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Tell Me a Tale: Everyday Storytelling and Story-Changing

Tell Me a Tale: Everyday Storytelling and Story-Changing

By Mir Kamin

Writers are fond of proclaiming themselves to be storytellers, and while I often feel like we should have laws about that—say, you must have an ironic mustache tattoo on one hand and a fancy, overpriced coffee or whole juice drink in the other if you choose to say this to another human without irony—at the end of the day, it’s true. Writers tell stories. I have always told stories, be it through writing at various points in my life or verbal tales I spun to get myself out of trouble as a kid or even beyond. I love a good story. I love to hear a good story; I love to tell a good story.

Here’s something I’m beginning to notice about both myself in general and how I’m counseling my kids: I’m telling more stories. This is not to say I’m making stuff up for my own benefit (for me, “telling stories” isn’t synonymous with “lying,” though I know it is for some), but that I am far less likely, these days, to take any situation at face value. Maybe it started with this election cycle. Maybe it started earlier than that, because my kids’ path through life hasn’t always been the smoothest. Either way, first it happened now and then, and now I sort of notice myself doing it by default.

Let’s take an example: Remember the teacher who betrayed my kid and never really apologized? I’m not going to lie to you about the level of unadulterated rage I felt about that situation for a long time. A loooong time. Probably too long, really. It’s been a little over a year and I’d say it’s only recent that I’ve been able to—purposefully, because I knew it was unhealthy for me to still be so angry about it—tell myself a different story about that situation. The original story went like this: This teacher used to really love my kid but eventually decided that they were too much work or undeserving or something. Combine that mindset with a bad day and *BOOM*, fireworks. My kid paid the price, and maybe the teacher didn’t mean to be so awful, but neither did they rein in their own issues for the sake of my child. What a terrible, thoughtless, selfish person that teacher turned out to be. Whenever I thought about this situation, all I felt was anger.

As narratives of a difficult situation go, it’s not unsuitable. My explanation (to myself) of how the ignition point came about may even be accurate. The problem is that this story leaves me angry and bewildered, which is not only unproductive, it’s just plain unpleasant.

The new story goes like this: This teacher used to really love my kid but it is clear that something in their own personal life broke, and badly. Then this teacher, this fellow human being, broke, and due to an unfortunate confluence of events and time, that happened while my child was in the crosshairs. The way the matter was addressed after fully confirmed a person who we know is (or at least was) capable of deep compassion and kindness is now a shell of their former self, seething with pain and frustration to the point of being unable to proceed with basic consideration for others. That’s… tragic, really. While I would’ve done anything to take away my child’s pain in this situation, lessons were learned, a wiser, stronger kid emerged, and we are all okay, over here. I’m not sure that’s true of the teacher. Now when I think about that situation, the first emotion I feel is a profound sadness. I worry about that teacher, a little. I worry about their family, a lot. I just feel very sorry for them.

Now: I can’t tell you how the shift happened, not really. And it’s not something that can be forced. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Alrighty, then! Time to reframe all bad feelings in a way that evokes compassion for others!” (Although if you’re able to do such a thing, knock yourself out. That’s fabulous.) I think I just reached a point where I looked around and realized that… we have a good life. I have a good life, and really, so do my children. It’s not an easy life or a life free of obstacles, but we are fortunate in both material measure and love/support. People who infringe upon us in various ways are likely dealing with issues we don’t know about. There is plenty of space in our world to leave some compassion for others, and it’s often a lot less work than being annoyed.

So now when my son comes home and recounts the story of the kid who won’t stop singing in class and who disrupts the lesson and bothers the other kids, I ask him to tell me what he imagines that kid’s life is like outside of school. And to be clear, we’re not painting Dickensian portraits of neglect, or anything, but we do talk about “What would make someone feel like school doesn’t matter?” Maybe that kid’s parents don’t value education, or respect. Maybe they have a learning disability. Maybe things truly are awful for them outside of school. We just don’t know. When my daughter comes home with the story of the kid who’s trying to boss everyone else around, maybe I point out that hey, have you noticed that everyone else in this group is gearing up for college, while this kid… isn’t? Let’s consider how you might feel if you felt like everyone else was about to embark on a new adventure without you. Think about how you might want to grab any perceived power you could, just to feel like you’re “enough.”

The stories we tell are just that—stories—and likely not the exact truth. But we can arrive at a place where 1) bothersome actions can’t be taken personally (other people’s behavior is so rarely about us, anyway), and 2) we feel compassion instead of anger.

It’s a small but important change. It frees us up to feel better, ourselves. And I’m seeing, ever-so-slowly, changes in how we all deal with each other, too. Instead of “I have asked you to do that twenty times!” I’m much more likely to say, “I realize this hasn’t gotten done because it doesn’t matter much to you, but it does matter to me, and I’m trying not taking it personally that you haven’t done it, but can you see how it feels when I ask and you keep ignoring it?” Sometimes it’s not the details of the story that matter, but our ability to see all the characters as important and wanting the same things we all want.

“Tell me the story,” I say to my kids, now, when they come home indignant. And then I watch them unpack situations and realize that poor behavior nearly always comes from thoughtlessness (in the purest, non-emotion-tinted sense) or unhappiness. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to—” is as far as I ever get, anymore, before I’m interrupted with a wave of the hand and an acknowledgement that of course, they probably didn’t even realize, and it’s not personal, and really, it’s kind of sad if you think about it.

I like this about our life right now. We have all kinds of stories we tell each other, and even ourselves. I love that we are choosing the stories of compassion rather than indignation. Because, really, aren’t those the stories we all prefer?

Photo source: Stocksy

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • EH

    April 13, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    I find this helpful with my 5 yr old, actually.  I try to ask why when he fights me to do something – usually, putting on his shoes in the morning,  Sometimes it’s nothing, but sometimes I find out that yesterday, someone called him a baby, and made fun of him on the playground, and he feels lonely at school (note, there was no indication of any of this yesterday!!).  This opens the door to emphasizing with him about what happened, and then we can spend the drive talking about ways he can respond, or just feeling sad if he wants.  I’m hopeful getting “the story” from him will help him emphasize with others as he gets older.

  • Liv

    April 13, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    This is SO GOOD. Not just for my kid but for ME. For LIFE. Thank you. 

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      April 13, 2016 at 2:37 pm

      I KNOW! I wrote Mir that I didn’t know where she was going with this post and then BOOM!

    • Mir Kamin

      April 13, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you. And this is definitely one of those “my kids taught me what I didn’t even realize I needed to know” sorts of things. It has changed me, maybe more than them. 

  • Before you ask… | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    April 13, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    […] is REALLY cutting into my righteous indignation, I tell you what. You can hop on over to Alpha Mom to read more about how we’re changing the stories we tell ourselves these […]

  • Michelle

    April 13, 2016 at 3:42 pm

    I’ve been noticing the same thing about myself but I’m not sure where the shift happened.  All I know is that it’s one of the things I really appreciate about being a 40-something and I’m hoping that by starting now my kids won’t have to get to 40 before they realize that shifting your perspective by that much automatically thickens your skin and helps you to be happier.

    Thanks for sharing, I love your stories.

  • Lisa

    April 13, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    THANK YOU! I feel like I need to write down what you say when reacting to something the kids have not done. My older son was always proactive about his chores (trash and dishwasher) but the 13 yr old has to be reminded often (same chores).
    I LOVE how this makes it not about failing at a task but reframes it in a way that helps him see the value in it.

  • Brenda

    April 13, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    There was a significant shift in my life pertaining an adult friend of my mom’s who made my and my siblings’ lives miserable when we were younger. I was really angry and bitter for a long time. I spoke about it at length in therapy, but it wasn’t until later on that I shifted from feeling angry to feeling something more akin to pity for this person who was incapable of functioning as a healthy adult. I think part of that shift came from being able to take control of my own life and having power to say no and set healthier boundaries, and partly it was because I’m now an adult who deals with hard things in life with a fair amount of strength. It’s hard as a kid when so much is out of your control to have grace for adults who can’t get their act together; as an adult it’s easier to have empathy and separate my role in the situation and take responsibility only for my own actions.

    I love the idea of reframing requests with an awareness of both narratives. I think when we can communicate like that, people are more likely to get on the same page, which makes life run more smoothly.

  • Neil

    April 13, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    That was so wonderful, Mir. I’ve always found it interesting how we can get so critical and judging of other people in real life, but so accepting of all types of fictional characters, from meth dealers to serial killers. Maybe it’s because a good novelist gives us the background and characterization that helps us understand a character, even a minor one. We need to change our own lives by imagining others as more than one dimensional characters who exist for our own story.

  • Aska

    April 13, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    Awesome post, Mir. You always find a way to write something even better than your usual material – and I already love that.

  • Alice

    April 13, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    This is great! I went through a similar shift a few years ago, but it was prompted by a book called The Luck Factor. That one focused much more on the stories we tell about ourselves and our own lives, and I really like how this complements that. 

    It’s really amazing when you have a transition like this and start thinking about stuff that happened years ago. I know that some of those situations were totally overwhelming emotionally, and it’s not that that perspective was wrong, but it’s so much nicer to not feel like I’m stuck in those same emotions now, whenever I think about it.

  • Colleen

    April 13, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    The singing may be something the kid doesn’t even realize he is doing.  My son used to sing all of the time, especially in 5th – 8th grade, then he hummed all of the time, especially when he was thinking.  Unfortunately, he was usually thinking during tests, which would distract everyone else, and he didn’t even realize he was doing it. His IEP (for Asperger’s) said he could take tests in a different room, and sometimes the teachers used that just so the others in the class could concentrate. You could tell he had a song playing in his head, because when he stopped singing for a few seconds, he would pick the song up where it would be if it had kept playing, not where he left off.  Luckily he had a good voice.

    So, it doesn’t have to be that the kid or the kid’s parents feel that school doesn’t matter, or that they don’t value respect. It could be that there is a song in the kid’s head all of the time, and he doesn’t realize it is getting out.

    • Mir Kamin

      April 14, 2016 at 8:42 am

      Eh, this particular situation is… not that. It’s a kid who delights in frustrating my noise-sensitive child. (I would love an alternate story, but “Hey, quiet down, you’re bugging [kid]” from a classmate is met with “But it’s HILARIOUS when [kid] gets upset!” sooooo… yeah. 

      But that’s an excellent point in general, of course. My own Aspie often drums on surfaces without realizing but then gets annoyed by others doing the same thing. That’s been fun. 😉

  • Angela

    April 14, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    It’s funny how a realization will slowly dawn on us about how and why we act the way we do.  I enjoy this type of self-reflection and your point hits home right now for me.  I’ve always been pretty good about not taking it personally when I’ve been treated badly by others by thinking that they are probably dealing with something troublesome in their own lives, so it’s not necessarily about me.  However, I’ve been SO MAD about the new boss that I have had for about a year now.  She’s a great employee, in general, but a terrible manager.  I’ve worked in this industry for 17 years, but I’m being treated like a newbie who’s never worked ANYWHERE before.  I’m even being told how to write emails.  I have, finally, recently got to the point where I’m so sick and tired of being ANGRY!  And I think to myself, “How in the world can I get myself to stop being angry about this?” It’s a futile emotion when you can’t take any corrective actions.  I know I shouldn’t be angry, but her behavior is so personally insulting.  So I’m brought back to what you’ve said…I have to compose a story for myself about how she’s probably unhappy being a manager and doesn’t really feel comfortable “controlling” people, and some other possible turmoil in her personal life.  It’s working, I’m not so angry anymore, and I’ve even been feeling a leeeeetle bit of compassion for her (that’s coming along a bit more slowly!)  But it’s good for me and at least I know that’s all that I can control.

  • Shelly

    April 15, 2016 at 2:58 am

    Wow, this was such a good post. Funny how a lot of it is about being able to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Which is great if this is something the individual does naturally. However not all people’s brains are wired this way. I’ve had a lot of success with personal growth by getting my personality style through and learning about the car model they use (driver, co-pilot, 10 year old & 3 year old). Anyway, sorry if I’ve posted about them before, but they have great insights into different personalities. Very useful info.

  • Jean

    April 15, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Love this post.