Lies, damned lies, and stories of self sacrifice

8 June, 2020

Alongside the substantial hardships, it seems to us that many people have been noticing some unanticipated benefits of the radical changes that our current collective lockdown has involved. In my own family, something really lovely has arisen during these strange times, for which I am very grateful.

Like many other parents, my partner and I have been home tutoring our two children. On one particular day recently, after opening her home learning, my daughter and I stood at the foothills of a mighty peak; a page with 50 fractions to decipher. ‘I can’t do this’ she said ‘I’m rubbish at maths’. She knew her teacher would be expecting a submission of work however, so despite her misgivings, we set out together on our hike up the maths mountain. We worked out the method of success with fractions and practised over and over until, by the time we reached hardest sums, she was able to see the correct answers by herself in a heartbeat.

‘You’ve been telling yourself a story.’ I said to my daughter. ‘It’s a story called ‘I’m no good at maths. I can’t do it.’ But the story isn’t true is it? You just did it.’ She smiled in recognition, so I pushed my luck a little more: ‘I wonder when you wrote that story? Maybe in that class years ago where you found the teacher scary and you felt you just couldn’t fail or ask for help.’. Of course, my daughter has heard other people telling her she’s capable in maths many times over the years, but she always remained stuck fast to her story. After experiencing her own successful scaling of maths mountain however, her mind has changed.

Social constructionists, narrative therapists, well they know how our stories construct our realities. This is evident from the personal to the political, yet perhaps the closer to home the story is and the younger we were when we first constructed it, the harder it is to spot ourselves weaving these tales. My daughter’s story seems to have this and some other fairly typical characteristics: It was written in the context of interaction with an adult that she found scary. It was held on to tightly and never let go of merely because someone else told her to. It was only relinquished once she herself experienced it as untrue and could then see through the story as nothing but a story. And this freedom from the story’s tyranny only came after many weeks of repeated maths success at home.

When someone approaches us as professionals for help with their problems, we might listen with an open mind to their stories. We might wonder about the experiences they’ve had and guess that these stories were first drafted in order to make sense of the person’s world, and to support them to cope as best as they could. So often, in our experience anyway, stories created in children’s attempts to survive adversity involve a sacrifice of their own goodness and potential. Though they may lose touch with these parts of themselves whilst sheltering under their stories, happily, their goodness and potential remain, sitting quietly in the dark, and waiting until the light of positive relational experiences shines upon them. When it does, the gold there within shimmers back to life in the glow.

No matter how difficult and convincing a child’s negative story of themselves is, no matter how emphatically they perform this story to us, we continue to believe in the goodness and potential of each and every one of them. When sometimes, in extreme concern, others ask us if this or that young person is just too troubled to be helped, our response is resolute: We answer ‘No’. We try very hard to not ever be duped by a story into giving up on a child. Thankfully, we meet others who feel the same.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service