If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”
― Mo Willems
People carry around thoughts, feelings and all kinds of stories about the estrangement that has occurred in their family. We tell ourselves why the estrangement happened, whose fault it might be, what we should have done, what others should have done. We obsess over details; who said what, who did what, when it happened, how it happened, where it happened.
What's your story?
What may be more useful is to start where you are, find your own way through the labyrinth that is family estrangement. We can begin this journey by carefully considering the stories we tell ourselves about estrangement in our family. When I say ‘stories’ I am speaking in the narrative sense, not the ‘truth telling’ sense. Let’s face it, in situations of estrangement, getting at truth can be a very tricky bit of business.
So we each have our own story, or set of stories. These are the constructions we use to make meanings of the events in our lives, to understand our actions and to make sense of the actions of the people we interact with. We don’t do this ‘story telling’ because we are bad, or sick, or immature people – we do it because story telling is the way we, all of us, make sense of the world.
Consider the following:
“I never knew my father. He disappeared when I was a baby and never made any effort to find me. I don’t think he liked kids. I can see how that’s probably true. I mean he was a young guy, and maybe he wasn’t ready to be a father. He didn’t marry my mom, so I guess that says a lot."
This is a ‘story’. It may be constructed around a set of clear facts; father was not present and he didn’t marry mother (at least, not that the teller is aware of). However, there are a number of assumptions that are not verifiable facts – even if mom said so. The above story not only tells us the verifiable bits, it also gives us a sense of what sorts of meanings the teller has made about them; father was not present … therefore he never tried to find me. Father was young, therefore did not like kids. Father did not marry mother … therefore he did not want a family or a child. There are probably other assumptions or ideas embedded into this story that we cannot pick apart but the words:"I guess that says a lot” is a bit of signal, that there is more story to come.
Stories take on a life of their own
If we believe this story, we begin to have a picture of what sort of person father might be … young, irresponsible, uncaring … perhaps. If we retold that story over and over to ourselves, particularly if there were other people who would agree with our story, and even embellish it with details of their own. It would not be difficult to come to believe the story was the only story. We tend to seek out information that supports our understandings, and to fail to see, leave out, or reject information that doesn’t fit.
So what happens if we aren’t even aware we are making stories as we go? What happens if we are largely unconscious, not only about how we construct stories around other people’s behavior but also how we construct stories around our own?
Well, these sorts of unconsidered stories, allow little room for the complexities of life.
They don’t give room for people to make sense of their own particular actions or the context within which they occurred. They leave very little possibility for movement or for change.When we agree to stick to a script in a story we have been telling ourselves for a long time – it prevents any chance of considering other possible meanings or actions. For instance in the above story, how would the teller’s feelings, thoughts, behaviors change if the story was expanded to include the following details:
“Before she passed away, my grandmother told me that my dad’s family were very angry that he’d been seeing my mom. They shipped him off to a school in England and though he tried to stay in touch with my mother, my grandmother and grandfather blocked his correspondence thinking to protect my mother. My mother and father never spoke again, and my mother was never able to let him know that he had a daughter.”
Whoa. Suddenly we have a whole other set of meanings about father’s absence.
Stories or descriptions of people’s behavior or personalities are often constructed by others – people who by virtue of their position or power, can label and define others; these are people such as parents, teachers, health professionals, clergy, counselors etc.
BEWARE: Stories are often expressed as truth.
Within family stories, the person who is targeted may be seen as ‘bad’, ‘a troublemaker’, or ‘sick’, the ‘scapegoat’ or ‘black sheep’. We may also turn this critical lens upon ourselves.
Stories may be used to dis-empower us, or we may also use them to dis-empower others. When this is happening, we begin to see ourselves or others as flat, one dimensional – a collection of traits and behaviors that best uphold the story we tell. As the story grows it becomes increasingly narrow, gains momentum, becomes more powerful and has ever greater capacity to impact the way we think and feel about people or circumstances, which in turn, impacts future events.
When we think about estrangement, perhaps one of the simplest (although not easy) places to begin, is with estrangement from self, and the stories we create. We need to challenge ourselves to start examining the stories we have accepted to be true about ourselves, about other people, and about circumstances in our lives. We de-construct the stories, read between the lines to better understand ourselves and to give ourselves room to move , think, and feel differently.
If we're in the wrong story, we can leave
We want to be able to create alternate stories, richer, more varied, and complex stories. Stories we author with intention. We want to expand limited stories which prevent change, and instead seek multi-layered meanings which allow possibility. Think about it. What's your story?