A kid shuffles in wearing an orange jumpsuit, chains around his waist and shackles on his feet. The handcuffs have been removed and now hang around his waist. He tips his head back with a grin and an attitude but says, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” to any question asked. This is a typical day for me in my psychology office. Frequently, we had two to three kids from the juvenile detention centers come to the office for a psychological evaluation as requested by their probation officer. And frequently their story appears the same. They are usually polite and respectful but have lost hope. They view themselves as criminals and the only way out is the NFL or NBA. We started with an interview and he was talkative and polite. Next came the IQ screener and as the questions progressed he got one right, next 5 correct, 10, 25…. He sailed through it. Even without scoring it, I could tell he is brilliant. 125 IQ. Top 95% of the country. And he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit and telling me his big goal is to play pro basketball. At the end of the evaluation, I asked him, “What else have you considered?” He just smiled and shrugged. Most of the time I do not give these kids a lecture, but this kid needed a mama to shake him up a bit. “I see lots of kids just like you. Kids in jumpsuits, stealing cars, drugs, whatever. And you know that you are not like the majority of the kids in the center with you now. I test 6-8 kids a week and I know you are not the same. You are smart. Like real smart. And being smart means you have options if you open yourself to that possibility. Options beyond sports. Not every kid I see could go to college. That’s just the reality. Not everyone is smart enough for college. But you are. Your possibilities are limitless if you pull it together and stop acting stupid. Every 3 months they send me a review from the detention center. This crappy situation is your chance to change it all. Finish high school, start college courses, get your mind straight while you are here. Your choice.” He looked shocked and his eyes were watery. He tipped his head down and said, “Okay, ma’am.”
I don’t know if it will make a difference, but if no one ever tells you that your story is flawed, you might never break out of it.
Stories are a part of human nature. We told stories before we even had established a formal language through drawings and etchings. Across history, people told the stories of generations and that was how knowledge was passed on. In times of trauma, people will tell the same story repeatedly. It is a part of processing. Parables, fairy tales, movies, novels. We love stories. Especially happy stories. Did you know, if you are giving a speech or teaching a class, the best way to grab attention is to say, “Let me tell you a story….” People tune in. It’s how we’re programmed.
But is there more to stories then just entertainment? Stories and narratives help us learn about our world. We are able to extract the information we need and apply it to our lives. Jesus taught more in parables then he did in direct lessons. Maybe it was so people would listen. Maybe so the lessons would apply across generations. But I think in part it was because that is how we are programmed to learn. Stories.
There is a branch of psychology that looks at narrative identity theory. This branch says we are the stories that we tell. Our nature compels us to create stories to understand ourselves, our world, and others. Sometimes, those stories serve us well, and other times – not too much. As I said, I work with a lot of juveniles in the detention center and I can hear the stories they have been told or are telling themselves. “I can never change. This is the life I will always have. I will end up dead or in jail. I am too stupid… too poor…. too useless.” Do you know that the majority of people in jail were told at some point in their life that they would end up in jail? A story.
Here is the problem with the stories we tell ourselves: there is no fact checking. When reporters send a story to their editor, one of the steps it goes through is a fact check. Someone takes the “facts” and makes sure they are accurate. (At least that is what we hope happens.) But, the stories in our head do not have any checks and balances. AND the more we tell these stories to ourselves (or to others), the more true they feel. This can be a positive or negative thing depending on the type of story you are telling yourself.
Many of our formative stories and narratives of our life are set down when we are teenagers. One famous psychologist, Adler, used to ask all his patients, “What is your earliest memory?” And no matter what the patient said, he would answer, “And so goes life.” Here is one of my earliest memories: I was 2 1/2 and my mother was at the hospital having my brother. My Mamma came to stay with me and my mother hid gifts around the house for me. I remember searching for them and finding Weeble Wobbles under a couch cushion. I told this recently to my husband and said, “I don’t remember anything about the baby, but there were gifts for me!” And he replied, “And so goes life.” LOL
Our earliest defining memories have pieces to them that can tell you about your dreams, your behavior, your relationships, and your potential. Not only your earliest memory, but the defining memories of your life can determine the trajectory of your life. What are the experiences and memories you are giving your children right now? What defining memories would you want them to have?
If you are worrying that the defining memories and the storyline narratives of your life are already set but are not the storylines you want in your life, there are options! These life stories can be adjusted, changed, softened. Research completed by Sherry Hamby, Ph.D. as part of her Resilience Research has developed a 6 step process that can help us change problematic story lines or help us deal with current events that are creating negative experiences for us or our loved ones:
- Write the story. Writing about your experience in short bursts (as brief as two minutes) for a cumulative of 2-3 hours can help re-frame the experience. Short writing bursts are better then long periods of ruminating that can lead down a dark rabbit hole, but those short periods of time can help our brain re-work the experience.
- Ask someone else to give your feedback. Find a close friend, therapist, or mentor to read your writing or discuss with you. This provides a series of checks and balances on our viewpoints.
- Share your story. Two things happen here – first, others benefit from your experience and second, you will find that you are not alone. Most of the time we feel like we are the only one with that particular struggle. Sharing it will bring others out of the woodwork saying “Me too!!”
- Write the stories of your life, not abstract concepts or thoughts. Processing through actual memories (even if you are not sure they are relevant) is what helps us discover and start to modify our life storylines.
- Avoid rewriting in the midst of crisis or high emotional times. Step back and reflect and then use the writing when you are feeling calmer.
- Focus on growth – it might feel cliché but we always learn from our negative experiences. It might be increased empathy for others, inner strength, resilience, and the ability to adapt. As you work through the storylines, start moving your writing towards areas where you have grown. When you tell yourself, “I was strong” that becomes part of your storyline.
Watch for more coming on this topic and narrative psychology. Follow the blog as we develop techniques and programs for creating your storylines.
Just curious… What is your earliest memory?