“When you get to that confrontation of truth with what matters to you, it creates the greatest opportunity for change,” Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute
An article in the New York Times published earlier this year revealed the power of writing – or in some cases re-writing – one’s own story as a means to heal the past. The article cited an array of studies conducted on college students, married couples, minority groups and more that seem to prove the benefits of self-oriented authorship, benefits which include: improvement of mood disorders, reduced symptoms among cancer patients, improved health post heart attack, reduced frequency of doctor visits and even improved memory.
But as I spoke to the small audience at the women’s entrepreneurial event hosted by Sento Bene a few weeks back, I realized just how hard it is to go back and face your own story. Even if your personal history is a happy one, we’re all grappling with the past, what mistakes we made, and what turns we might have (or have not) taken. The proof of this was evident in the way that each woman present spoke of herself and her current business endeavors. It’s simply uncomfortable to talk about ourselves, past, present or future.
In the formation of my writing career, my interests always gravitated to individuals. I started with local news, most of which was focused on profiles of people in town or stories at the high school. I wasn’t interested in the happenings at the lumber mill or local construction projects or even legislation. But I did want to report on people, what they were doing, why they mattered.
Eventually, as I left formal journalism and ventured into public relations, I found that same itch in Seattle, which became the foundation for TheGlamourWire, a series of interviews showcasing the motivation of Seattle-based designers. The series was a small success, won an award, and was published in The Seattle Times weekly as an affiliate; the newspaper’s only designer fashion coverage.
Later, as adulthood concretely married with career goals, and time came to tell my own story, a nerve-wracking and terrifying turn, which you now enjoy here on HerAfter. Stories unite us, inspire us, and encourage us. We’re not that different, after all.
All my favorite podcasts, shows and books are personal stories: SheDoes podcast, WNYC’s Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, CenterStage on afternoon TV, Just Kids by Patti Smith. The central theme is clear: stories from the individual perspective are powerful. Rarely is the highlight of each story the culmination of hardwork, the Academy Award or the finished project. It’s the struggle that lights us aflame. It’s that gritty day-to-day work. When an interviewer asks: “how did you get through it?” And the interviewee peers back at the past with analytical eyes, and replies “I don’t know, but here are the tools and wisdom that helped me.”
Which brings us back to Groppel’s findings, and why the telling of your story is so important. It’s not realistic advice to tell you to go buy a notebook, sit down, and spend a couple hours re-hashing the most painful moments of your life. But what if it was more accessible than that…?
What if it was a love-letter to you back when you were your most heart broken?
What if its a diary entry you’ll share with your daughter some day about the darkest moments you’ve overcome?
What if it’s just a page of curse words and rants where you finally, visibly purge all that pain and suffering from the corners of your heart?
What if catharsis is available to you with something as simple as a pen on paper?
It’s certainly not easy to go back into your own stories and analyze them, just as it’s not easy to face any hard facts about ourselves. But writing them is a chance to first go into, then grow out of something that’s been holding you back. Just as in those interviews, it’s never when the subject says “and then I woke up and the sun came out and everything was fine!” that the real strength and guts and courage is revealed. It’s when they admit to the hardships, and to how broken they actually were that rings like a bell in our heart, that sounds the call from a fellow soldier that though you are on your own, you are never alone…
Vulnerability, the human condition of being breakable, the struggle for personal peace, these very real qualities tie us all together. That’s where humanness comes in, and why vulnerability is actually such a strength. It’s what unites us.
So go ahead. Send in it a letter to the trash can, or keep it hidden in the back of your closet like a dirty secret. It doesn’t really matter how or what you do with it.
It matters that you go back and have a clear, conscious conversation with yourself.
One in which your current self forgives your past self,
and together you move on with a joint understanding of the truth, of what’s important, and of where you’re both headed.
- Write a letter to yourself at the age of 19, or any year that was significant for you as your entered adulthood. What would you tell that younger self? What would you warn her about or tell her to forget and move on from?
- Write a letter to your parent. Tell her about the most significant moments of your childhood and why it made you a better person.
- Start a journal of fictitious conversations with your past self, or future self. It’s fiction, so have fun with it. What do you want to hear from your future self? What do you hope she’s doing? What do you need to say or talk about with your past self?
- If writing turns out not to be your gateway, don’t stop looking. Do whatever it takes to see your individual strengths, to forgive your personal shortcomings, to love exactly and everything that you are and are not. Because that is unconditional love: love that makes no demands.