The Power of Your Personal Story

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Sixty-Seven

“Nothing is more healing than your personal story”

My older brother grew up pretending he was dog. Getting down on his hands and knees, he and his buddy Delmar Stone would chase cars like dogs do until one day his shirt got caught on the bumper of an old Hudson Terraplane. The driver unknowingly drug him down the street for a couple of houses. How do kids do such a stupid thing? Well, that’s the magic and meaningfulness of personal story. 

Everyone has a story to tell.  Step One “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable.” Is the basis for addicts to share their story and addict history? Over the past 30 years I have engaged in many therapeutic modalities that have helped to heal my own personal brokenness. The magic of healing is contained within the context of storytelling. The greatest healing that transforms life from broken to beauty is housed in the confines of average everyday living. For me, the single greatest tool for my personal healing has been my own story. There has been no greater healing source. Housed in every life story is the truth that liberates. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so powerful. Within the community of alcoholics there are “shared stories.” Each unique story is tied together through shared weakness. In Anthony de Mello’s book, One Minute Wisdom, he writes, “The Master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure—and occasional frustration for they longed for something deeper. The Master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, “You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story. Another time he said, “Do not despise the story. A lost gold coin is found by means of a penny candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story.” 

It has been my experience that all of the therapeutic healing arts are dependent upon human story. The greatest healing truths can be uncovered only through unpacking the intricate details of one’s story. Carl Jung concluded that every person has a story, and when derangement occurs, it is because the personal story has been denied or rejected. Healing and integration comes when the person discovers or rediscovers their own personal story. Social psychologist, Aleks Krotoski, in her book, Untangling the Web proclaimed that, “Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.” Sue Monk Kidd in her book, The Secret Life of Bees, stated that, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

No One Passes Through Childhood into Adulthood Unscathed.

Many of us have experienced tragic stories of abuse. Those who have sensational stories of abuse have avoided the direct painful impact of their story through a cocktail of avoidance strategies often including drugs, alcohol and sex. The fear of immense pain becomes a motivation to elude at all costs facing the reality of agony in their story. It is not uncommon to hear someone declare “I grew up in a perfectly happy childhood.” Usually, this signals that someone is minimizing significant hurtful experiences. However, no one is able to go through childhood and avoid disappointment and other hurts. There are major traumas and minor traumas. Both are significant. While horrifying traumas can be obvious, minor trauma is often minimized and overlooked. Many times upon exploration, what is revealed are experiences of neglect and abandonment that have been normalized and marginalized. Frequently, people have learned to practice an unspoken rule in their family to “embrace the improbable and ignore the obvious.” Understanding the impact of these “minor” traumas in average everyday living takes focused effort. 

Fritz Perls, credited as the father of Gestalt therapy stated, “Nothing changes until it becomes real.” No one passes through childhood into adulthood unscathed. There is a pool of pain that must be drained for personal healing to occur. That pool of pain encompasses the average everyday experiences of our childhood that were hurtful, whether major or minor. For many, unmet emotional needs were never addressed as they were invisible.

Most of us have learned to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable in our life stories. We sort of walk “around the dead dog” in the living room when it comes to our unmet emotional needs from ordinary past experiences. The prosaic influence of the Catholic Church and the devastating encounter of personal involvement in World War I had an obvious impact on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien in the creation of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The commonplace drudgery of everyday living in African American communities of the South had an obvious impact on Maya Angelou in her poetry and other writings. Yet, we tend to minimize the uneventful and painful experiences in our personal lives and embrace the improbable conclusion that these commonplace occurrences had little impact on who we are. Consequently, we learn to disdain the average experience. We learn to forget its meaningful impact as we surge to find the “ring” that will make discomfort immediately vanish. Instantly, the spectacular vanquishes the dread of everyday living and we hover there for the solutions of life. 

It takes courage to tell our stories and deepen awareness of what is real. We are often afraid to unravel the uneventful, uncomfortable times of our past. We fear that if we do this, preconceived notions of reality will disintegrate. Consequently, we fear that what we have always thought to be true has now crumbled into nothingness. Yet, personal healing demands that we tell our story to uncover the meaningfulness that exists in average everyday living experience. 

Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backward”. Looking to the past for understanding is a priceless undertaking for those who want to make meaningfulness from what is commonplace and real. Story is about saying it straight. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Just don’t say it with meanness. In a Twelve Step meeting, one person described ignoring his story was like “shoving a stick of dynamite up my ass and thinking I was going to outrun it.”

I have told my story in 12 step meetings and the like over 1500 times. Not the same story but the explored story of experience in recovery in and around brokenness. The church I grew up in would have testimony meetings. That was when saints of the church would stand up in front of others and share how they became born again. Most of the saints told the same story over and over until I had their story memorized. It got to be old and rather torturous. The power of healing comes when we explore all the avenues of our lives and share it. It happens when we share contradictions, the incongruences and explore how our broken lives were impacted by family, cultural and other outside influences. Themes for exploring a first step share include the following themes and how they influenced your destructive behavior: (1) shame; (2) neglect; (3) abandonment; (4) abuse-sexual, physical, emotional, religious, intellectual- (5) arrogance; (6) deprivation; (7) religious belief; (8) emotional illness; (9) work patterns; (10) anger/rage; (11) resentment etc.  All of these themes and more play a significant role in our stories of out of control behavior. The deeper I go and embrace the reality of what is, the greater chance I have to free myself from the destructive behaviors that have plagued my life. Many times I hear people share things that they have said I have never told anyone this before. No doubt, what lies underneath is a treasure trove of experienced life that when brought to the light of awareness through sharing will unleash the brilliance hidden in every person’s story. 

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