The theme of my presentation at my recent Momentous Living exhibitions was “embracing one’s story,” I asked Dr. David Baker, a psychotherapist, if he would take us a bit deeper into the difference between story addictions and embracing one’s story. This is what he said:
We can come to understand the distinction between being “addicted” to one’s story and embracing one’s story in a helpful way by understanding how the need for the distinction became important in the first place. I believe it is important to distinguish addiction from embrace because we have come to confuse addiction with love.
To fall passionately, madly in love with one’s own story, without being possessed by it, obsessed with it, “addicted” to it, or needing to edit its truth, is a rare thing. Many are drawn to criticize, demonize or edit their own stories. But to detest one’s own story is to detest the self. The story is I. And I am the story. I don’t have a story, carrying it around like a handbag. I am my story. And the more time and energy one expends on identifying with a lopsided view of one’s story—emphasizing only the sad, ugly, lonely, empty parts of the story, or the light, bright, sweet and beautiful parts—the more obsessed one becomes by that one-sided view. Identification feeds obsession. Why? Because simplicity is seductive; it wants one thing, not two; it wants quick and easy, black or white, mistrusts gray. And because complexity—seeing one’s story as fragmented, messy, and populated by people and experiences we don’t understand or can’t bear to behold—is frightening.
In clinical practice I most often experience persons identifying with the negative pole of their story, the tragic and the shameful, the abusive and the abandoning. Of course one of the goals of therapeutic intervention is to allow persons a holding environment where they can express and often re-experience the painful and neglected parts of themselves and their stories, parts that have been forlorn and missing from awareness. However, these components represent only one of many parts of one’s story. Thus, another goal of treatment is to allow for the whole story to emerge, which most often includes moments of joy and hope, trust and love, resilience and re-emergence. For some, when encountering the unseemly, disgusting, unacceptable components of their story, they find these to be so unbearable that they feel the need to change the story—to minimize, neglect, or even abandon the darker narratives. This can be a slippery slope toward faking one’s story—a false self, faking its own story. And the negative aspects of one’s story can be seductive, and in the seduction the self becomes identified with its tragedies, to the exclusion of its joys.
Each person, each story has within it what psychologist Carl Jung called “shadow,” which he defined as “… that which we have no wish to be,” but that we are. Some come to loath their own story so that they would seek to exchange their story for a better looking, sexier, more entertaining or more culturally appropriate story. But this denial of one’s authentic story is a denial of the authentic self, of the extravagant, beautiful, terrible and painful trajectory that comprises every one’s unique and unrepeatable journey. But because every authentic story has elements of shadow, some will decide to throw out the whole story.
Identifying with one’s story in a responsible way means embracing the story in its entirety, its shine and shadow, accepting the truth that the subject of the story—my self—has potential for both “good” and “evil,” for health and illness, to love and hate, sometimes simultaneously. This is the real self, and thus, this is the real story we must embrace.
What does it mean to be “addicted” to one’s story? Addiction immediately implies distance, which is never good when relating to oneself or one’s story. When encountering someone who is “addicted”—whether to a substance, a behavior, one’s work, an experience, a person, or to one’s story—there is one particular quality that is missing: the addict does not love the object of his addiction. The alcoholic does not love alcohol; he loves what alcohol does for and to him. The relationally addictive person doesn’t love the person in her gaze; she loves what he does for and to her. One does not abuse the thing it loves. The addict can only abuse, and the abuse is in the distance he creates between himself and the other, objectifying it, or them, valuing it, or them, for it’s ability to fulfill the addiction. Further, the addict is a slave of, or to its object, and has given himself over to something. The addict doesn’t hold the object of his addiction; the object holds them, which helps explain the obsessional quality of addiction. So, when one is addicted to their story, they are obsessive about the story they tell themselves. They are lopsided in their perspective of light and dark, emphasizing one over the other, out of balance and unable to find, much less see the authentic story in all its complexity.
It is easy to mistake addiction for love, because of the immense drive, intensity and energy in addiction. But if love can be defined in part by its ability to sacrifice self in consideration of the other, then addiction is devoid of love, because the addict can only consider the object as far as that object will fulfill her addictive need(s). The heart of addiction is the lack of perspective and objectivity, an inability to see the object, the other, for its unique beauty and complexity. Again, the addict hasn’t the ability to appreciate the object beyond its ability to fulfill the addiction that, parenthetically, is momentary.
When encountering someone who is “addicted“ to their story then, one feels their obsession, often presenting as a kind of self-involvement, with little interest in others, powered by a hunger that cannot be satiated. The self has turned on itself and made the story the object of its own attraction and longing. But it isn’t the authentic story they see. Authentic stories have boring parts, parts that are missing or out of place, gray parts, painful parts, and parts so lovely and true we can hardly behold their extravagance. When one is “addicted to one’s story,” one does not love all the components of the story. They are obsessed with a version of a partial story, a slice of the story. Their unbalanced interpretation possesses them, and they can easily allow this incomplete image of themselves to define their story. The danger of dangers in living addicted to a partial story is that one can’t see a future, can’t escape the past. They become stuck in those few chosen moments which they perceive have defined not only their story but their very self.
Thus, to embrace one’s story, as opposed to being addicted to it, requires that one embrace the whole story, not the easy, convenient parts. To embrace one’s story wholeheartedly requires that we live with the expectation that our story will continue to unfold, that there is a future story yet to be told. To responsibly embrace one’s story assumes the story isn’t stuck in place or time; rather, it is organic, forever moving, forever being written, every moment of every hour of every day. Because, after all, the story is the self.