I can’t tell “that story”…
“I can’t put that story on my blog. It would break my mother’s heart…”
“Nope, I can’t say that because it involves my ex-husband and he would flip out…”
“Yes, it’s an important story, but it involves my son, and I want to protect his privacy…”
Maybe similar thoughts have been running through your mind?
These are very common — and completely valid — concerns. Whether you’re a fledgling blogger or a bestselling author, most likely, you’ve grappled with this dilemma at least once.
Just this week, I encountered this dilemma with three different clients. They said to me:
“I have a story that I want to share. It’s a story that could potentially inspire a lot of people. But if I tell this story on my blog / in my book / in that magazine / onstage, then I might hurt or offend someone that I love. What should I do?”
This is a tricky pickle. Every situation is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But if you’re grappling with this situation, here are some things to consider…
– Not every story needs to be told publicly.
You’re allowed to decide which parts of your life to make public and which to keep private. Maybe you want to write a blog post about how you almost flunked out of college, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to write a memoir about how you found the strength to walk away from an abusive marriage, or maybe you don’t. You get to decide.
Just because people keep insisting, “Oh, you’ve GOT to tell that story!” doesn’t mean you have to. It’s your life. It’s your writing. It’s your body of work. You’re in charge.
That being said…
– The story that is the “hardest” for you to tell… is probably the story that will change people’s lives.
There’s one story that I tell almost every time I teach a writing class or a retreat. It’s a story about a mom who emailed me, out of the blue, to ask if I’d write to her teenage daughter to give her some encouragement, because her daughter was going through a rough time at school. It was an email that ended up changing my entire life.
Every time I tell this particular story, I cry. Every. Single. Time. It’s not an easy story for me to tell. It’s raw and it’s humbling. It’s a story about why it’s important to keep writing, keep making art, and keep doing your work, even if it seems like “nobody is paying attention.” Because you might be completely wrong about that. You might be impacting people in ways you don’t even know about. Without realizing it, you might be saving someone’s life.
After telling that story onstage for the first time, almost everyone in the room was crying along with me. People stayed afterwards to say, “Oh my God, I needed to hear that…” and “Thank you so much for saying that…” and “I can’t stop thinking about what you said.”
On that day, I realized that when you tell a personal story — especially a vulnerable, uncomfortable story — it breaks down the invisible barriers that divide us. Hearts open. Tears fall. Decisions get made. Stories = powerful magic.
If you decide that you’re going to tell a personal story in a public setting, remember…
– You can tell your story truthfully — without trashing other people in the process.
You can maintain dignity and compassion for the other people involved in your story. There’s always a way to do this — even if you’re talking about someone who completely broke your heart. Even if you’re talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you.
You don’t have to say, “One time, my idiot asshole ex-boyfriend Kevin once said to me…”
You can say, “One time, a man that I loved said to me…”
You can omit people’s names. You can omit specific dates. You can omit identifying details, like cities and business names.
You can keep the story focused on yourself by using phrases like “I felt…” “I reacted by…” rather than focusing on other people’s actions: “She fucked up…” “He ruined it…”
You can write from a compassionate, reflective place. You can forgive people — and you can express that forgiveness in your story: “I know my mom did the best that she could…” “He thought he was doing the right thing…” “He was in a great deal of pain, which explains his unthinkable actions…”
The Dalai Lama says:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
And lastly, on that note…
– Always check your motivations before you hit SEND or PUBLISH.
Before you share a personal story in a public setting — online, on the page, onstage — ask yourself, “Why am I telling this story?”
Are you telling this story because you’re still very angry and you want to “shame” someone for what they did? (Maybe… wait a bit. Let your emotions simmer down. Don’t say something you’ll regret tomorrow morning when you wake up with an “overshare-hangover.”)
Are you telling this story because you have unresolved emotions that you need to vent and purge out of your body so that you can feel better? (Maybe save that for your private diary or your therapist’s office.)
Or, are you telling this story because you have a specific message that you want to share? A message of hope, a message of transformation, or a sentiment that might help someone in the audience to feel less afraid and less alone?
If that’s your motivation, then go for it. Click “Send.” Hit “Publish.” Step up to the mic. Tell your story with pride, because your motivations are in the right place. Your audience will feel your intention shining through — and they’ll be grateful you found the courage to say:
“So, this one time, this happened to me…”