How to Talk About Your Problems06 April 2022
Myron Nelson :
Once upon a time, "once upon a time" didn't mean anything. Now it's the universal way to introduce a story. Stories have the ability to transform nothing into something we'll never forget. We all love stories. We are conditioned to connect with them. Every show we binge, book we read, or game we watch is full of stories and heroes for us to root for.
There are countless reasons to tell a story: to entertain, to inform, or as a call to action, to name a few. But there's one I want to focus on in particular. Telling a story when you want people to understand your problems. I'll give you a few examples so you can learn how to do this for yourself.
Imagine that you want to tell someone that you're depressed. If you just say, "I'm depressed" they might not understand what that really means and they definitely won't understand why you feel that way. Instead, tell them a story describing what led to your depression.
"I've been trying to make my side hustle into my full-time job because I'm miserable at work. My business isn't making any money. I've poured most of my savings into this. I watched all these videos online that were supposed to help. I hired an agent. Nothing is working. All I want is to actually enjoy what I do for a living but I feel like a failure. It's been a whole year with no progress and it's all weighing on me. I went to my doctor the other day and she referred me to a therapist. The therapist diagnosed me with depression and said I should talk to my friends about it."
Now that's a story anyone can understand. You have a main character. And you have a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn't matter if the person telling this story is 18 or 80; the listener can easily wrap their head around wanting more fulfillment from work. That story was also short and to the point. Stories don't have to be long to be good; they just need structure. A story is simply a series of events with characters.
Here are three quick ways to structure your stories:
Start with you
Even though you think it should be obvious why a problem is a problem, it's not necessarily obvious to someone on the outside. For example, being offered a beer isn't inherently a problem but it is if you're a recovering alcoholic. Remind the listener about the details of your life that are important to the story, for instance, "Since I joined AA…" or "Because my parents are immigrants…" Then describe your experience.
"Being single makes it harder to connect with my coworkers. I was in the lunchroom with my team, talking about the weekend, when one of them got a text from their kid. Then they all start to complain about their families and how they wish they had more time in the day. I fell silent because I didn't know what to say. I know it must be hard to take care of a family. I just wish they wanted to talk about things I could relate to."
Start at the beginning
If you don't know where to start, start at the beginning and use time to move your story along. You can start by saying something like "Remember three months ago when I…" or "It started last year…" and then guide the listener to the present day.
"Ten years ago when I started college, I really struggled to make friends. I just stayed in my room most of the time, until sophomore year.
Some guys down the hall asked if I wanted to hang out and smoke some weed. They started inviting me to their room almost everyday to smoke.
They made it seem easy to talk to people and showed me how to stop overthinking so much. Now I'm way better at making friends but I still smoke weed almost every day. I want to stop but I'm worried that I'll revert to that old version of me if I do."
Start with the setting
Problems are more relatable when the listener has context-just like a joke is funny at a comedy club but awkward at a funeral. Set the scene for your listener to help them understand the story by saying, for example, "I was at home watching tv…" or "I was at the bar and…" and then describe what happened or how you felt.
"I was standing by myself but the room was crowded. I was supposed to be networking with all of these people. But I was feeling anxious. I kept having these racing thoughts. What if there's food in my teeth? What if my breath smells bad? What if I run out of things to say? There are people standing right next to me but they might as well be a hundred miles away. I felt so overwhelmed that I ran out of the room."
After you tell your story, assess if you need to tweak it based on how the listener responds. Did you go into enough detail? Do you need to give the story more context? Use the listener's reaction as a guide for what to say next. Start telling more stories and you'll feel like people are really listening and truly understand what you're going through.
(Myron Nelson, LCPC, is a psychotherapist who has worked in a variety of settings, including community agencies, universities, and private practice. He is the founder of Black Tie Therapy in Chicago).