Is the Story You Tell Yourself Weighing You Down?

Dear Storyteller,

We just got back from the Whalen family reunion. Talk about a literal cacophony of WHALEN VOICES! Hundreds of stories were told, and yet there’s one story nobody in the family seems to remember but me.

Imagine growing up on a farm near Harmony, a southeastern Minnesota town of 1000 people. It’s fun to say we grew up. The town wasn’t big enough for a swimming pool, so in order to go swimming, Mom drove us to town to catch the yellow school bus that hauled the Harmony kids 17 miles to the Cresco pool for swimming lessons.

These lessons took place twice a week for about six weeks in the summer. Truthfully, because there were so many wiggly, excited kids in the class, we only got to go in the pool for a short time, and I never got past the dog-paddle. But it was fun, and as you can imagine, pool time was precious.

I’m sure you can also imagine how excited we were the day our family visited our cousins in Waterloo who lived right next door to a pool! The anticipation of swimming freely was almost more than we could handle, and I still remember wearing my aqua bathing suit all day so I’d be ready. But just as my sibs and our cousins got ready to leave the house, my aunt stopped us at the door and said, “You and Lenny will have to watch the little ones. You can take turns.â€

Me watch little kids, again? Why don’t you adults come and do that? I didn’t come to here babysit, I came to have fun.

I didn’t actually say that out loud. Our parents taught us never to talk back to adults, and the times being what they were, we knew how to be seen and not heard. So I kept my disappointment to myself. Len and I decided that he would swim first while I watched the kids, and then after an hour, it would be my turn.

As luck would have it, after the hour passed, storm clouds and lightning rolled in and they closed the pool. My suit never got wet.


So that’s how I usually tell the story. And when I get to the part about not getting to swim, the friend who is listening gives a sigh of heartfelt sympathy—which feels like love—and I get the benefit of feeling understood in my pain.

Yes, my friend is giving me recognition for this sad moment in my life, which is (if I’m completely honest with you) immediately, strangely pleasurable. But is it healthy for me to keep telling this same old story? And the better question is: Why do I tell this unfinished story? What’s the ending? What’s the point beyond the sigh?

Classic stories are never intended to stop with the problem, the bad feeling, the “oh, poor me†incident. When we go to a movie or watch a television show, the hero needs a problem to make the show interesting. Once the problem grabs our interest, we keep watching to find out how the hero solves the problem, and learns a valuable lesson. How did she grow? That’s the payoff. We want the pain and suffering to mean something; to be the means to the end, but not the end.

Okay, one exception to this rule was a short-lived trend in the ‘60s. Movie makers thumbed their nose at traditional storytelling and gave us movies like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Easy Rider. Neither movie ended well, and we left the theater unsatisfied. Was all life a tragedy?

This type of movie ending is no different from me telling my pool story and stopping at my moment of disappointment. It’ a half-told story, and carrying it around with me in my library of experiences is heavy, depressing and does me no good. After facilitating story telling workshops, I know I’m not alone. Many of us cling to these half-baked stories for years.

A friend helped me finish my pool story. She helped me see that I have survived disappointments, and this event is one of many experiences I’ve faced to prepare me for life. She also pointed out that I currently live in a community with two pools. In addition, our neighbors have invited us to swim in their pool anytime. I can still tell the story, yet it now has a happy, whipped cream ending with a cherry on top. The burden is gone.

So the questions we each need to ask: How many unfinished stories do I carry around with me? What are the favorite stories I tell where someone did me wrong, things didn’t work out, I was ignored or ridiculed? What was the result, and what have I learned?

These half-told, unfinished stories are not only dangerous, they keep us wounded, and prevent us from accomplishing the important work we were sent here to accomplish. Join me in lightening up. Tell yourself (as Paul Harvey would say), “the rest of the story.â€

With confidence and joy,

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