The power of stories

We hear stories, remember stories and re-tell stories. Our understanding of ourselves, others and our relationships is significantly influenced by the stories we tell as well as the stories that we do not tell. In attempting to make sense of ourselves and our lives we arrange our myriad experiences into a coherent account of what we are experiencing. Peterson (2001) points out that narratives have the power both to guide life as it is and to challenge life into being what it could be. As a result, stories can be transformative or oppressive; and yet stories are never fixed or finished, but can be challenged by new events.

When I think about the power of stories I think about my relationship with my mother. I am very close to my mother and value my relationship with her immensely. Although we are very loving and affectionate with each other now, when I was growing up my mother often seemed emotionally absent. This made little sense to me given that she was obviously a loving and generous person, evidenced by her relationship with my father and her commitment to supporting other people. I often felt as a child that I was difficult to love because I felt that my mother did not always hold me in mind. This feeling that I was difficult to love carried into adulthood. I saw numerous counsellors and therapists who seemed to want me to ‘get in touch with anger’ about my mother’s emotional absence, but I did not feel angry. I longed to understand her. I longed to be lovable.

When I left home and went to university I witnessed how much my mother missed me. I started asking her questions about her life and heard stories that surprised and moved me. During one conversation my mother told me about the pain of losing both her parents in her twenties and not being able to see them before they died because they were in Nigeria and she was in the UK. My mother told me about the indescribable trauma of a number of miscarriages and the death of her baby son Jide, before my twin sister and I were born. I noticed how neither one of my parents could talk about Jide without visibly crumbling with grief. I realised through these conversations that my mother was not emotionally absent. The depth of the fear she felt about losing people she deeply loved matched both the depth of her love and the distance she created in order to protect herself from that love.

More recently I decided I wanted to see a therapist and asked friends to recommend someone whose approach differed from the counsellors and therapists I had previously seen. My conversations with this new therapist helped me realise that my mother experienced me as so lovable that she could not help but love me, despite the enormous fear of loving and losing. I discovered that I was not difficult to love. The power of this new story meant I experienced a type of emotional liberation I had never felt before. When my mother expresses love towards me now I am reminded of this new understanding. Soon after this revelation in therapy two things happened - ‘letting go’ and ‘connecting with’:

  • 1. I let go of depression (as a fixed part of my identity) and gave up cigarettes
  • 2. I sought permission from my mother to write about these experiences in this book. Not only did she happily give me permission, but she began to talk about her miscarriages and losing her son Jide, only this time she looked relaxed and content, as though she was happy that sharing meant being close to me. This painful story had become a story with the power to connect our hearts rather than being a reminder of her pain.41
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