How to tell your most difficult stories

Lafayette, Colorado- June 3, 2013 - What if you knew that your darkest moments could help your loved ones in immeasurable ways?  Springtime may seem like an odd time to focus on this difficult topic, but is there ever really a perfect time to tackle our toughest stories?  This month’s tips focus on how you can tell the more complicated or difficult moments in your personal narrative to your kids and future generations.  


Denying that we've lived through difficult times doesn't help anyone.  In fact, in his new book, "The Secrets of Happy Families," Bruce Feiller shows compelling research that "the more children know about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned."

Whether it be guilt, illness, or addiction, telling your most painful stories will bring about great transformation for you and your loved ones.  It is important that our kids hear about both the good and bad times in our lives, so that they see and understand our ability to bounce back and live through even the most extreme of painful circumstances. Here are some ways that may make it easier for you to share your difficult stories.  

1.  Lead with what you've learned without being preachy.

One trick to getting your listeners to open their ears (and their hearts) is to not come across as a know it all.  In order to do this, make sure you've gone through the important step of deep reflection before you try to share what you think you've learned. If you want it to be a bonding experience, it shouldn't feel like you are unloading onto them. If you've done the work either on your own or with a professional to uncover the lessons in your hardships, your experiences are more likely to resonate with your listeners and to help them work through their own difficult times.   


Bernice Robertson survived breast cancer and a double mastectomy when she was in her 40s. She is now in her 90s and grateful to have survived but also to have been able to help others women going through their own battles with breast cancer. She was a  volunteer for years, using her experience to inspire while at the same time fully aware that not everyone would have the miraculous outcome she had. She was able to help countless other women because she shared her story while being aware that we all have our own paths to walk.  If you begin with something you learned during or after your pain, it may just be easier for you to talk about it and for your loved ones to listen.   


2.  Focus on the facts rather than your feelings.

When I interviewed Frances Coraz for her life story movie, she was so scared to talk about her childhood she avoided meeting with me for months. When we finally met, she admitted she was afraid because her mother had died suddenly when she was a little girl and she never talked about it.  


We decided to focus on the facts, and as she began recounting where they lived, what her father did for work, it became easier for her to go back there. When we got to the part of her mother's death, she did get choked up of course, but it wasn't nearly as terrifying as she'd imagined it. She even remembered a tender long-forgotten detail, her father making her hot cocoa the day her mother died and every day thereafter for a long time.  


By breaking down the story into facts, she was able to distance herself from the strong emotions, and talk about what had happened. This gave her family who later watched her movie real insight that they'd never before had about her early life experiences. And in the end it was a relief for her to be able to share the stories and to remember her mother.


3.  Give your loved ones context.

Since your difficult stories can run the gamut of topics, it helps to set them up with some context, whether that be historical, personal, or emotional. Standards, customs, and culture are constantly shifting.  


When giving context, it's also important to remind your listener that situations and people in life aren't usually all one way or the other. When Jennie Pikur remembers her father, Paul, a farmer with a drinking problem, she acknowledges he had a terrible temper but also that he had a gentle side. She fondly recalls how he brought her berries or flowers from the fields when she was ill as a child. Her sister, Mary Balasa, backs her up saying, "You could make this a horror story, but there was a lot of love there."   


It may have been tempting for some to paint Paul as a monster, but that wouldn't have been true, just as painting him as a saint wouldn't be either. Acknowledging other sides of your story is just as important as telling the stories themselves. The positive details Jennie shares with her family about her father doesn't change the horrible things he may have done, but it does make a difference in how he is remembered him. It shows his humanity. If you want to make the most impact with your stories, especially the hard to tell ones, make sure that you set them up with a clear and simple context.


4. Remember you are you because of what you've lived.

Whether your difficult stories have to do with divorce, addiction, abuse, loss, or choices you made that you feel guilty about, acknowledging that they happened and sharing them with people you love will both deepen your bond and remind you of your own strength in overcoming them. You know Nietzsche's famous quote, "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger," your most difficult experiences are proof positive of this.  


Add to that the tons of research about the damaging, even crippling effects that secrets can have on our relationships and our health, and you will see why it's even more important to share all kinds of stories, not just the rose colored ones.  


But before you go telling all, remember that the point is not just to unburden yourself, but to create a sense of belonging to something greater and to demonstrate that you have overcome great obstacles and come out ahead. Because when you reflect on your life, there are surely examples you can find of challenges you've faced and gotten through the wiser for it. Make sure the people you care most about, know these important accomplishments in your life.  After all, if you don't tell you stories now, chances are someone else will for you one day.  Wouldn't you rather be the narrator of your own experience? 


Arielle Nobile, Producer/Director and Legacy Connections’ Films Founder, has been helping people tell their stories in the medium of narrative cinema since 2005.  She has produced and directed over 100 films.  She also gives talks and teaches Legacy workshops all over the country.

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