Twenty years from the last time I sat in a therapist’s office as a client, I found myself there again. A different office, a different therapist, but the feeling was the same. If this is me at the end of my rope, showing up to therapy is proof that I’m still holding onto it.
Recent changes in my life echo previous trauma, and sometimes I am afraid that I’m in danger of centering my life story around this narrative. Sometimes, I am afraid that I already have.
Is this who I am, or is this what happened to me? There’s a stark difference.
It may not seem like it matters, but the narratives we create around the events in our lives impact our thoughts, our feelings, and our relationships.
Trauma changes us, but those experiences don’t have to be the defining factor in the stories we tell. They may be the catalyst for great change, and often are — but they don’t have to be the center of our stories.
At the center of every story of struggle is strength. I can go through a list of events in my life that left me feeling broken, but the point is not the pain. The point is how I overcame it — or how I’m still trying to do so.
If the only story we ever tell ourselves is how others hurt us, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. Keeping the narrative of our lives in a victim mentality prevents us from growing in the ways that we could. Our life stories don’t need to be centered in the pain that changed us but in the ways that we empowered ourselves to change.
For every story of pain that I could tell, there’s a story of everything I did to survive and heal from it. Those stories contain missteps and mistakes, but they also contain love, grit, and courage. If we center our stories only on the terrible events of our lives, we may be perpetuating rather than preventing more pain.
Our life stories don’t need to be centered in the pain that changed us but in the ways that we empowered ourselves to change.
Our narratives become self-fulfilling prophecies — the way we sabotage our relationships in the expectation that the pain we’ve experienced will be the pain we always experience. The stories we tell ourselves creates a foundation that we will keep building either intentionally or unintentionally. There’s danger in centering our stories in the trauma of our lives rather than in the ways we empowered ourselves to overcome great struggle.
Shaping narratives around trauma alone can also prevent empathy and a more nuanced understanding of how other people’s journeys may have impacted our own. To cast everyone in our story as a villain or victim is childish black-and-white thinking that doesn’t leave any room for compassion or understanding. We see this often in dating. It’s easy to assign roles — narcissist and empath, for instance — but to do so not only eclipses our ability to have empathy for others. It also prevents our growth.
We don’t have to forgive the people we hurt us (especially when abuse is involved), but if we want to grow as human beings, it helps to have a base level of understanding of why people do what they do. Spend a day on a dating app, and it’s easy to see all the unresolved issues out there even if you’re not a former therapist. The expression “hurt people hurt people” is apt. To have some level of understanding doesn’t mean making excuses or giving out free passes for poor choices and unkind behavior. It doesn’t even mean that it changes the way we feel about the people who hurt us. It just means that we’re capable of thinking about life events from a broader perspective.
To see how we often do this, consider the history of past relationships. How do we characterize the people we once partnered? Are the stories so black-and-white that the people in them become caricatures of themselves? Do they have any dimension at all other than as a figure from our nightmares?
The very act of centering our stories in what hurt us simplifies stories that aren’t simple at all.
When we do this, it’s nearly impossible to learn the lessons we’re meant to learn. In the early stages of our recovery from trauma, this may be the only way we can move forward. But later, when we’ve had time to process what’s happened, we may be able to broaden our stories not only to encompass greater understanding of what happened but also to center the stories we tell ourselves in empowerment and hope.
When we center our stories in empowerment, we don’t let the pain define us. I am not a history of abandonment or a deficit of love. I am not a dysfunctional past or failed relationship. I am strong even when I don’t feel strong at all. I am persistent even when I want to give up.
I could let my story easily become about the hardship I’ve endured. I could tell stories of relational or financial devastation, or I could tell stories of challenges I’ve encountered — those obstacles I’ve overcome. I could even tell the stories of the ones I’m still overcoming.
There is a danger in doubling down on our issues and allowing them to define us — in making our lives about our struggle rather than our strength. It doesn’t invalidate the pain to center our stories in the way we’ve survived and the hope that we’ve found along the way. When we do this, we amplify our strength instead of our struggle — and we give hope to others who may be struggling to find their way.
Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned author. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elephant Journal, Elite Daily, and The Good Men Project. She’s also the author of Left on Main, the first book in the Heart of Madison series. When she’s not writing for Medium and working on her next book, you can find Crystal traveling, paddle boarding, running, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, doing yoga, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with her two wild and wonderful children.
Image courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio.