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Conversations At The Holiday Table

Timothy Tate, MoJo's go-to psychotherapist, explores the stories we tell about ourselves

The Savage Family - by Edward Savage (1779)
This time of year, Fall into Winter, arriving at the Solstice, is a time saturated with nostalgia, sentimentality and meaning. If we are lucky or even conversely, doomed, we share time together with friends, family members and others whom we bring into the fold for a holiday dinner or celebration. 

We listen to others tell their stories, trying to steer clear of conversational land mines. Yet how often do the deep connections we seek go fleeting?

Although we might be eager to share our own story, we refrain from opening up, if only others would be quiet long enough to hear us speak without the threat of interruption. 

I’m not talking about others merely politely lending their ears but showing that the words of their friends or loved ones are being heard

As a psychotherapist I have listened intently to the stories individuals bring to the session. And you know what, besides the heavy issues involving trauma, one of the main breakdowns in relationships of all kinds occurs because of poor communication.  Sharing what’s on our mind and welling up in our heart is one of the most vulnerable things we do. We feel exposed.

Speaking our thoughts out loud, explaining our position, or sharing our feelings and fears helps us establish a sense of self in the mix of others but is not necessarily a story told. There are four types of stories we tell that catch my interest as a professional listener.

Indeed, the therapist’s office is a microcosm of the larger world. It is a condensed version of life as seen through the viewpoint of the person who sits across from me. These are the kinds of narrative tales in the modern world.

The first involve stories we tell about ourselves on Facebook and Instagram, through texting and Twitter platforms. Let’s call this story our own Personal Media Image (PMI) and it did not exist less than a generation ago. 

How many readers here remember when there were no cell phones, when you had to pluck a dime or quarter to make a call from a telephone booth and students were taught how to write in cursive for a reason, which was to pen notes on paper and drop them in a mailbox?

How many remember when you took a picture and waited days to get the film developed rather than sharing it only a nanosecond after you took it?  There was no means for a young person to take a photograph of his (or her) private parts and unwisely circulate it among friends to get a rise.

Communication in the old days was slower, less impetuous; people thought about how and what they were sharing; interaction took effort, you had time to ponder the information you were receiving and were more circumspect in how you replied. 
Communication in the old days was slower, less impetuous; people thought about how and what they were sharing; interaction took effort, you had time to ponder the information you were receiving and were more circumspect in how you replied. 

Digital media allows us to engage each other in real time and while the conceit is that it makes us closer and more connected, does it? Does sharing mundane details of daily existence enable us to better absorb what others are trying to tell us, or does it trivialize them? And does this, in turn, affect the way we are interacting with each other at the holiday dinner table or sharing compressed moments with the people we care about at a time of year when the stakes and expectations seem highest and the sense of disappointment higher still? 

There is hardly a session I have with clients without one or more of those storytelling platforms factoring into one’s public persona and the outward image they project. In other words: “Look at me.”

° ° °

The second type of story is the one we tell our self. This is the story that we want to believe is true about how we love, how we present our self to the world, our faith, convictions, and assumptions that we make about life that are no longer up for review but constitute our identity fashioned over a lifetime. This is our private persona story.

This narrative concerns the constant cycling that occurs in trying to answer the question which brings joy or sorrow, pain and the worries that keep us up at night: “Am I okay?”


° ° °

The third story is the one that we can’t bear to tell our self, let alone anyone else. This is the unreconciled story that I might be fortunate as a therapist to hear told for the first time because it is momentous and has the potential to be life changing. Typically it is preceded with this kind of prelude:

“I have never told anyone this story before” or “This is the first time I have said this out loud.” 

This story is broadcast from our interior shadowlands that without embracing we cannot be complete. It is one thing to be vulnerable with another person, but what about our willingness to be vulnerable with ourself?

It’s similar to addressing the question “Am I okay?” but this story goes deeper. Do I do things that cause people not to like me? Am I worthy of love and affection? Was I a good child or parent? Can I measure up and be happy? Am I living a life that is meaningful and purposeful? 

Cathartic and potentially liberating, this story carries the fullness of our character. Without telling that story, holding it hostage in our shame or fear, we may be destined to settle for an incomplete version of our story, suffering the anxiety and depression that it charges for its captivity. 

° ° °

The fourth story is the one that reflects, expresses or relates to a storyline common to us all as humans. 

These stories are the stuff of myth, legend, fairy tales, and archetypes. Told over unbridled time, they hold the collective story of our human adventure, either inspiring us, terrifying us or pointing us toward an inner sense of home, of well-being. They transcend place, time and circumstance. People cannot escape human nature any more than a grizzly bear can get by telling itself that it is an earthworm.

The late Joseph Campbell reminded us that the same general challenges of modern daily life existed thousands of years ago with people of all tribes. The most profound challenges do not involve accumulation of material stuff or wealth but trying to find meaning and connection not always to other people, but to something.

The most profound challenges do not involve accumulation of material stuff or wealth but trying to find meaning and connection not always to other people, but to something.

Recently PBS broadcast a series focusing on “The Great American Read” featuring a hundred titles selected by the audience. A book was chosen as number one: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
 
The Outlander (series) was number two, followed by Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, and finishing the top five, Lord of the Rings. 
 
What makes these stories favorites is that they address what is common to us all, an internal struggle for/against justice/injustice, redemption, equity, inspiration, the hero/heroine's journey, and loss. 

Imagine a storyteller, in residence within our psyche, who unaffected by time, circumstance, and culture, tells us stories from the viewpoint of our deep common unconscious— some know it as dreamtime.

Sometimes stories of this type are more accessible depending on where you work or play.
Place informs not only our personal identity, but the conversations we have around it.  Photo by Angus O'Keefe
Place informs not only our personal identity, but the conversations we have around it. Photo by Angus O'Keefe
We live in a mountain landscape that is often approached as a venue holding opportunity for achievement, conquest, discovery, and dangerous stories. We know of individuals who have suffered serious injury or loss of life while on adventures or expeditions in such terrain. 

Our sense of place, where we can look out and see multiple mountain ranges, inspires stories of backpacking, skiing/boarding adventures, arduous hikes, family outings for firewood or Christmas trees, and weekend camping misadventures. 

Our home stories differ from other places where the horizon line might be an asphalt parking lot or a dense forest or an urban jungle’s vertical labyrinth. What we see, and the kinds of environments we have ready access to, informs the type of stories we tell.

Often they frame conversations around the holiday dinner table that are different from those families have in other places.

° ° °

Who doesn’t want to tell a good story, one that will impress or capture the attention or imagination of the listener? I am a modern person who has a life outside of my therapy practice.

The storytelling I enjoy, of the Personal Media Image type, is told via Instagram with a tag to my Facebook page. I want to convey through an image and cryptic comment what I imagine to be my unique experience, since uniqueness is crucial to my own sense of self worth

This quest for the undiscovered unique media presence, however, has its own dark side. A Mountain Journal board member, Rick Reese, and I were jawing in the gym the other day catching up on our stories. 

I shared how I had the good fortune to, along with my wife, daughter, boyfriend and his family, hike into Bryce Canyon, the Escalante (Calf Creek), and Kodachrome State Park, Utah. 

What made this trip extraordinary was that our hosts were also guides taking us on hikes that we otherwise would not have discovered. Rick mused on how finding the road less traveled, or the hidden gem of a location unknown to others, in southern Utah, is now the subject of GPS settings identifying specifically the location of the “find”, which in turn brings the thundering social media herd vanquishing the spot's hidden value. We can’t help ourselves from telling an untold story even when sharing that story on social media makes it less rare.
We can’t help ourselves from telling an untold story even when sharing that story on social media makes it less rare.
Our Public Media Image self is like a water boy who fetches images to slake the thirst of our short attention span that often seems unquenchable. And why not? Who doesn’t enjoy impressing others as a way of making an impact, to feel special?

 I mean, what’s the big deal, Tate? At least, that is one of the stories I’ve told myself, but what’s missing in my rationalization is personal responsibility for the information being disseminated. Information holds the power to inspire and the power to destroy.

The deal, big or small, is that an insidious sense of self, projected via social media, can replace our identity with a representation of us. And when it occurs on a mass scale, it can become a juggernaut.

We are leaking ourselves all over social media platforms as a way of proving our value. Why else would a person steer an SUV down a crowded city street with kids in the back seat while scrolling through texts or Facebook as they drive, if they weren’t in an identity crisis?

° ° °

This example leads me back to the second form of story we tell, the one we want to believe is who we are and it might mean engaging in reinvention.

These stories can be both defensive and creative: defensive in that they attempt to protect us from feeling not good enough;  and creative in that protecting ourselves from feeling inadequate is an ongoing magic act. 

We tend to believe the story that we nonverbally tell ourselves even though that story can be self-harming, grandiose or delusional. 

We are often compelled to tell this story, reinforce it and prove it. We might understand the pervasive maladaptation of anxiety and depression as the consequence of our psyche striving to shore up a story that needs to be believed even though it might not be true to our character


°° °

Driving to work and looking at the Bridger Mountain range helps me believe in my own hero myth. Yes, I struggle to figure out who I am too! Could I convince myself of that story while commuting in traffic creeping along strip mall corridors in a major city? 

It’s easy to dream bigger in a big landscape where nature lifts us up and yet delivers daily doses of the need to be humble and modest. 
It’s easy to dream bigger in a big landscape where nature lifts us up and yet delivers daily doses of the need to be humble and modest. 

That’s different from the digital universe. When we are navigating non-physical social media and project a presence there, it is easy to hide from the whole story, certainly to embrace humility and modesty in our interactions.

Our attempt to convince self and others about either on social media platforms or inside our heads is often an attempt to hide from the whole story. It can be filled with temptations to enter the dark side, like Luke Skywalker realizing that Darth Vader is his father. 

As we travel into the darkest days and nights of our year, may we remember the place abiding the darkness for signs and hints as to who we are, forgoing the temptation to lose ourselves, as we gather with family and friends to celebrate the return of the light, and may we resist the temptation to project our own inner darkness onto others.

Remember, in order to be heard you must be listened to, and it can start by being willing to listen to others. Help them get the answer they are seeking to the question of “Am I okay?” 

Editor's Note: Painting at top is "The Savage Family" by Edward Savage (1779)

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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