When Words Fail

reflections on putting voice to personal story.

I froze.

A few days ago, I had an important interview with a literary agent about my writing career. I was prepared. Confident. Optimistic. I’d read everything I could about her and felt good about the connection we were about to make. I had visualized questions she might ask (past book sales, current book vision, target readership, marketing strategies) and mentally rehearsed answers.

Instead, she asked about me. “What’s your personal story?”

And that, my friends, caught me flat-footed.

You wouldn’t think I’d need to prepare an answer to a question about the topic I know more intimately than anything else, but talking about myself, I find, can be a thousand times harder than being asked live, on video, an unexpected question about psychological theory and application.

I’m a therapist. I take in others’ stories. I’m trained to put my own story in the background, to focus on the one in front of me. And there I sat, in my peaceful but professional office space, soft light filtering in through the leafy tree outside my window, books and brain model behind me, ready to impress, and she says, “Tell me about you.”

What parts of me? What parts are okay to share? Which are relevant? Which are too much? I don’t want to trauma-dump. This meeting is like a first date and these aren’t first-date stories. I’m not sure what she’s ready for. I’m not used to this shade of spotlight.

I provided a simple response, words that were rightly more of an introduction than a story, and offered to answer any questions, but she didn’t press. If this were my opportunity to display story-telling aptitude, I failed.

Do I talk about the random and various places I slept when I was a homeless teenager? The vulnerabilities that led to and the traumas which ensued? How I kept my sights on my goal of higher education and carving out a new and better life? The crushing of those hopes of a fresh start when a friend betrayed me there? My immigration journey that led me to the sunny shores of California in pursuit of higher wages with which to sustain myself, but which ultimately led me to love? Yes, all of that – but I said none of it. My professional façade couldn’t quite find those words in that space in that moment.

How do we sift through the many scenes of our lives to find our true narrative? How do you?

How do we remain grounded in the self we’ve become while reaching a loving hand back to the self we’ve grown from?

This is the work of integration.

And it’s not a linear path, I’m discovering. Finding the narrative of your trauma or your life story is intrinsically healing, as you come to grips with painful truths and through each scene, you learn to love the self who hurt, whose courage failed, and who ultimately triumphed, even if simply through surviving and carrying on. But years of patterning can challenge the process of inhabiting that cohesive narrative. Old stories, painful lies and insecurities may haunt at unexpected moments, knocking you back from the confidence you have earned.

Beside me is a notebook in which I scribble ideas for my current book project. As I’m writing this, I distractedly glance over and I see my note: Costs of being a black sheep: 1. Hiding parts of yourself. The irony.

I want to be authentic, but hiding is habitual. It can be hard to trust that others truly want to know, or are ready to handle our most painful truths. This theme is a ribbon rippling out throughout the various spaces of my life.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite celebrities, Trevor Noah, perform live at the Hollywood Bowl. Toward the end, with darkness fallen on the verdant hills and bright spotlights animating our attention, Trevor invited questions from audience members near enough to shout to the amphitheater stage. “How are you so authentic?” someone asked. Thoughtfully, Trevor replied, “I don’t strive to be my most authentic self. I try to be my best self.”

I love this, because it provides a framework for moving from the morass of pain into an integrated, powerful, and peaceful place of purpose. I believe my best self is an authentic self, too, but one who continually strives to grow, to pull from the lessons my life has taught me to find wisdom and grace and compassion, both for myself, and to extend toward all others.

And in this grace I must allow for times when my voice, or my courage, fails. I must extend compassion so that with the strength that comes from gentleness I rise up to speak truth and love and healing again.

Do you hide parts of yourself?

What truths do you find hard to speak?

What limiting beliefs about your story hold you back?

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