The KEY Questions: Why not share our stories?

I received a call from a young guy who had suffered with a bad stammer all his life. He badly needed help because this debilitating affliction was affecting his job prospects and causing him a huge amount of stress. He began by trying to tell me how it all started. He had an accident when he was only three years old and …

I interrupted him. Told him I didn’t want to know.

Once again he tried to explain what happened, and once again I cut him off. But it was important, he insisted, that I understood where he was coming from. “This accident I had when I was three…” I wouldn’t let him finish that sentence. In the course of our conversation he tried nine times to tell me about what happened, and nine times I refused to listen. It might seem counter-intuitive that a coach and therapist like myself, whose business is helping people, should shy away from hearing about an event that the client in question clearly feels so passionate about. In my defense I can only tell you that it’s a case of ‘comfort or cure’. Which do you want? Because it seems to me there’s a clear choice.

Every human being with a problem needs a story to back it up. Often when we meet with a counselor or therapist the simple telling of our story in all its gory detail will, in and of itself, give us a sense of relief from the pain of our experience. We console ourselves by sharing. We are comforted. It’s a perfectly natural, human response to trauma. All the therapist really has to do is nod, listen and stay awake. Trouble is, the relief is temporary. Sharing might calm the mind for an hour, perhaps even a day or two, but it is guaranteed that those feelings we associate with that story will return, because the story and the pain are two separate things. We only imagine that one causes the other. In fact it is our thinking that is at fault, and that can be corrected without reference to past events. (Remember, the client’s presenting problem is never the problem. An endless re-telling of events that he or she believes has led to their misery will only prolong the misery).

We are all acquainted with Sigmund Freud and his theories that form the backbone of our modern approach to psychiatry. It is estimated that there are over four hundred different branches of psychiatry from Freudian and Jungian to Gestalt, Est, Primal Scream, you-name-it. In every single case the underlying theory is the same. Every single one of these pseudo-sciences pins hopes of a cure on the patients’ understanding of early experience in their childhood that supposedly altered their destiny for the worse. They need only to ‘crack the code’ to be free of neurosis forever.

If only.

Actually few people know how Freud came to stumble on the (at the time) revolutionary notion that past events were the cause of present traumas. He was a practicing medic in Vienna and one day he was called to assist a colleague who was hypnotizing a patient to help him overcome some problem he was dealing with. Hypnosis, as you know, preceded psychiatry by something like five thousand years, so this was nothing new, but on this occasion Freud witnessed something he could not explain. When the man was deeply under he began quite spontaneously to talk about something that happened to him as a child. When he was brought out of his trance he seemed to be completely cured of the anxiety he had previously felt. Freud deduced from all this that there was a link between the two events. Unlike the great mystics, shamans and wise men that came before him, unlike modern seers like Sydney Banks, Freud had no ‘defining moment’, no deep insight to draw wisdom from. Instead he put two and two together to make five, and we have been paying the price for his mistake ever since.

As for my stammering client, he was still talking, and it finally dawned on me: he was talking without stammering at all. “Oh no,” he said, “I don’t stammer on the phone. Only when I meet people face to face.” I remarked on how clever the stammer was – to know when to appear and when not to appear – then I suggested to him that perhaps it was just his thinking, not his accident, not his personal history, that was causing him such distress.

What story are you telling yourself, and do you really need it?