I'm going to start by telling you about an email that I saw in my inbox recently. Now, I have a pretty unusual inbox because I'm a therapist and I write an advice column called "Dear Therapist," so you can imagine what's in there. I mean, I've read thousands of very personal letters from strangers all over the world. And these letters range from heartbreak and loss, to spats with parents or siblings. I keep them in a folder on my laptop, and I've named it "The Problems of Living." So, I get this email, I get lots of emails just like this, and I want to bring you into my world for a second and read you one of these letters. And here's how it goes.
"Dear Therapist, I've been married for 10 years and things were good until a couple of years ago. That's when my husband stopped wanting to have sex as much, and now we barely have sex at all." I'm sure you guys were not expecting this.
"Well, last night I discovered that for the past few months, he's been secretly having long, late-night phone calls with a woman at his office. I googled her, and she's gorgeous. I can't believe this is happening. My father had an affair with a coworker when I was young and it broke our family apart. Needless to say, I'm devastated. If I stay in this marriage, I'll never be able to trust my husband again. But I don't want to put our kids through a divorce, stepmom situation, etc. What should I do?"
Well, what do you think she should do? If you got this letter, you might be thinking about how painful infidelity is. Or maybe about how especially painful it is here because of her experience growing up with her father. And like me, you'd probably have some empathy for this woman, and you might even have some, how should I put this nicely, let's just call them "not-so-positive" feelings for her husband.
Now, those are the kinds of things that go through my mind too, when I'm reading these letters in my inbox. But I have to be really careful when I respond to these letters because I know that every letter I get is actually just a story written by a specific author. And that another version of this story also exists. It always does. And I know this because if I've learned anything as a therapist, it's that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives. I am. You are. And so is everyone you know. Which I probably shouldn't have told you because now you're not going to believe my TED Talk.
Look, I don't mean that we purposely mislead. Most of what people tell me is absolutely true, just from their current points of view. Depending on what they emphasize or minimize, what they leave in, what they leave out, what they see and want me to see, they tell their stories in a particular way. The psychologist Jerome Bruner described this beautifully — he said, "To tell a story is, inescapably, to take a moral stance." All of us walk around with stories about our lives. Why choices were made, why things went wrong, why we treated someone a certain way — because obviously, they deserved it — why someone treated us a certain way — even though, obviously, we didn't. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives.
But what happens when the stories we tell are misleading or incomplete or just wrong? Well, instead of providing clarity, these stories keep us stuck. We assume that our circumstances shape our stories. But what I found time and again in my work is that the exact opposite happens. The way we narrate our lives shapes what they become. That's the danger of our stories, because they can really mess us up, but it's also their power. Because what it means is that if we can change our stories, then we can change our lives. And today, I want to show you how.
Now, I told you I'm a therapist, and I really am, I'm not being an unreliable narrator. But if I'm, let's say, on an airplane, and someone asks what I do, I usually say I'm an editor. And I say that partly because if I say I'm a therapist, I always get some awkward response, like, "Oh, a therapist. Are you going to psychoanalyze me?" And I'm thinking, "A : no, and B: why would I do that here? If I said I was a gynecologist, would you ask if I were about to give you a pelvic exam?"
But the main reason I say I'm an editor is because it's true. Now, it's the job of all therapists to help people edit, but what's interesting about my specific role as Dear Therapist is that when I edit, I'm not just editing for one person. I'm trying to teach a whole group of readers how to edit, using one letter each week as the example. So I'm thinking about things like, "What material is extraneous?" "Is the protagonist moving forward or going in circles, are the supporting characters important or are they a distraction?" "Do the plot points reveal a theme?" And what I've noticed is that most people's stories tend to circle around two key themes.
The first is freedom, and the second is change. And when I edit, those are the themes that I start with. So, let's take a look at freedom for a second. Our stories about freedom go like this: we believe, in general, that we have an enormous amount of freedom. Except when it comes to the problem at hand, in which case, suddenly, we feel like we have none. Many of our stories are about feeling trapped, right? We feel imprisoned by our families, our jobs, our relationships, our pasts. Sometimes, we even imprison ourselves with a narrative of self-flagellation — I know you guys all know these stories. The "everyone's life is better than mine" story, courtesy of social media. The "I'm an impostor" story, the "I'm unlovable" story, the "nothing will ever work out for me" story. The "when I say, 'Hey, Siri, ' and she doesn't answer, that means she hates me" story. I see you, see, I'm not the only one. The woman who wrote me that letter, she also feels trapped. If she stays with her husband, she'll never trust him again, but if she leaves, her children will suffer.
Now, there's a cartoon that I think is a perfect example of what's really going on in these stories. The cartoon shows a prisoner shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out. But on the right and the left, it's open. No bars. The prisoner isn't in jail. That's most of us. We feel completely trapped, stuck in our emotional jail cells. But we don't walk around the bars to freedom because we know there's a catch. Freedom comes with responsibility. And if we take responsibility for our role in the story, we might just have to change.
And that's the other common theme that I see in our stories: change. Those stories sound like this: a person says, "I want to change." But what they really mean is, "I want another character in the story to change." Therapists describe this dilemma as: "If the queen had balls, she'd be the king." I mean —
It makes no sense, right? Why wouldn't we want the protagonist, who's the hero of the story, to change? Well, it might be because change, even really positive change, involves a surprising amount of loss. Loss of the familiar. Even if the familiar is unpleasant or utterly miserable, at least we know the characters and setting and plot, right down to the recurring dialogue in this story. "You never do the laundry!" "I did it last time!" "Oh, yeah? When?" There's something oddly comforting about knowing exactly how the story is going to go every single time.
To write a new chapter is to venture into the unknown. It's to stare at a blank page. And as any writer will tell you, there's nothing more terrifying than a blank page. But here's the thing. Once we edit our story, the next chapter becomes much easier to write. We talk so much in our culture about getting to know ourselves. But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself. To let go of the one version of the story you've been telling yourself so that you can live your life, and not the story that you've been telling yourself about your life. And that's how we walk around those bars.
So I want to go back to the letter from the woman, about the affair. She asked me what she should do. Now, I have this word taped up in my office: ultracrepidarianism. The habit of giving advice or opinions outside of one's knowledge or competence. It's a great word, right? You can use it in all different contexts, I'm sure you will be using it after this TED Talk. I use it because it reminds me that as a therapist, I can help people to sort out what they want to do, but I can't make their life choices for them. Only you can write your story, and all you need are some tools.
So what I want to do is I want to edit this woman's letter together, right here, as a way to show how we can all revise our stories. And I want to start by asking you to think of a story that you're telling yourself right now that might not be serving you well. It might be about a circumstance you're experiencing, it might be about a person in your life, it might even be about yourself. And I want you to look at the supporting characters. Who are the people who are helping you to uphold the wrong version of this story?
For instance, if the woman who wrote me that letter told her friends what happened, they would probably offer her what's called "idiot compassion." Now, in idiot compassion, we go along with the story, we say, "You're right, that's so unfair," when a friend tells us that he didn't get the promotion he wanted, even though we know this has happened several times before because he doesn't really put in the effort, and he probably also steals office supplies.
We say, "Yeah, you're right, he's a jerk," when a friend tells us that her boyfriend broke up with her, even though we know that there are certain ways she tends to behave in relationships, like the incessant texting or the going through his drawers, that tend to lead to this outcome. We see the problem, it's like, if a fight breaks out in every bar you're going to, it might be you.
In order to be good editors, we need to offer wise compassion, not just to our friends, but to ourselves. This is what's called — I think the technical term might be — "delivering compassionate truth bombs." And these truth bombs are compassionate, because they help us to see what we've left out of the story.
The truth is, we don't know if this woman's husband is having an affair, or why their sex life changed two years ago, or what those late-night phone calls are really about. And it might be that because of her history, she's writing a singular story of betrayal, but there's probably something else that she's not willing to let me, in her letter, or maybe even herself, to see. It's like that guy who's taking a Rorschach test. You all know what Rorschach tests are? A psychologist shows you some ink blots, they look like that, and asks, "What do you see?" So the guy looks at his ink blot and he says, "Well, I definitely don't see blood." And the examiner says, "Alright, tell me what else you definitely don't see." In writing, this is called point of view. What is the narrator not willing to see?
So, I want to read you one more letter. And it goes like this.
"Dear Therapist, I need help with my wife. Lately, everything I do irritates her, even small things, like the noise I make when I chew. At breakfast, I noticed that she even tries to secretly put extra milk in my granola so it won't be as crunchy."
"I feel like she became critical of me after my father died two years ago. I was very close with him, and her father left when she was young, so she couldn't relate to what I was going through. There's a friend at work whose father died a few months ago, and who understands my grief. I wish I could talk to my wife like I talk to my friend, but I feel like she barely tolerates me now. How can I get my wife back?"
OK. So, what you probably picked up on is that this is the same story I read you earlier, just told from another narrator's point of view. Her story was about a husband who's cheating, his story is about a wife who can't understand his grief. But what's remarkable, is that for all of their differences, what both of these stories are about is a longing for connection. And if we can get out of the first-person narration and write the story from another character's perspective, suddenly that other character becomes much more sympathetic, and the plot opens up. That's the hardest step in the editing process, but it's also where change begins.
What would happen if you looked at your story and wrote it from another person's point of view? What would you see now from this wider perspective? That's why, when I see people who are depressed, I sometimes say, "You are not the best person to talk to you about you right now," because depression distorts our stories in a very particular way. It narrows our perspectives. The same is true when we feel lonely or hurt or rejected. We create all kinds of stories, distorted through a very narrow lens that we don't even know we're looking through. And then, we've effectively become our own fake-news broadcasters.
I have a confession to make. I wrote the husband's version of the letter I read you. You have no idea how much time I spent debating between granola and pita chips, by the way. I wrote it based on all of the alternative narratives that I've seen over the years, not just in my therapy practice, but also in my column. When it's happened that two people involved in the same situation have written to me, unbeknownst to the other, and I have two versions of the same story sitting in my inbox. That really has happened. I don't know what the other version of this woman's letter is, but I do know this: she has to write it. Because with a courageous edit, she'll write a much more nuanced version of her letter that she wrote to me. Even if her husband is having an affair of any kind — and maybe he is — she doesn't need to know what the plot is yet. Because just by virtue of doing an edit, she'll have so many more possibilities for what the plot can become.
Now, sometimes it happens that I see people who are really stuck, and they're really invested in their stuckness. We call them help-rejecting complainers. I'm sure you know people like this. They're the people who, when you try to offer them a suggestion, they reject it with, "Yeah, no, that will never work, because ..." "Yeah, no, that's impossible, because I can't do that." "Yeah, I really want more friends, but people are just so annoying."
What they're really rejecting is an edit to their story of misery and stuckness. And so, with these people, I usually take a different approach. And what I do is I say something else. I say to them, "We're all going to die." I bet you're really glad I'm not your therapist right now. Because they look back at me the way you're looking back at me right now, with this look of utter confusion. But then I explain that there's a story that gets written about all of us, eventually. It's called an obituary. And I say that instead of being authors of our own unhappiness, we get to shape these stories while we're still alive. We get to be the hero and not the victim in our stories, we get to choose what goes on the page that lives in our minds and shapes our realities. I tell them that life is about deciding which stories to listen to and which ones need an edit. And that it's worth the effort to go through a revision because there's nothing more important to the quality of our lives than the stories we tell ourselves about them. I say that when it comes to the stories of our lives, we should be aiming for our own personal Pulitzer Prize.
Now, most of us aren't help-rejecting complainers, or at least we don't believe we are. But it's a role that is so easy to slip into when we feel anxious or angry or vulnerable. So the next time you're struggling with something, remember, we're all going to die.
And then pull out your editing tools and ask yourself: what do I want my story to be? And then, go write your masterpiece.