Self

How Your Stories Show You Who You Are — And Who You Could Be

Photo: Roman Samborskyi / shutterstock.com
Woman reclining with symbols of happiness around her

Stories are telling. Yours are significant and revealing because they hold the clues and cues for professional and personal directions and effective action.

Your authentic narratives expose mysteries that can inspire both your present and future. The obvious and hidden themes will provide motivational maps that show you who you are now, where you want to go — and possibly what to avoid.

Stories encourage imagination and visualization as well. That adds to the fun of figuring out meanings and purposes, the surprises in the process and sharing of experience they offer.

Yours are also powerful because plots and emotions are easier to remember than facts. As a result, the lessons found within stories are likely to stay with you to keep your motor for action whirring.

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How to mine your past for valuable stories

Here are some prompts to remind you of any story you’d like to tell now. Let your mind wander among the details. Try to remember how you felt as you experienced certain events.

Use your senses to convey the immediacy and a sense of place.

What did you smell? What caught your eye? What sound or noise was memorable?

You can exchange stories and share insights with another person or use your smartphone to record your own to better listen for the layers of meaning.

Try these prompts to get you started: 

  • When you used your true capacities as you define them.
  • When someone acknowledged you for an accomplishment or action that you, too, valued.
  • When you worked through something that was difficult or challenging.
  • When you felt joy about an experience, process or relationship.
  • When you were moved deeply.
  • When memories or expectations of discomfort, fear, anxiety or suffering has influenced your choices.

Your story is yours, first. You don't owe it to anyone else to embellish or enhance your story just for entertainment value. Yet, if you tell it well, you might find that the lessons learned will live long in the heart.

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A personal example of the power of story

Given the multiple benefits of stories, you can imagine their value for engaging and entertaining people in a range of relationships and situations. Later on, I’ll offer prompts to encourage your own storytelling.

As an example, now, you’ll experience what stories can expose from my own nonlinear story of how and why I learned to draw in mid-life.

Elementary school topics and my own meandering at museums and commercial galleries over the years are foundations for my pleasure and interest in art. I knew I had a good eye because I often identified worthwhile work.

In addition to occasional modest art purchases for my home, an artist friend asked me to help her choose her own work for the exhibit.

But taste and a good eye did not help my clumsy efforts to draw from imagination. The results convinced me I had no talent. Nor did the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain help me.

So, I limited my enjoyment to appreciating, exploring, and learning.

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Learning as a story catalyst

Just before I had reached the immovable due date for writing my long-postponed dissertation, Becoming Courageous, I pounced on yet another distraction. A perfect one appeared in a newspaper article on a drawing class for teachers and art therapists to teach children how to draw.

Surely, I’d feel comfortable participating with other learners. And the experience would give me the jolt of chutzpah and release of creative juices to dare to pursue my research topic on how people discover their capacity for courage.

So, I attended Drawing with Children (A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too) at the Children’s Museum for two days. Initially, art instructor and author Mona Brookes spent several hours dealing with what I call the “psych side” of drawing.

At one point, she said, “There’s no right or wrong way to draw.” That moved me. Two fat tears rolled down my cheeks, surprising myself and perhaps others.

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Failure and triumph along the way

Brookes’ incremental, gentle process suited me well. I was soon practicing the line and dot configurations, bringing them together to create a perky cardinal on a branch. Can’t say anything as positive about the next soulless still-life drawing, though.

But by then I had exchanged my self-criticism for the sheer fun of drawing and coloring, actually copying images using a range of magic markers that fed my appetite
for experimenting with color.

My favorite result: a gray, orange and yellow rabbit, imitating Albrecht Durer’s image. The telltale signs of goose pimples and salivating whenever I felt moved by exciting art and decorating images occasionally rewarded my drawing attempts.

After a few months of practicing, I offered to teach the process to several people of a range of ages, including my mother. My superficial version took about two hours.

Everyone completed their cardinals, except one docent friend who quickly bolted from the group. Unable to reach the perfection she said she expected for herself, she used her “ticket to wry. ” (pun intended)

Many years passed as I developed my consulting practice and converted aspects of my accepted dissertation into one book followed by five skill-based handbooks and another book.

I did no more drawing except a cartoon in the first book. But paradoxically, the stasis of COVID-19 was a catalyst for returning to art or “arting” as we called it.

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The passion might wain, but it never leaves entirely

A long-time friend and I decided to Zoom online to art museums to learn more about and discuss art. As we exhausted the online museum tours and conversations about the artworks we chose, she suggested doing mashups.

Each of us provided three artworks for side-by-side comparison and discussion. We had fun with the creativity, surprises and occasional outrageous juxtapositions we created, freed from the confines of what museums dished out.

Though unplanned, our weekly conversations over two years stimulated my readiness to illustrate my eighth book beyond the photographs and diagrams in previous ones. I recently completed this first collage, experimenting with a new friend studying art therapy.

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6 ways to spot the lessons in stories

Practice noticing the themes in my story as a prelude to mining your own. Answering these eight questions about my own story about learning to draw can get you started on your own journey:

  • How would you describe the process of how I learned to draw?
  • What possible implications did you notice for your own learning and growth?
  • Why did I want to learn to draw enough to invest time and energy?
  • What emotions did you notice?
  • How did they relate to self-understanding and action?
  • How would you describe any struggles or tensions?
  • How did other people influence my progress?
  • What skills, knowledge and attitudes, if any, evolved?

The more you train yourself to notice these and other salient details embedded within a good story, the better you'll be at learning lessons from your own stories.

A word of caution about stories and self-awareness

Whatever the benefit of stories, though, they may also be distracting and sometimes dangerous. When irrelevant or merely excursions into other people’s favorite monologues, they eat nonrenewable time and absolve you from inquiring within.

This happens, especially, if you live vicariously through others’ stories rather than attend to the meaning, insights and potential of your own.

If you succumb to specious comparisons with other people’s accomplishments, their stories may also intimidate you.

Also limiting are the assumptions in your own stories, as indicated in my story about learning to draw. You may therefore ask yourself how your stories influence you.

For example, consider how their obvious and implicit assumptions benefit and encourage or constrain your possibilities and quality of life.

One clear choice now is to attend to the immediate and blooming wisdom within yourself. As film director Sidney Lumet said, “All good work requires self-revelation.” 

That holds the makings of your best stories ─ and results!

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Ruth Schimel Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work.

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