Emotional Lows in Storytelling
Bo: Hey, it’s Bo and I have a very special guest with me today, and a good friend too, Dr. Joan Rosenberg. Thank you for being here. It’s amazing to have you. Every time I do an event, Joan comes to them because what I’m asking of you, in fact what I demand of you, is all that you’ve got and that takes a certain resolve. And to be resolved, you have to be healthy. Because so much of our work has to do with storytelling, I have Joan come to all of our storytelling events because there’s this fine line, and I know a lot of you have asked this question of me, there’s this fine line of what is storytelling and then what is dumping or what is therapy. And I’ll just tell you straight up storytelling is not dumping. Storytelling is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. Correct, Joan?
Joan: Absolutely, true. Absolutely, true.
Bo: Let’s kind of start right there. This is usually where you and I meet. Right here on this whole storytelling thing. A lot of people, as you know with a lot of the exercises that we do, go to their lowest moment in storytelling instead of their highest or greatest moment because that’s usually a better story.
Bo: Right? When you start at the lowest …
Joan: It’s our struggle. That’s how we grew and evolved.
Bo: It’s our story of struggle that connects us to other human beings. But most of us want to hide that part, right? And not tell it. We’d rather tell, “I’m on the top of Mount Everest. Look at me! I’ve got a fancy car and a pretty wife.” Or whatever it is, instead of, “I had nothing and I started grinding away.” Let’s talk about that from the perspective of if somebody does start at their lowest moment, the question I always get is, “Well, Bo, if I start there, how is my audience going to receive that? How am I going to get through that? Isn’t it going to be too heavy for them?” What would you say to somebody who said, “Joan, look, I’ve got this heavy story,” which most of us do; like a dark moment where our life was kind of defined. If they come to you and go, “Joan, I’ve got this heavy story and here’s where it is, I don’t think I can tell this to a business audience or to my audience,” what would you say to them?
Joan: There are several things. First thing is you might not be telling it to every audience. So some things you may choose to leave out, some things you’ll choose to put in. The key here is you want to be telling the audience your story when you’re no longer a victim of that story.
Bo: That’s great. One rule we have, right? No victims in storytelling. Right?
Joan: Right. Because if I go to tell the story to an audience, and I haven’t worked out all my emotional stuff—my thoughts, my feelings, my beliefs, however it is I perceive myself from the experience that I went through—if I haven’t worked that out then I’m asking my audience to carry all of the emotion from that.
Bo: Yeah. Got it. So now they’re responsible for the story that you’re the one telling.
Bo: Which you can’t do to an audience because they can’t hear it, for one. They can’t hear. They can’t carry that weight for you. You’ve got to make it accessible to them.
Joan: Exactly. And we only make that accessible when we’ve made sense of it. When we’ve taken the time to kind of process through it, work through it, cry about it, whatever it takes. Have conversations with other people about it. But that we take the time to really make sense of how the experience impacted us and the meaning it has for us. Then we can go in to the audience and share either all of the story and tell it from a place of strength so we’re not being victimized by it or, again, we can make the choice to tell portions of it, or just know that once we’ve worked through it, it now gives us greater range of expression.
Bo: That’s right. And for you guys, just so you know, I rarely talk about this stuff. I don’t mean not to talk about it, but in actuality, when you’ve done this kind of work, therapeutic work, psychological work, you kind of forget that you went through it.
Bo: I’m a big believer in your life story because I know that my life story pretty much gave me a voice, gave me an occupation, gave me access to myself so that I could then contribute, instead of being victimized by my own life. Right? And I think that’s true of all of us. To do that, I had to work with somebody like you. You know what I mean? To get healthy enough so I could tell the story.
Joan: Right. If I may, I always encourage Bo to tell the story of when Larry Moss looked at him and said, “Bo, if your knees could talk, what would they say?”
Joan: What you describe is you literally fell to those knees and then it took months of actually processing through the pain you had pushed aside. A lot of people come to see you on stage and they go, “Well, I want to be like that. How can I be like that?” What people don’t see is all the work you put in to get there, and it’s all this emotional work that actually has given you that range of expression.
Bo: Yeah, that’s really well said and I’m telling you, like Joan just used the word “work.” It’s a lot of work that I did on myself but that is the greatest work one can do. You know? When you start to develop your own voice and your own story and you start to find your way and where your strengths and weaknesses are, boy, you’re pretty much unstoppable because you can’t get knocked off who you are anymore.
Joan: That’s right. It’s really interesting. A lot of people think that you’re just here composed and your stories are contained well inside and then you tell stuff. It’s like you know who you are and then you speak. What I have found, and this is exactly what you just said, is once you start speaking then you know who you are.
Bo: Ah, yeah, that’s very true.
Joan: That’s part of finding your voice. You actually have to give voice to find your voice.
Bo: Wow, yeah. That’s really cool. Let’s talk about this for a second. You and I often have this conversation. Storytelling for me, telling my own story, has given me optimum health.
Bo: Like I’m able to run full speed once I have the ability to put a narrative to my life.
Bo: And I wasn’t aiming for that. I wasn’t aiming for health. I wanted to tell a story because I wanted to have a job. You know? Health kind of came through the back door—I wasn’t really asking for it.
Joan: That’s right.
Bo: But what a little side prize it was because to be able to run full speed, especially when you’re on stage and dealing with a lot elements, like your audience, or in this case today with cameras, and you’re dealing with nerves and pressure, to be healthy and to be able to be resolute about it is just invaluable work. And so, I just remember getting in rehearsals with Larry Moss and trying to tell my story. I wanted to tell the story night after night after night after night in New York City, you know? Big lights. And he told me, “You’re not going to be able to do that unless you get resolved about this story and get resolved about the man that you are and your own voice. And until you do, you won’t be able to do it night after night after night without basically puking on the audience.
Bo: I just remember going in to do that kind of work and coming out the other side and going, “Wow. I can actually do this. I actually know what my voice is.”
Storytelling vs. Dumping
Bo: We’re back with Dr. Joan Rosenberg. Joan, let’s talk about the difference between storytelling and dumping because there’s a distinct difference, right?
Joan: There’s a big difference.
Bo: You cannot dump on your audience.
Joan: No, no, in fact you don’t even want to dump on your best friend. Think of dumping as disowning. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you and I are in conversation and I’m telling you a story that by all rights would have made me really angry, but I’m acting like I’m unaffected by it. And what ends up happening is that you start to feel really, really angry. I’ve disowned my experience. “I’m just fine. Nothing is wrong.” Even though it truly made me angry, but now you’re carrying my anger. That’s one way of identifying dumping.
Bo: Got it.
Joan: Where somebody has disowned the experience and now you’re carrying the experience I should be describing—that’s one. The second has to do with blaming. So, again, if I take no responsibility for my experience and the way I felt and the kinds of things I’m thinking about and instead it’s their fault, it’s this, it’s all out there some place—that’s also a way to dump because, same thing, you’re now making the other person carry the experience of it, as opposed to going, “You know what? I was wrong in that situation and I should have handled it differently.” Once you take responsibility, it’s settled in you and now the audience is not carrying the emotionality of the experience.
Or if I’m projecting, a common psychological term, where, again, it’s another way to disown the experience. So let’s say I’m really sad and I come home and I look at the cat on the couch and I say, “Aw, that cat’s really sad.” Now I’ve projected my experience onto the cat—that’s another way to dump where I’m having somebody else carry my experience. So anything where I’m not taking full responsibility of what my experience is, we can think of as a dump. Storytelling is going, “You know what? This is what happened. These are kind of the facts of the situation …” whatever it might be and, “This is what my experience was in that situation or about that situation.” Now, I can tell the story and I’m not victimized by it. I’m not acting like a victim. And I’m not putting the blame on anybody else either.
Bo: Ownership of your own story is …
Joan: Not dumping.
Bo: And optimum health.
Joan: It leads to optimum health. Yes.
Bo: And it’s something your audience can follow you on. Otherwise they have no way of following you if you’re blaming or dumping or not owning your own path.
Joan: That’s right.
Bo: That’s why we have trouble following certain people who do that.
Joan: It’s a disconnect. It doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel authentic. We can’t trust in that situation. So if you’re up there on stage, I’m not going to follow you as the leader on that stage. If you’re not being what I’m experiencing as authentic and genuine. That comes about because you’re blaming or dumping in other ways.
Bo: That’s why great leaders, great storytellers, which I’m demanding that you be … I mean the promise that I make to the people that I work with is people won’t have the ability to look away from you if you do these sorts of things, but you have to take responsibility for the miles that you’ve run.
Joan: That’s right.
Bo: And the minute that you don’t and you start blaming and pointing and projecting is the minute that they can’t listen to you anymore. They disconnect.
Bo: Huge distinction. Thank you so much, Joan.
So when you’re telling your stories, when you get out there and lead, if you want people to follow you, you cannot make them responsible for the path that you’ve taken. You’re responsible. You’re ultimately responsible for your story and you’ve got to take care of your audience. Don’t puke on them. Don’t have them carry your luggage for you. Got it? That way they can follow you. Get out there and try it.
Impact of Storytelling and Brain Intergration
Bo: Joan lets talk about brain integration and storytelling and what they have to do with each other.
Joan: Let’s do brain integration, storytelling and health. What’s so interesting about this is an integrated brain is a healthy brain. So what exactly does that mean? It means that the left hemisphere of our brain and the right hemisphere of our brain are coordinating and integrating together, and when they do that, our brain is actually working more efficiently and more effectively and we’re healthier. If I haven’t worked through my stories and I’m always flooded with emotion then my right hemisphere is in charge. If I’ve shut down on all my emotion and I’m rigid and monotone and not very engaged and kind of flat, then my left hemisphere is in charge. Too rigid, too left hemispheric. Too chaotic, too flooded, then too right hemispheric. What we want is a brain that actually does both.
The interesting thing about when we start to tell our stories, what ends up happening is the brain actually gets more integrated. So the left hemisphere is logical, it’s linear and it uses language. The right hemisphere is a lot of our autobiographical memories, it’s feeling, it’s bodily sensations, it’s everything else but the words. So when we start to tell our stories, we’re literally taking words and integrating them with experience. So words from our left integrate with experience from our right. As soon as we do that, we integrate the brain. An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And the other thing to think about here is that lots of time when we haven’t told what’s going on in our lives then it’s like you have all these disparate episodes of your life that don’t make sense. In a chronological order, I couldn’t narrate then the story of my life. Instead, if I start to tell my stories, then again by integrating the brain, I also start to create a chronological history.
Bo: Like a thematic …
Joan: A thematic history of my life so I have more of a coherent narrative of my life. So I go from all these disparate episodes to this coherent narrative. So to tell your story, and to make sense of your stories, helps the brain be more integrated and the result is you become much more emotionally healthy.
Bo: Wow. That’s cool. That is really cool. I think I said this before that I didn’t set out to tell stories for health but you get health. It’s so cool. Let’s talk about this going forward. So you’re starting to tell your stories, you’re getting this integration, you’re starting to get optimum health, people are starting to follow you. And this theme seems to keep recurring in your whole life, like from the time you’re 8 to the time you’re 55, and you kind of see your life as this story. Going forward, the story that you tell yourself, or our kids, how we talk to them about their stories and who they are going forward, how does that all work?
Joan: So two different trails there. With the kids, what becomes super important, especially if you have young children but even if you have adolescents, engage them in storytelling. Ask them to talk about the experiences in their life, actually narrate their experiences. When a child narrates his or her experience, they make more sense of it and they remember it better. A lot of times I’ll engage with people and they go, “Well I don’t remember my childhood.” They probably shut down on the experience and never described what they were feeling or what they thought about what they went through. So super important, not only for you but for your kids, ask them to put words to their experience and then they’ll actually be healthier as they grow up because they’ve made meaning of it. They’ve talking about the impact. And then, again, they’ll remember those experiences in childhood through adulthood.
Bo: Wow. That’s the power of storytelling. Take on your own life.
Joan: Let’s take the second trail we mentioned earlier. The interesting thing is even if we’ve identified, “This is who we say we are,” from 8 to 55 or whatever it is …
Bo: Hey, I’m disciplined or I’m a hard worker or whatever it is … or I’m lazy, that’s our story.
Joan: That’s what we’ve claimed as our story. The interesting thing is that once you make sense of your story. Once you understand the impact and meaning the experiences you went through have had on your life then you can actually let go of that story and choose to be something different. That’s the beauty of it. It’s like, I don’t have to continue to be who I was told I was, and I don’t have to continue to be who I thought I was. I actually get to choose, once I’ve made sense of something, to be something different than I was. It’s so freeing.
Bo: Like for the first time, you are the actual author in charge of the story of your life going forward.
Bo: That way, you’re not victimized anymore by the story of your life.
Joan: Much more powerful and much more fully expressed.
Bo: You’ve probably heard me say this before, especially if you’ve ever been to my events with Joan, is all of this stuff that we’re talking about—storytelling, health, expression—it’s all been very guttural and kind of instinctual and primitive for me. And so when Joan and I are working together, she always puts words to the instinct that I’m feeling. I’m trying to tell my story just to express myself, but getting all this health over here and that’s something I never set out to do. That’s why I think it’s the one thing you must take on in life.
Joan: Absolutely. One of the single most important things you can do is to take the time to make sense of your life stories. How did they impact you? What meaning did they hold? Who did you become when you first experienced them? What choices did you make? And who did you then become as an adult? How did they impact you well into adulthood? Make sense of that material. Make sense of those life experiences.
Once you do that, you free the emotion and you have changed beliefs about yourself. And, as you were talking about earlier, you also find your voice in that and then you’re more fully expressed. You just free your expression, more choice—more power.