Listening to the Real Story

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Sometimes when I ask clients to tell me their stories, they tell me what others have done to them or what they have done to themselves. Occasionally they will tell me about their past achievements and more often, because they chose to enter therapy, they tell me stories about their failures. They do not tell me their real stories. Whenever I probe further, I discover that many do not even know their real stories. Real stories are stories about who they are, not what they have done. Our real stories tell us what sources we have drawn upon in the face of challenge. They are what we have discovered about ourselves, our fears, our hopes, our sorrows, even our joys, from the events in our lives.  Our real stories—stories about who we are—are the head spring of our personal wisdom. Wisdom teaches us how to live our lives.

Wisdom is not the exclusive domain of sages. A child’s story can reveal wisdom as powerful as that of a octogenarian. The story of a developmentally disabled client can be as profound as the wisdom of a woman with a Ph.D. We all possess a personal wisdom. Sometimes, almost without realizing it, clients in therapy will tap into their wisdom. When they do, their story changes and their wisdom increases.

Over the years, I have been a privileged witness to the growth of others’ wisdom. I have witnessed a woman who discovered freedom from pain using the words, “be gentle with yourself,” another client who discovered a source of composure in a glass of water, and yet another client who discovered the power of her own affirmations against life-long low self-esteem.

I have been privileged; privileged to listen to people’s stories, as a counselor, as a coworker, as a student. As a listener, I too can receive wisdom.  The wisdom that story tellers derive from their experience may be different from the wisdom I receive, but wisdom grows from telling the real story.  

I did not easily come to this place where I now listen for the real story. Initially, I heard only the brokenness, stories about how they have failed, what they have lost, or where they feel pain.

There are times when I listen to clients who experienced their first severe episode of mania or psychosis only a few months before. Often young adults, they tell me about what the professionals and family has told them about their illness. Then the young man or young woman, in a painful voice, will ask, “Can I ever trust myself again?” Can I marry? Can I complete my degree? Can I have a successful career?  I now recognize that those questions segue into their real story: how they experienced themselves before the chaos and how they struggle to stay connected with the person they still are.

I have become aware of a decided difference in the real stories of those who have been dealing with their diagnosis for years and those who are newly diagnosed, between a lifelong struggle and one more recently encountered. Recently diagnosed people still have hope. I have learned that it takes those clients with life-long experience of their illness longer to reconnect with their real story. After a lifetime of feeling broken, they no longer seem to be able to experience themselves as strong or whole despite their challenges. I experience their dominant story as a “surrender to disease.” If the person had cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, they would be encouraged to fight the disease, overcome its limitations. But with a psychological disorder, such words of encouragement fall away.

Now I try to listen for the real story of who they are.