“We had the experience but missed the meaning. Approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.”
As a story analyst I’ve been fascinated with the way the "Metoo” phenomenon is also a storytelling movement. We’ve all heard about “transformational” storytelling but most of us have no idea what that means or how to do it and most certainly not up against the emotionally volatile and protean storying of a “metoo” kind of experience.
This article will show you two basic tools that can help you to transform your relationship to your “metoo” experience in terms of how you story it.
Although the kind of pain and even trauma of a “metoo” experience happens in real time, the way we work with the experience, after the fact, is via our memory of the story of the experience. We can learn to work with the story itself by employing story strategies that help us transform a victim “metoo” story into a victory “metoo” story. We’ll explore two models, the first in a distinction in two kinds of storytelling, “toxic” vs. “redemptive,” and the second a three-act story cycle, a kind of plot map, that you can use to reframe your relationship to your “metoo” story. This is healing story work, transformational story work.
“Toxic” vs. “Redemptive” Story Telling
We turn first to narrative psychologist Dan McAdam’s distinction between the two forms of storytelling we use when we talk about our lives in the “toxic” form vs. the “redemptive” form. When we learn to differentiate between the two kinds of storytelling as they apply to the way we tell our “metoo” stories, we come to understand something important about tending the woman behind the story. Learning the difference between the two forms cues us into why the teller of the story is sharing the story. It’s crucial for us to recognize that telling your “metoo” story does not necessarily mean that you have owned your “metoo” story. And what I mean by “owned” is that you have taken the story back from the predator who made you a victim, so that your ownership of the story is a reflection of your victory over the experience.
When you’ve owned your “metoo” story, it’s in the way you story tell.
A “toxic” story, what I call a “wound” story, is both toxic to us, and has, in fact, a toxic form. The story is about a wound, a painful experience, that continues to be painful to us. We tell the story of our victimization. And at the end of the story we are still a victim. The story of the experience illustrates an experience that continues to poison us, and hence is “toxic.”
In contrast, a “redemptive” story, begins with that same initial problem or wound, but the story also shows us how we moved through to meaning. The form of this story is both whole, in that it shows us a conflict with a resolution in a meaning made, and healed. We tell the story of a victimization that is turned into a victory because the relationship to the victimization is understood in a new way.
I call these “boon” stories reflecting the old adage from myth, that “the wound is the boon.” The very difficult thing that happened to you is also the blessing that transforms into the gift you’ve needed all along. I think of this “gift” as a gift of meaning. This gift of meaning is what Joseph Campbell understood as the whole point of a hero’s journey. It’s what the elixir or magical thing that the hero goes on the adventure to get, is a metaphor for. And he spoke of this prize in terms of a “rendered realization.” I like to think of it as hard-won meaning.
A toxic story goes like this: “This very bad thing happened and I’ve never recovered.” Essentially, “I was victimized by the event and I am still a victim.” Bad happens and the end result is bad. This is a victim story.
A redemptive story goes like this, (and listen for how it starts with exactly the same set up): “This very bad thing happened and here’s what I learned.” In this form, the initial condition of being a victim, is transformed into a lesson won from the bad experience. Here bad happens and the end result is good, or wisdom. This a victory story.
In a redemptive story, a difficult situation sends us on a road towards healing and wisdom. We also recognize this form as a hero’s journey.
The focus shifts from narrating and staying in the inciting incident, the victimization, into the hero’s journey on the road to healing.
This kind of frame has the power to transform “metoo” storytelling into a revolution in so far as we apply it to our story telling.
This is an empowered strategy that can meet “metoo” beyond the confessional and reactive stage that we’re culturally in now, right in our storytelling.
It’s also important to understand that healing, transforming out of “metoo” isn’t about these predatory experiences “never” happening again.
The healing is about intentionally using “metoo” experiences as an opportunity to work to understand what the experience was about for you. This work yields the lesson and wisdom. It is also not something that can be given to you from somebody else’s experience. It is something you discover and are gifted by mining your story and discovering your truth. This is very much what Campbell meant about a hero needing to enter the forest in the place that no one has ever gone before. The forest is the wound experience, the “metoo” experience. And you enter it by committing to go on a quest for the meaning of the experience.
Now an important recognition needs to be made in that every person experiences their “metoo” in their own way. Although the pattern may be universal, it really meets us where we are at in our development and in the specific issues it triggers. And when we are working with “metoo” experiences, the reality of how they evidence in our life is in multiples. We don’t just have one experience, we have many, over the course of our development. Some of these experiences hit us casually. They didn’t really mean anything significant and we don’t have a reason to work the stories. Some of these experiences occur to us traumatically. These are experiences that wound us in our psychic identities. And these stories need very special, therapeutic, and guided tending.
How does this distinction between a toxic and redemptive form apply to a “metoo” story?
A wounded “metoo” story sounds like this: “When I was in college, a professor became obsessed with me and I narrowly escaped a rape. The experience was inexplicably overwhelming. Pulling me down in a way I couldn’t understand, given that I knew these kinds of incidents were par for the course in a woman’s life. When I tried to share what had happened to me, I was told to “Buck up.” “Get over it.” And to “stop telling that story.” I left a top ten school and lived like an open wound for many years.”
A processed “metoo” story sounds like this: “When I was in college, a professor became obsessed with me and I narrowly escaped a rape. The experience was inexplicably overwhelming. Pulling me down in a way I couldn’t understand, given that I knew these kinds of incidents were par for the course in a woman’s life. When I tried to share what had happened to me, I was told to “Buck up.” “Get over it.” And to “stop telling that story.” I left a top ten school and lived like an open wound for many years.” The only thing that I knew was true at that time was that I was a writer and I was searching. So I hung onto that truth, writing and eventually, as I went deep with the writing, I started to learn about stories and their psychological function. I learned that we could actually use stories and storytelling to heal. The road that opened up for me, healing story work, ended up being my life’s work. And this is why I can stand here today and tell you the difference between “toxic” versions of this “metoo” story and “redemptive” ones.”
Do you hear the difference?
Now I also want to honor the fact that this “metoo” story reflects a traumatic wounding. We can always identify trauma in the archetypal quality of an experience that pulls us down, inexplicably. So this is precisely the kind of story that needs therapeutic help. I essentially learned the skills to help heal my story.
It’s actually the first kind of telling of this story that takes the courage we often hear about in telling our story. To tell this story involves a terrifying vulnerability. This kind of story-telling occurs when we are in the initial phase of processing a traumatic experience. This is a very fragile place. And my hope is for us to learn, collectively, to listen for this fragile place when we hear the stories of “metoo,” as they pour out over social media and between us, because this kind of storytelling needs containment, care and witnessing.
The majority of the storytelling of “metoo” has this form and is in this wounded initial place. This means that the onus is on us to respond with tremendous care when we hear such a story. And it also means that we get to be intentional about responding to a “metoo” story with another “metoo” story, especially if we are in a toxic or wounded place in our own story.
Although indeed the sharing of “metoo” stories creates a community of shared meaning, at least therapeutically, when an unprocessed “metoo” story is met with another unprocessed “metoo” story, we stay in the wound. It’s very much the equivalent of “something bad happened to me,” met by “oh gee, something bad happened to me too.” This kind of response of a like experience, although necessary and part of the phenomenon, neither tends to the woman behind the story nor receives the story in a transformative way.
The second kind of storytelling, “redemptive” storytelling, reflects an “owned story.” It is a whole story, whole actually in its form. When we tell this kind of story, we are no longer vulnerable because we have processed through to the meaning of the experience. The story itself is not fragile. Nor is it a victim story. Rather, the story reflects the transformation of a victim story into a victory story. And the teller of this kind of tale has gone into that forest and found her meaning. We tell this kind of story as a badge of honor, a lesson hard won. It narrates how we moved from victim to victor. This kind of storytelling empowers us and it empowers the listener. Although the work to find the meaning in the experience took courage, we are not in a vulnerable place when we tell this story. We are proud and strong when we tell this story. We’ve fought the demon and won.
When this second kind of processed story meets the first kind of wounded story, there is a possibility of a deeper kind of conversation. “Oh, this terrible thing happened to you. Yes, I totally understand. You see it happened to me too. But the amazing thing is, I learned so much from the experience. It really ended up as a kind of initiation into a wisdom that informed my path forwards.” You see, now the conversation has a chance to move the first story into a place beyond a tragic happening. The tragic happening has a meaning that is connected to deep wisdom that we actually require in our life.
The Three Act Story Cycle
Now once we’ve learned about these two forms of story-telling, rather than imaging them in terms of one versus the other, I’ve found that it’s more helpful to visualize them as a three act story cycle. Draw a time-line on a piece of paper and place toxic, victim, wounded storytelling on one end, and redemptive, owned, victor storytelling on the other end. In the middle you have the story work that gets you from one relationship to your story over to the other. You can think of your storytelling about “metoo” as a story that will have different stages, characterized by a different relationship to the story and also way that you tell the story. We move from an unprocessed raw form, to a processed meaningful hero’s journey.
In the beginning, Act I, or Stage I, we story-tell to lay down the facts that something terrible has happened to us. This stage is characterized by emotion, reactivity, and a black and white thinking. You are a victim. The predator is a predator. And something necessary to you has been taken.
When we move out of this initial literal and tragic stage, we shift into a stage characterized by reflection. Think of this as the middle, Act II, or stage II. This ability to ask questions of your emotions and the experience designates this magical middle stage. Here you have shifted beyond reactivity, and beyond crises, into curiosity. This is where and how the outside story transforms into an inside story and it is the only place where we can change our relationship to the experience. The way we do this is utterly simple: we ask questions. The caution here is that you do this work with compassion and better yet, a wise compassionate guide, who can hold the pieces while you tear the story apart and likely come apart. This exploration opens up the complexity of the situation and what it means for you. Stage II is about taking apart what happened and exploring it for its symbols, metaphors, and inner meaning. We very much move from the literal to the metaphoric, from the outside facts to the inside, psychological meanings.
The final stage, the end, Act III, is about pulling out the meaning of the event, and telling the story again. It is retrospective and synthesizes to meaning. This time, when you tell the story, it is not just about what happened. It also includes your struggle to make meaning of the event. This phase mines the experience for the lesson you have learned.
We can use these tools to identify where we are in our “metoo” story as much as where other’s are when they share their story. These frames help us to understand why we tell the story and what we need when we tell the story. We get to be the most careful in our telling and listening to stories that are in the first stage. These fragile stories need hearing, witnessing, seeing, tending, compassion, love, and beyond anything, containment. Something very tough happened to us, and we are trying to figure it out.
Although this Stage I story sharing is the beginning of healing, it is crucial that we recognize that telling the story is not in and of itself a complete cycle of healing. It is merely Act I of an unfolding, emergent story process.
These distinctions and story tools are vital to understanding how to open up the kind of story sharing in “metoo” into a real revolution. “Metoo” only becomes “never again” when we learn how to work with the meaning of the story for us in our experience. The work ahead of us is in helping one another to learn to work effectively with the inside story and help women to complete a healing story cycle with their “metoo” experiences.
Now of course this kind of story work is just one piece of a very complicated cultural web that is about identity, power, and the devaluation of women. I promise to pick up the metaphors, symbols, and issues of value and betrayal that are the inner meaning of these stories in the next article. What we’ve explored here is a powerful beginning in strategies that can help move you into thinking about how to process your “metoo” experiences.
If you have questions about how to apply these ideas to your “metoo” story or want to continue this conversation, reach out to me.