When I start describing a recent event to a friend and they stop me and say, “You already told me about this,” my first reaction is to feel mortified. My next reaction is to feel worried I’m starting to lose my marbles, since we all know that repetitive story-telling is a hallmark of memory loss in the elderly. I try to quell my concern by reminding myself that I’m not elderly yet, and besides, my forgetful repetitions are hardly a recent phenomenon: they started years ago.
It turns out I’m not alone in this. Repetitive story-telling is such a widespread phenomenon across the age spectrum that a group of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario decided to get to the bottom of it. In studying both short-term and long-term memory, they discovered there is a particular kind of memory at which we human being do not excel. It’s called destination memory.
Destination memory is our ability—or lack of ability—to remember to whom we’ve told our stories. The Waterloo researchers found that young or old, we human beings have trouble with destination memory. So we end up repeating ourselves. And we fervently hope our friends are kind enough to tell us when we launch into that story about the skunk in the basement for the tenth time.
Another kind of storytelling
There’s another kind of repetitive storytelling I’ve observed in myself and in others, though. This repetition does not stem from forgetfulness. On the contrary, in this case, I am keenly aware of telling the story again and again, whether to myself or to others. There’s a distinctive feeling of needing something from telling the story. And there is a sense of urgency to tell the story until that need is met.
I’ve learned it is crucial to discern this special kind of storytelling from the benign human-memory-lapse variety. Why? Because the repeated urge to tell the story is like the notes the postman leaves when you aren’t home to receive a package: it is a reminder something wants to be received by you, and that you haven’t received it yet.
So perhaps a good name for this kind of repetitive storytelling would be stubborn storytelling. A stubborn story keeps tugging on your sleeve because it has something important to tell you.
My first impulse when this stubborn storytelling urge comes up is to tell someone else the story. In an attempt to assuage that feeling of something needed or unresolved, I look for a certain response from my listener: perhaps sympathy. Or empathy. Or outrage. Or a solution.
But experience tells me I won’t get relief until I acknowledge that something in me is bringing me this story again and again, and that it wants something from me—something no one else can give. In other words, this is what I call an “inside job.”
What does an “inside job” look like? Unpacking a stubborn story
One day last week, I noticed a harsh inner critic saying, “What is your problem?! Why are you boring people telling them about your eye appointment last Thursday, for God’s sake?!” This was a reasonable question, as nothing exciting had happened in this appointment, other than the excruciating flashes of light when the optometrist examined my dilated pupils.
Nonetheless, the story was stubbornly repeating itself. In my Focusing partnership session that day, I had started out by saying to my partner, “I’d like to spend my first five minutes sharing and celebrating a few things with you. Then I’ll do some Focusing.” I found myself telling her about the eye appointment, as well.
However, in the slowed-down pace of our Focusing session, I saw all this with a bigger perspective. I said, “Wow. I just realized something is bringing me this memory. It is telling and re-telling this story, because there is something I haven’t gotten about it yet.”
I felt my chest expand as something inside me began to release. A feeling of spaciousness arose and within it I felt deep appreciation. I realized that something in me—my whole body, from the feel of it—was fervently thanking me for scheduling the eye appointment. This gratitude was the “package” my body had been attempting to deliver.
“Opening the package”
As I opened the package, multiple layers of meaning emerged. For one thing, the optometrist had discovered an issue with my glasses that explained the oppressive neck pain I had been experiencing in front of the computer. To my great relief, I had learned I could get new glasses that would fix this problem.
Also, to my surprise, I had learned I had an inflammation around my eyelids, likely caused by not blinking enough in front of the computer. My body wanted me to take time to appreciate that we were catching this now, before the problem became serious.
As if that weren’t enough, there was an even deeper layer of appreciation this stubborn storytelling part of me wanted me to receive. This layer was about self-trust. I pay out of pocket for my vision care appointments, and when the reminder postcard comes each year, it’s very tempting to ignore it. This temptation had arisen once again when the latest card arrived, but I had resisted it. Instead, I listened instead to my spiritual intuition and made an appointment.
Now, my body was telling me, “I’m so grateful I can count on you to take good care of me.” My stubborn storyteller was proud of me for trusting myself to spend the money, particularly because right now more money going out than is coming in (a temporary effect of finishing up the new Sustainably Sensitive website)—a kind of situation that has stimulated great fear in me in the past.
Prompts to get to the deeper meaning of a story
When you recognize something is sending you a story and you want to “open the package” to get to the deeper layers of meaning, ask yourself, ‘What part of this story wants to be told right now?” Then say the story slowly to yourself, then use one of these helpful phrases to invite more to come:
“There’s this whole thing about _________[tell some of the story]…and I’m sensing whether I’m grasping the full extent of this…” OR
“There’s this whole thing about__________[tell some of the story]…and I’m sensing if this really does it justice…or if there’s more…”
You’ll know when you’ve “received your package” because you’ll feel a tangible sense of relief. Your body starts to relax and shift, as if to say, “Yes, that’s it! You are finally getting what I’ve been trying to tell you!” When you’ve fully unpacked all the layers of meaning in your “package”, your stubborn storyteller will relax and feel content.
Photo © 2019 Duke Duchscherer—thank you Duke