HOW TO TELL THE DIFFICULT STORIES
It is fun reminiscing about the happy times as you create your history project. What happens though when you recall a difficult period or situation in your life?
Everyone faces difficult times, whether communal and public, such as living through war or civil unrest, or privately behind closed doors, such as divorce or family disputes. We lose loved ones, sometimes suddenly. The memory and the pain can last a lifetime.
Life is complicated and it throws curve balls. We do not always understand the 'why' behind the events of our lives. Yet, the memory and impact of difficult times in our lives stay with us. We may hold shame around them. We may think it is our fault. We may regret the decisions we made in the moment. Perhaps we still carry that regret with us after all these years. There may be contention within the family about this time period or event.
Writing about the hard stuff is, well, hard. And sometimes it takes courage to share your stories.
People may have many reasons for not wanting to talk about past hardships. We fear recrimination. What if others say you are wrong or the way we tell the story is not the way it happened? What if your family becomes upset that you are sharing something so private with others, even if it is other members of the extended family? So many families have an implicit code of silence, it can seem daunting, wrong even, to break it.
Our natural human tendency (not to mention our family) tell us to avoid it! Skip it! Do not talk about the hard or challenging times. Do not rehash the past. Let bygones be bygones.
So what happens when you recall a particularly tough time, whether in your own life, in your marriage, or in your family? Do you skip it or do you address it in your project?
While there is no right or wrong answer, here are some ideas to consider in deciding what stories to include, especially the stories from times of difficulty.
WHY IT IS DIFFICULT TO SHARE STORIES OF HARDSHIP
Many people want to downplay the impact that a traumatic event has had on them. It is natural. People do not want to take on the label because it is embarrassing or because they think, "Others have had it worse, who am I to complain?
Trauma is not about how the outside world would label it, but about how it impacted you. It looks different for different people. It impacts different people differently.
Many people brush away the wounds of their past by saying, "It could have been worse." This is true for most situations. There is almost always something worse that could have happened.
The point is not how easy you got off, it is how the situation impacted you. How it impacted your life and the lives of your loved ones. How it still remains with you.
If it was a deeply distressing or disturbing time in your life, you are allowed to have feelings about it.
WHY IT CAN HELP TO TALK ABOUT DIFFICULT STORIES
Some reasons to consider talking about those events:
It can offer you release
Writing about pain that has been unspoken all these years can be really difficult. By writing it out, you get a chance to claim your pain, to find your voice, and tell your story in your own words, on your terms. By writing about it within the context of your life story, showing the trajectory of events that led to this time in your life, highlighting the reasons you made certain decisions, you gain clarity for yourself and perhaps provide some for others.
It may sound a little too easy, but giving words to your pain can allow you to move past it. How? Believe it or not, just the act of labeling an experience offers release. Recording your reaction to it can alleviate the feelings you have held onto for so long. Writing about your pain can be a liberating and highly empowering experience.
Your loved ones want to know
Your kids may want to know. Your story is directly connected to and has directly impacted your children's lives. The difficulties in your life have impacted them. Your silence around an event may have impacted your kids in way you are not aware of. Talking about them may offer them release and understanding.
Your grandkids may want to know. This could be your chance to speak your truth as you see it, not have them hear about it from someone else, with their personal slant. Your life has affected your grandkids too.
It may allow a loved one release or insight. Someone in your extended family or circle of friends going through something similar could learn a lot from your experience. Or if there is a family member who was also involved in that event, they may gain insight into the situation by hearing your viewpoint. It may allow for some healing for them and for your relationship with them.
When talking to younger kids, if possible, embed into your story how the adversity in your life made you stronger or caused some positive change to occur. If, of course, that feels true to you. It is very helpful for children to see that tough times do end at some point, they do make you stronger, and they may lead to something better in the future.
It will humanize you to your loved ones
Your silence around a difficult time in your life could be interpreted in a myriad ways, some of them negative. For your loved ones to hear about this time in your life in your own words could give them a whole new perspective on you.
If you made a choice that impacted your kids, for example, but you never explained the motives behind it, they may be holding some resentment or disappointment towards you. Hearing your story could help alleviate this and bring forth healing for them and for your relationship.
Showing vulnerability is hard, but the payoff can be incredible
We want to put up a brave front, especially for our loved ones. Sometimes, though, that can backfire. People may have certain notions about you because you haven't told them your version of a story. By showing your vulnerability, speaking your truth in all its positives and negatives, you may shift the narrative of your life and your life choices for your family and yourself.
HOW TO TELL THE STORIES THAT ARE HARD TO TELL
Sounds easy enough and yet going back into the pain of your past is a very difficult thing to do, especially to feelings that remain unresolved.
How to talk with someone about a difficult time in their lives:
Make reasons for asking clear in your mind. Why do you want to know? Are you hoping for further understanding about this person? About how this event impacted you?
Make reasons for asking clear to your interviewee. Tell your interviewee why you want to know about the subject. Make it clear you are not here to judge or pass a verdict.
Create a calming, neutral environment. Share a meal or a cup of tea first. Be conversational. It will calm them and you. Move somewhere comfortable for the talk.
Read body language. Assess by their posture, facial expressions, eye contact, or lack thereof, whether to push for more details or to let it be for now.
Create space. Ask your question, then be patient. Silence is not a bad thing. Allow the interviewee to gather their thoughts, process their emotions, and prepare their words. Even if there are 2, 3, 5 minutes of silence, wait.
Keep a neutral expression. You may think making a sympathetic face or cutting in with, "Oh, how dreadful," is being kind and supportive, but it is really just being distracting. It may also come off as pity, which no one wants. Not to say you need to be stone-faced, either. In listening, maintain eye contact, keep your expression gentle and attention, but otherwise non-invasive. A gentle nod once in a while is great. You just want to allow them time and space to talk.
Do the interview in small chunks. For difficult topics, allot manageable chunks of time. This may look different for different people. Some may prefer 30 minutes, some an hour and thirty. Check in with them verbally and also judge by their body language cues what feels like a good time to stop.
End the interview mindfully. After the interview, assess their mood and body language. Do they need time alone? Do you want to have tea together, take a walk perhaps? Talk about something neutral to reset the mood? You will have to use your intuition, or just come out and ask them what they want. It is a good idea to check in somehow and not just walk away once you have what you need.
How to prepare yourself to talk about a difficult time in your life:
It may help to take these steps in a safe and calming environment.
Spend time figuring out why you want to talk about this topic. What are you trying to accomplish? Inner peace? Mending a broken relationship? Forgiveness? What are the positive things that came out of this time?
Write down what scares you about this process. Is it judgement of others? Bringing up old pain? By naming the fear, you can proceed to face it.
Journaling beforehand may be helpful, both in figuring out your motivation to address this topic and also to bring some peace around it before you begin.
It may also be a good idea to journal as you go along, especially if it take multiple sessions. Of course, if there is a different form of self-inquiry or reflection that you prefer, that is great. Checking in with yourself consistently through the process will help you remain grounded and to follow through to the end. Having things written down or recorded in some other form will allow you to go back and remind yourself of your initial motivation if the process gets hard or you feel like quitting.
Ask a loved one to be there with you in the room or even next door while you work on your story. You can also ask them to check in with you before or after you have finished.
Talk to a loved one beforehand to get the validation you need that it is okay to share this story.
How to explore a difficult topic in depth:
When thinking about a difficult experience or period in your life, it may help to explore it deeply using the following questions as a guide. It may be the deeper connections that give you true understanding, true release. You have come this far, may as well follow through once and for all.
It may also help you to distance yourself and look at the event objectively. From this distanced place, ask yourself the following:
How does this experience speak to my childhood?
How does this experience speak to my relationship with my parents? Other important people in my life?
How does this experience relate to who I am today?
How does this experience relate to who I wanted to be?
How does this experience relate to who I was in the past and who I am now?
A FINAL NOTE
Telling your story takes great courage. For your audience, no matter whether family, friends, co-workers, the best stories, the ones that will resonate and remain with people, maybe even influence them, are the ones that are told with honesty, vulnerability, and integrity.
What is the last step of this journey?
Embrace your story. Embrace the good times and the challenging ones. It is the cumulation of these events and life choices that have made you who you are today. Carry your truth close to your heart, now and always.
Interested in reading more? Check out this article from the NY Times blog on the topic.
ABOUT THE HISTORY PROJECT
The History Project empowers families to connect artifacts and memories across media to build experiential stories that transcend generations. The History Project offers a set of mobile and online tools to intelligently collect, beautifully curate and delightfully collaborate in building your personal life story. Preserve and relive the memories that matter most through The History Project. For more details visit www.thehistoryproject.com.