There are two sides to every story. At least. I learned this early. Not because I was a philosophical or humanitarian wunderkind, but because I needed to prepare an alternative version of my own reality every time I recounted a story to my mother. Her default response to anything I told her about my life was, (and still is,) “Oh, I don’t think it was like that, darling. What he/she/they meant/thought/said was …”
I learned to pre-empt this and deny my own experience. I learned to see every story from every vantage point except my own.
It was annoying as a teenager. Debilitating in fact. There were two sides to every story—and my side was wrong. As an adult, I’ve found an Angela Merkel eye roll to be a moderately effective way of dispelling any lingering rage and frustration.
So, childhood trauma aside, my mother was right about one thing (dammit). There’s more than one way to see and to tell a story. Everyone involved in a story has their own memory and interpretation of what happened.
As do some people who weren’t even there. *eye roll*
Wait a minute—how many sides?
Actually, two sides seems a ludicrously conservative to me—once you take into account the multiple people who are witness to or directly involved in a story. As well as those not directly involved but who have experienced something similar, or whose knowledge of and experience with the participants affects their interpretation of the story. Stories are messy. So are people.
Even the same person may have a number of versions of the same story. Over time your telling of a story will change, depending on how you feel at the time of telling; how much time (and alcohol) has passed; who you’re telling the story to; what questions you’ve been asked and feedback you’ve received at each telling; the number of times you’ve recounted the story, etc.
In fact, every time you tell a story, you re-encode it in your memory.
Rarely do the stories that are important to us, the stories that have played a part in shaping who we are, belong solely to us. No story is objective, because no storyteller is objective.
You’re not neutral and neither is your story.
The story bubble
Everyone makes sense of the same events in different ways.
Most of the stories you tell yourself are a form of confirmation bias. You seek out and shape stories that confirm your existing world view and reject others without much consideration. It’s not just you. We all do it. That’s just part of being human.
Everyone lives in their own version of a bubble. It was ever thus.
But while access to the world beyond the bubble of our birth, and to different cultures and belief systems has expanded, our capacity to accept difference seems to have stagnated. We choose to connect with people just like us on Facebook. We engage with news sources that already agree with us. We click and like and share content that adheres to our existing belief systems. And so we are fed more and more of the same.
Our natural tendency to create self-selecting bubbles has been compounded online. Our desire for more and more personalisation is contributing to more and more divisive, insulated and polarised stories.
The context in which you live can radically change the story you tell. Differences between storytellers don’t have to be as far reaching as those that divide religions, countries, and the meta-level organisation of the world. The context can be wildly different within a singe family.
Laura had heard the story already, Three times. From her niece. From her nephew, Craig. And from his wife, Sarah. Now it was her brother Gary’s turn.
“She’s evil! She’s an evil witch! How dare she?!”
She was Gary’s daughter in law, Sarah.
Sarah’s crime? Sending a Christmas hamper to Gary and his wife.
“She’s just trying to show us up and make us look bad because we didn’t get them anything.”
Laura, having heard the baffled, tearful version from Sarah, the sad and resigned, this-is-just-the-way-he-is-and-I-have-to-accept-it version from her nephew, did her best to tread the middle ground, despite her own history with her brother.
“I spoke to Craig and to Sarah. They’re really sorry that you’re upset. But they gave the same hamper to everyone this year. I got one too. The hamper isn’t a judgement. It’s just a gift.”
Gary’s a prison officer. People often say his rigidity is a result of his job. That the need to be hard-edged, unapologetic, even cruel, is a result of the environment in which he works. But Laura, who bore the brunt of his violence when she was a child, sees things differently. To her mind and experience, the job is a perfect match for his personality, not a cause of it.
“You know there’s two sides to a story, Gary.”
“What d’you mean? No there isn’t. I was there. I know what happened.”
“The hamper’s a peace offering. They’ve given you the same as everyone else. They’re trying to build a bridge.”
“She’s not building a bridge. She’s trying to make us look bad. I was there. I know what happened.”
Stuck in his own context, guided only by his own rules, by the behaviour other people would typically expect of him, Gary had determined that Sarah’s simple act of kindness was in fact a vicious judgement on his own lack of generosity. There were no other sides to the story that he could see.
Meanwhile, Sarah was distraught, worried that everyone would hear Gary’s side of the story and belief that she really was an “evil witch”. Until Laura reminded her that anyone who did believe that version of the story, didn’t know her.
Sometimes, you have to let go of your expectation of how someone else will tell a shared story. You have no control over someone else’s interpretation of your experience. Their version of the story is coloured on their own experience and world view. Often, that seminal experience you’ve shared, isn’t that significant to them. It’ll become just another brick in a wall of highly personalised stories shaped to match their own much larger and strongly held personal narrative.
As will yours.
Telling your side of the story
The moments and memories that have shaped you aren’t an absolute and objective truth. Your version of a story may be totally unrecognisable to someone who shared the experience.
There are at least two sides to every story. At least.
And that’s okay. So long as you’re aware that other people will have a different version of your truth and your story, it’s all good. And if they can’t accept it? Well, that’s okay too. It’s not up to them to tell your story.
I spent a considerable stretch of my own life trying to adhere to someone else’s version of reality at the expense of my own. Yes, it made me very amenable and pliant (for a time) but in the process of being endlessly polite and accepting everyone else’s versions of my story, I lost myself.
It took a long time to find myself again. That’s still a work in progress, by the way. Every day, I have to be mindful of my own reality, examine every version of myself that other people present to me and consider carefully whether it fits the reality I want to live in. Whether it fits the story I want to tell of my life.
And that’s the biggest part of the struggle—finding a version of myself that feels truly truthful—and not only convenient or pleasant or that presents a version of myself that I know my mother would approve of.
I’ll let you know how I get on …
If you’re struggling with being you in your story, remember that your story, and you, won’t appeal to everyone. Don’t change your story to suit someone else’s agenda.
“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach on the planet, and there is still going to be someone who hates peaches.”— Dita Von Teese
How about you?
How do you cope with conflicting versions of your story? Have you experienced someone else trying to tell you your own story? How did you get a firm hold of your story again?
Leave a comment below and let me know how you deal with it.
How many sides are there to your story?