaning “to bear in mind;” “to remember;” “to be careful.” A witness in this light can be defined as one who has knowledge of something by recollection and experience, and who can tell about it accurately. By this definition, we are all witnesses for one another, whether or not by choice.”

“Bearing witness is a term that, used in psychology, refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and to obtain catharsis. Most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events. We bear witness to one another through our writing, through art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.” Kristi Pikiewicz Ph.D., Psychology Today

Why do we long for a witness to our story? Because a witness, someone who can “hear us”, neutrally, can help us process our story out and release it. Which is good news for those who are suffering from the pain of a life event around which has been built a story.

When We Want Change The Stories May Increase

We may desperately want to change and we think that by telling our story, we’re actually doing something about our circumstances. It is possible, (see “We Want A Witness:, above) but in most cases, a friend or colleague has neither the training or the skill to stay rooted strongly enough to see us as capable. Their fears get triggered. They can’t help us move beyond the story to the learning and freedom trapped in the telling. We need a skilled professional. Otherwise, chances are, we simply anchor ourselves as a victim in the mind of the listener— and more importantly in our own mind.

When You’re Ready for True Change

  1. Learn to share your story only with a trusted professional who is capable of hearing your story and using active listening skills (if they don’t know if they have these skills, they probably don’t) to help you travel through the whole process and get to the discovery and guidance on the other side.
  2. Set an intention. Say it aloud before telling your story. This sets up the magic of a forgone conclusion for practical, effective change. Be sure the intention is one that comes from your heart, a true desire.
  3. Look for the learning. Within every wounding (and every story about that wounding) is a gift—learning, clarity, purpose, guidance for you to use moving forward from here.
  4. Take action (*Inspired Action) that will help on the outside to change your situation in the direction you want. Take the action as soon as possible. This anchors the learning and the new change.

*Inspired Action: action that is creatively inspired, that seems to “pop” or “spring” into existence like an idea—often accompanied by a feeling of uplifting energy. If an action is inspired, you’ll want to do it.

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