Storytelling is a powerful experience that can include benefits for the storyteller as much as for the audience. On the one hand there are the nerves that rightfully go along with telling your story in front of an audience of any size. Storytellers worry about remembering all the details and getting the story “right” as much as how the audience will respond.
Storytellers can also experience empowerment and healing by telling their stories. These are rare and beautiful moments in storytelling.
There are, broadly, two basic types of stories storytellers tell. They tell personal stories or they tell other people’s stories. Other people’s stories may be, for example, set narratives like fairy tales or the story of what happened to another person.
Personal stories are your stories. They are about your experience from your experience. You are the hero. Your truth is the only truth that matters in these stories. This kind of storytelling can be a tool to reclaim your story, to take back a narrative that feels like it isn’t yours anymore.
Telling Personal Stories
When it comes to telling personal stories, you don’t owe anyone your story, meaning you tell your story to who you want to tell it and when you want to tell it. No one and no audience has a right to your story unless you are ready to share it.
“If we can find someone who has earned the right to hear our story, we need to tell it.”
What’s important in this quote is that people have to earn the right to hear our stories. They have to show they are willing to listen, they have to show compassion, they have to be open to perspectives that are different from their own. Personal stories are not always great tools for convincing people. They are for sharing vulnerability and building bridges between yourself and your audience.
The other thing about telling personal stories is that you have to be ready to tell them. When I was 13 years old, my family was evacuated from the country we were living in because of a war that started about 250 km away. That came a little over midway into the first of the two most challenging years of my life. I didn’t tell the story, even in outline form, for 30 years without feeling the tears come. I was not ready to tell that story.
Not all stories will take 30 years to process, but make sure that when you are telling your story, you can focus on the story and that you won’t be re-traumatizing yourself by sharing it. It’s a beautiful thing to be vulnerable for an audience, but opening yourself up to get hurt again just isn’t necessary.
Now, let’s look at some of the benefits of telling your story.
Healing and Unburdening: Your story matters
For three wonderful summers, I went with my children to a summer camp that allowed us to escape the world for 7 days every July. One year, I told someone a personal story that left me in tears and afterwards I apologized. This kind person stopped the conversation and asked me, “Why did you apologize?”
The answer was that I felt like telling my story, unburdening myself, passed some of the weight of my story on to them. Oh boy, did they set me straight. It was a wonderful lesson. Me telling my story unburdened me without adding to my audience’s burden. On the contrary, it was an offering of trust and friendship that brought us a little closer.
When you carry your story, you carry the weight of your story alone. You are the one who wrestles with painful emotions or harbors joy that could be shared. When you share your story, you aren’t passing out bundles of emotion for other people to add to their loads. On the contrary, you are releasing your emotions and lightening your load. Others may choose to hitch a ride on your joy, but they can also see your pain, acknowledge it, and let it pass by. This experience can be healing.
Much of the pain that we experience as a result of casual racism, constant othering, or outright attacks, is absorbed in the moment and festers over time. Telling those stories to people who deserve to hear them can validate our experiences and help us heal from the pain. As a result, stories tend to become less painful to tell over time. They become a part of our history as opposed to living emotional experiences.
Finally, when you tell your story, you are no longer alone with it. You’ve shared your burden and you’ll be surprised how often your audience includes someone who’s had a similar experience or wants to support you. Storytellers can truly experience great healing and unburdening by telling their personal stories to deserving audiences.
Empowerment and Liberation: Claim your time
I’ve lived in the Netherlands since 2004 and speak fluent Dutch. I can sit in on meetings and follow along and contribute, no problem. There’s just one problem. I have not yet mastered the timing of jumping into a conversation. You put me in a group and I seem to just miss the opening every single time. It’s like being the frog in Frogger and someone put a delay on your joystick. You think there’s an opening, but the minute you jump, *splat* and you’re flattened.
As a result, I spend a lot of time not being able to have my say. The result of this is a physical sensation of pressure mounting in my chest and that turns into butterflies in my stomach and before you know it, that politely insightful comment I wanted to make 10 minutes ago comes bursting out of me in a flurry of frustration.
I’m not good at claiming my time in a meeting setting and the result is physical frustration and when I do talk, folks think I’m all emotional – which I am, but not for the reasons they suspect.
My situation is partly language, but also the life of an immigrant BIPOC woman who is often the only foreigner at the table. Those of us who live on the margins for one reason or the other, don’t feel included, we don’t see ourselves reflected in the media or at the table. We lack examples to follow and carry the burden of being the singular example when we do speak. It’s a lot of weight.
When you tell your story, you claim your time. You can be like US Representative from the state California Katie Porter and reclaim your time. If you haven’t heard of her, check her out. She’s a hero. She faces off against powerful people in congress and reclaims her time when they waste it with answers that don’t answer her questions.
You do not have to protect people from their discomfort. Your story doesn’t have to fit into someone else’s mold. You have a right to be heard. Your voice matters. Your story matters. We need your story and your voice. We need you and your stories so we can try to get the full story. Claim your time. Tell your story.
Learning: Lessons from your audience
A story is always the beginning of a conversation. When you tell your personal story, your audience will respond. That may be body language and responses you observe during the telling or even energy changes in the room. The response may also come in the form of questions or sharing after you’ve finished telling your story.
If you’re telling your story to a deserving audience, their questions and responses can help you understand and process your experiences. There is nothing like telling a story for the tenth time and your audience asking a question that you hadn’t thought about before. Questions and responses can unlock stories and give us entirely new ways to understand them. These are gifts from the audience for storytellers and they happen with all kinds of stories.
Your audience may see you in ways you weren’t able to see yourself. You think your story is about fear and they hear a story about bravery. You think your story is about pain and they hear a story about recovery and strength. Our audiences are often better than we are at spotting the power and positives in our story, if we are open to hearing them.
Listen to your audience as carefully as you hope they listen to you. The right audience, a listening, sympathetic, caring audience can lift you up and help you reframe your story in ways that help you heal.
Storytelling is Not Therapy
Storytelling is not a replacement for therapy. It is not a good idea to use storytelling as a way to better understand your experience or to work out your emotions. If your story is very painful and you cannot find a way out of that pain, please seek professional help or speak to a trusted friend or family member who will help you find the support you need.
Remember to pick your audience carefully. We need your story and you need to be safe. You are never required to tell your story. You always have permission to cut to the neat ending or stop in the middle if you feel the moment isn’t right. Your story is yours and you protect it as you need to.
At the same time, I ask you to consider opening up to the support your audience may be ready to give you. It may come from people and places you never expected. I held my evacuation story close for a very long time and when I started letting it go, telling it to people who sat across the table from me dumbfounded and silent, it was hard. But the more I’ve told it, the more I’ve included it in my life story as a fact and not a secret, the more seen and supported I’ve felt.
Telling your personal stories if you are a BIPOC person can be incredibly important in antiracism work simply because your perspective is one that is under-represented. Your story isn’t seen as a nuanced story – yet. Your particular experience and intersectionalities and strategies are important for other people to hear.
So, when you’re ready, please share your stories. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing them.