"My story used to be one of a divorced mother, alone in the world, keeping her two kids safe," the woman had said. "And then came a day when I realized my story was out of date and needed to change."
Kim and I discussed the concept of living by a life story and how what one does with that story can cripple or facilitate change.
Some cling relentlessly to a story line, citing the old excuse "That's the way I am and it's too late to change."
But is it?
There is always time to change and grow if we wish to take the risk of change and to do the hard work involved in personal growth.
But, for some, clinging to an outdated life story is a habit, an excuse not to risk change.
Some have a story that is an endless loop of victimhood.
One woman here, well into her fifties, clings relentlessly to her feelings that her mother is the root of all her discontent. She has felt tormented since by her mother's faults and failings, erupting in fury recently over a minor disagreement. Her volcanic anger was frighteningly out of proportion to the precipitating event. But, of course, it was not really about the event, but about the pain of a lifetime. Until she is able to let go of the story of her mother as tormentor, this woman will never know peace.
Some people get an emotional payoff as they see others react with shock and sympathy to their difficult life stories.
A former patient would come to therapy each week, presenting some new horrendous affront from her ex-husband or one or both of her ungrateful adult children. She would present it and sit back, waiting for commiseration. After two weeks of this, I told her that she could get expressions of horror and sympathy from her friends for free, but she was paying me to help her to move on. "So," I would say. "Let's talk about how you're building a new life for yourself that isn't ruled by them and what they do to you, but by your own choices and preferences." What she needed to do was to change her story from victim to a woman with the freedom to make her own decisions and choices. It was a scary place to be at times. But it could be exciting, too.
Some obsolete stories complicate family relationships in a myriad of ways.
A woman I'll call Elaine has a 50-year-old son she still treats like a wayward adolescent, second guessing every personal and career decision he makes, offering to pay his cell phone bill and then feeling that gives her the right to weigh in on his other financial decisions. And she wonders, with more than a little exasperation, why he doesn't like to call or visit and bemoans the fact that she has such a immature, ungrateful son.
Changing one's perspective and one's life story can be difficult and painful, but can lead one toward growth and a more satisfying new life.
It may mean taking responsibility for your own choices.
If, for example, you chose to stay home with your children, this decision -- while it may be one you'd make again in a minute -- may have been costly for your career as you originally envisioned it. Faced with such realities, you have a choice: you can cling to bitterness and regrets that your career wasn't what you had hoped or you can acknowledge the reality of hard decisions all women make and make peace with a decision that seemed right for you and your family at the time. Period. It doesn't make sense cling to a life story of missed opportunities and to blame your spouse or children or to expect a lifetime of compensation from them for the career that didn't happen as you might have liked.
It may mean letting go of old pain to make room for new possibilities.
If you had a less than ideal experience growing up with a parent or parents whose flaws were all too apparent, you also have a choice: you can choose to cling to the past, blaming your parents for your continuing misery, often long after they are gone, or you can seize the power and control of your own life now and grow beyond the challenges of your early life.
Sometimes it means letting go of even positive life stories if they have become obsolete.
When I was a child, I loved holidays, which my parents dreaded and hated, but which were nevertheless merry if Aunt Molly joined us and made the holiday special for us.
I vowed back then that, when I grew up, I would make holidays wonderful for my family of origin. I started cooking Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners when I was in my twenties. As long as Aunt Molly was alive, there was at least someone who was as interested in celebrating as I was. The others? Not so much. Both of my siblings, for many years, were uneasy with the whole concept of Christmas, preferring to spend it on the ski slopes or working for triple time.
In time, I came to realize that I needed to acknowledge that my Hostess for Family Celebrations was largely a fantasy -- my fantasy -- and that I needed to let go of this and just let holidays happen for me, my brother and sister.
It has worked wonderfully over the years as spontaneous celebrations have replaced dreaded obligations. Bob and I spent one Christmas and New Year's in Bangkok with my brother and his family and it was truly memorable. One of the most fun recent Thanksgivings we've had was via Skype when we savored simultaneous turkey dinners during a video visit between Los Angeles and Bangkok with my brother Mike and his wife Jinjuta. In recent years, too, Bob and I have taken turns hosting holidays with neighbors who also live far from loved ones and want to celebrate together.
Giving up the story of myself as family uniter, party planner and perpetual hostess has been a relief, I'm sure, for all concerned.
Now my story is that I simply love to stay in touch with loved ones, whatever day it is, and remember good times with them whether or not we are together this particular holiday season.
Letting go of old family roles can be liberating and lead to better relationships with kin.
Letting go of bitter life stories of victimhood can open your life to new strengths and opportunities.
Letting go of old anger can create room for joy.
When you change your story, you can change your life.