Kristin Armstrong on Taking Ownership of Your Personal Narrative
The columnist talks about transcending negative past experiences and challenging yourself to tell new stories
By Kristin Armstrong
Artwork by Shaylin Wallace
Portrait by Laura Doss
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Do you ever notice how people tell the same stories over and over?
A woman I recently met introduced herself by way of her tale of woe, how she was married for years when her husband told her he didn’t love her anymore and was, in fact, in love with someone else. How she was broken and betrayed and had never worked because she was busy taking care of the house and the kids, now grown and gone, so now she has no idea what to do. He always took care of the bills and the investments, the car and the yard. How he has some nerve to be happy. How her kids betrayed her too, because they actually like to travel and spend holidays with their dad and his new gal.
“Oh my,” I said. “This is painful. When will your divorce be final?”
“What?” She looked at me confused. “We got divorced twelve years ago.”
I almost spit out my Sancerre. This woman has been telling this same sad story for TWELVE years?!
The stories we tell about ourselves and our lives become our life story, whether we are talking to other people or even if it’s the voice in our head. We better be damn sure we like what we are telling.
Some people use language to lay claim to their misery. My anxiety, my depression, my cancer, my fibromyalgia, my trauma, my alcoholic father, my horrible childhood, my grief, my divorce, my, my, my. My is like a cattle brand — it says You Belong To Me, and do not wander off. It leaves a mark.
I wonder if we claim ownership and tell these same worn, victim-y stories because we aren’t sure what story we would tell otherwise. We aren’t sure who we would be without it, or if people would still offer comfort, camaraderie, interest or condolences.
In the middle of a difficult season, if we were to write the story about our experience it would likely fill a book, or maybe even an anthology. As time passes, if we are healing and evolving, what was once fodder for a book becomes a chapter. If we keep growing and releasing, the chapter becomes a paragraph. Expanding ever still, the paragraph is edited down to a well-written sentence. Transcendence and freedom hone that sentence into a phrase with a comma. In 2003 I got divorced, … After my accident, I … After we filed for bankruptcy, we … After the funeral, I …
When you get to phrase-comma status, you are owning your story. It is not owning you. It feels pretty amazing.
“A brand new year is a perfect time to start tuning in to the stories we tell ourselves and speak out loud to other people.”
A brand new year is a perfect time to start tuning in to the stories we tell ourselves and speak out loud to other people. If our story has no hope, no room to grow, no potential, no upward arc, then neither do we. Even if we are in the thick of it, in the process of recrafting our happier ending, we can state something like, “I’m learning so much right now” or, “I’m excited to see what happens …” This is not about toxic positivity, which is, well, toxic. This is about infusing the way we want to feel into our words, rather than spinning our wheels deeper into a rut by telling a story that has no traction.
By the time my clients find me, they usually want to craft a new story, but they often don’t know how to get unstuck from the old one. How do I learn to let go? It is a very good question I get all the time.
I usually ask next, “Have you learned everything you need to learn from this lesson? Or do you think there is anything left to learn?” We can camp out here for a while, unpacking and sorting. When we get to a place where we can separate the wisdom from the emotion, we can keep the former and release the rest. Then the letting go can happen. This is different for everyone, but I think the essence is a combination of intention and courage. When wanting something new, becoming someone new, or feeling better than we do right now overrides the perceived comfort of familiar pain. This births our intention. When it’s time, like all births, this requires some
deep breaths and a big push.
The courage is in the act of reaching for it. Like a trapeze artist high above the net has to let go of one bar in order to grab the next — this means a terrifying, exhilarating instant of air, hanging in the in-between.
Right here, we meet ourselves, our destiny, our release, our freedom.
What are you reaching for?