We talk often about the beauty and necessity of learning to tell our stories. But what stories are we telling? Here, second-year MA in Counseling Psychology student Charlie Howell reflects on moving beyond the same old, tired stories that used to define him so that he can begin to tell a new one.
I used to think I was pretty powerful. No, let me say it another way: I used to think I had to be powerful to survive.
When I was young I experienced some traumatic events. They weren’t all life changing, but smaller traumas tend to add up over time. They also teach lessons, lessons that, sadly, become a way of life—a haunting existence.
One of the lessons I learned from my trauma was that people were powerful. Grown men were big and loud, and they made up the rules. Girls could make your heart hurt. Best friends could move away or choose certain vices over friendship.
So I assumed I must be powerful, too.
My power, or so I thought, came in my ability to affect women. I’ll never forget when, in college, a couple of girls made me a mix CD (yes, I’m that old). It was a compilation of love songs with the title “Heartbreaker” on the cover. They did it as a joke—a joke that hit a little too close to home.
Sadly, over the years this became my story—that of a man powerful enough to break hearts. Whether it was getting too close to a female friend or developing a budding romance, my special skill became causing pain. Heartbreaker became my haunting existence.
Not long ago I walked into a meeting with my practicum leader and launched into a diatribe about the many broken hearts—those I’d sustained and those I’d caused—when he looked at me and said, “That’s a tired story.”
“What?” I said, momentarily flooded.
“It’s time to lay your worn out stories to rest, Charlie.”
Honestly, I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head for months. At first I was angry. I didn’t want to lose the story I’d been telling. It felt safe and comfortable. Then I realized something important: I’d spent over a year at The Seattle School peering into my past but still telling its story in the same old, worn out way. I knew more of my history, but I was still living as the same “dangerous man” I’d always believed myself to be.
I think this is what my Practicum Leader was trying to help me see. Yes, I’m sure I have broken a heart or two over the years, just as I have had mine hurt on a few occasions, but that really isn’t the point. The point is the stories I’ve told (and those that have been told about me) are still deeply impacting my existence. The past is still the lens through which I view the present, and that is a dangerous place to be.
It’s dangerous not because the old, worn out story of Charlie as heartbreaker is true, but because what I’m afraid of most—being a bad guy—is actually the very thing keeping me from the intimacy I so deeply crave. I walk through the world careful to never get too close to any woman because I assume I’m going to crush her. And that takes me away from the thing that matters most: relationship.
We spend so much time at The Seattle School considering our stories—our past trauma and pain. Lord knows understanding our stories matters, but I think we must be careful with the ways we use what we learn. How we engage our stories in the present is just as important as coming to understand the past. There comes a time when we must refocus our attention—when we must take what we know and start telling new stories.
“How we engage our stories in the present is just as important as coming to understand the past.”
We live in a world so quick to place us in boxes. A world where dehumanization often comes in the form of definitions of who we are and who we are not. I don’t want to be a definition anymore. I don’t want to miss out on life and relationship because of pain left unhealed. I don’t want to be a heartbreaker.
Instead, I want to be a person—a person with a new story to tell.