Who Wants Me To Tell My Stories?

Oct 15 2022

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jessica May Rose Langton / Photo of me lying on a rock in purple, black and green clothes, surrounded by dying bracken, near Haytor in Devon with Belted Galloway cows in the background.

In my last blog, Who Am I Without My Stories? I wrote about conducting an experiment here at the Devonshire meditation retreat where I now live and work. In 'The Non-Self Experiment', I tried to go a whole week without telling any of my stories to the retreatants. The original impetus for the experiment was to see what it’s like to not be bound by my stories. I made it until day five before I got rumbled by someone who guessed that I’d spent time in the circus!

I’d planned to try the experiment again the following week, but my plans were scuppered by the appearance of a retreatant who I’d met here in 2018. He knew too much of my story for the experiment to work, so I relaxed and let the conversations flow. The next retreat was our Work Retreat and a small group of generous, enthusiastic retreatants arrived to clean, paint and fix our retreat centre with us. 

Work Retreat was a joyfully boisterous week of hard graft, biscuit breaks, belly laughs and tender hearts. I noticed that I was bringing a lot of myself to the table, it felt natural to swap stories, as we mucked in together, battling the elements, getting shit done. My body fondly remembered all the other times I’ve worked in community and the stories flowed freely into the collective story soup. I think it’s safe to say that we were nourished by that delicious broth and the intimacy it created; our collective storytelling helped us all feel seen, heard, accepted and valued as perfectly imperfect humans.

Work Retreat was So Much Fun, but it took its toll on me and by the end of the retreat, I was absolutely knackered! So in the 24 hours between retreats, I decided to try the Non-Self experiment again with the next group, this time as a way of exploring whether holding back my stories could help me to sustain and conserve my energy.

This blog charts my experiences through my second week of trying not to tell any of my stories. Come with me as I explore how I did it, what I learned and hold up a Brain Trumpet to listen to the parts of me who really want me to tell my stories (using the Internal Family Systems model), with added bonus inspiration from my friend Goetz, who is several hundred steps ahead of me in the exploration. 

The Non-Self Experiment #2 (Week 13)

The rules of the game were as follows: speak only the truth, but avoid telling any:

  • sagas about my circus days
  • anecdotes about my life as a performer, director, teacher or facilitator
  • tales of becoming a therapist or how I fused therapy with theatre
  • confessions about my family life, love life, heartache or grief
  • mention of my mental health
  • chronicles of my school days, or the dark days of my mis-spent youth 
  • yarns of my adventures in travel, training or psychedelics

This time I managed ONE WHOLE RETREAT! That’s seven whole days of not telling any of my stories!

How Did I Do It?

Last time I did the experiment, I put the focus on the retreatants, asking them lots of questions about themselves. This time, I did a bit of that and spoke a little about my time here at the retreat centre, but to avoid people asking me about my life story, I found myself distancing myself from the group. I did all the work that needed to be done and was friendly and approachable, but I didn’t linger at the lunch table, I didn’t take retreatants up on offers of walks and I didn’t offer any extra bonus creative writing workshops.

In the morning sharing circles, I shared a little about my own meditation journey, but without any context or backstory. I talked about my first retreat 18 years ago, at Dhanakosa in Scotland, a yoga and meditation retreat which I’d gone for the yoga. I found the meditation pretty annoying really; just sitting around, counting my breaths, what’s the point in that? But I noticed that each morning, as I left the meditation hall, I could see a little more of the view of the loch and the snow-topped mountains, I could smell a little more of the scent of the pine trees, I could feel a little more of the cool air on my skin, I could hear a little more of the sweet bird song, the clanking of the ice at the edges of the frozen loch, and the “Mehhhh” of the mountain goats. I shared how mindfulness has brought me closer to my experience.

I talked about the time I spent a whole 5-day silent retreat at Gaia House sat on my meditation cushion, plotting my next attempt to find a chocolate shop in the middle of nowhere. I used all the walking meditation periods to pursue said chocolate across fields, over hills and through woods without success. I shared how self-compassion practice has allowed me to meet experiences like this with humour and love.

It seems like I was fishing around in my huge story sack for fables that didn’t give too much away, but had the capacity to inspire, validate, normalise and tickle a group of people who have come together to cultivate and spruce up their meditation practice.

I held back all the contextualising mini-stories I would usually sprinkle in to help people understand how my meditation journey fits into my bigger narrative. For instance, in telling the story of my first retreat at Dhanakosa, I might ordinarily mention why I was attracted to movement practices (I grew up in the circus, movement is my salvation), or why I was averse to sitting still (I was ill with ‘post-viral syndrome’ for my teenaged years, stillness makes me feel claustrophobic) or why I chose to go to Scotland (my sister lives up there, I needed an excuse to visit her). 

What Impact Did The Non-Self Experiment Have?

I don’t know what impact my experiment had on the retreatants, this would be almost impossible to measure, but I wonder whether not offering any contextual details helped my stories take on a more universal tone? When I’m directing autobiographical theatre, I try to help performers find the universal within their stories in order to help audiences find their own personal connection to the material.

In giving less detail, might I be helping others connect more deeply with their own stories? 

Not sharing so much of myself made me feel less emotionally invested in the group - which felt weird. As a space holder, I tend to love taking as much responsibility as I possibly can for participants physical and psychological safety and wellbeing, often it feels like it’s all happening inside my heart. Lots happened in this group that I wasn’t even aware of, which felt very odd, but perhaps more healthy in terms of sustaining my role of space holder.

Perhaps bringing less of myself into the group allowed people to take more responsibility for themselves and each other? 

Not sharing so much of my previous self with this group freed up energy for me to give to my friends outside the retreat centre. Up until this week, I’ve been struggling to keep in touch with people on the outside, as the retreats have felt so immersive and intense. This week I managed to arrange two nourishing friend dates; I danced with the wind on top of a tor with one friend and lay on warm rocks in the sunshine with two others.

Perhaps having clearer personal boundaries with retreatants / students / clients is the key to finding more nourishing connection elsewhere?

It felt a little harsh and jagged and unfamiliar to separate myself from the group so extremely, but the feedback forms seem to say I gave enough. No-one said, “Holly was a horrible lazy arse coordinator who should be sacked immediately!” 

Who Wants Me To Tell My Stories?

It felt like an effort to hold back all my little contextualising stories (eg I grew up in the circus, I was ill as a teenager, etc etc etc, yadda, yadda, yadda). Let’s explore why it felt so hard, using Internal Family Systems (IFS) thinking to find out which internal voices or ‘parts’ of me really want me to tell my stories. 

There are many schools of thought / therapy / philosophy that believe that we are made up of many parts, including Franki Anderson’s Fooling, Hal and Nidra Stone’s Voice Dialogue and Robert Landy’s Role Method of Dramatherapy. I’m fascinated in this way of thinking and have recently discovered Richard Swartz’s IFS as another version with its own nuances. 

The IFS Institute website describes their work as: “… transformative, evidence-based psychotherapy that helps people heal by accessing and loving their protective and wounded inner parts. We believe the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing. Just like members of a family, inner parts are forced from their valuable states into extreme roles within us.” 

IFS proposes that we each have an internal system of parts known as Exiles, Managers and Firefighters:

Exiles are our disowned parts.

Managers try to protect the Exiles by controlling, evaluating and care-taking. 

Firefighters pop up to diffuse the Exiles’ uncomfortable feelings, using whatever they can get their hands on to make it stop, including harmful substances and behaviours.

IFS also believes we each have a Self or ‘Self Energy,’ a part which is “competent, secure, self-assured, relaxed, and able to listen and respond to feedback.” The Self is called on to help the person dialogue with their other parts. IFS’ notion of Self directly opposes the Buddhist philosophy of Non-Self, or No-Fixed-Self, outlined in my last blog. I’m not going to get into this discussion right now, but consider it pinned for later. 

Back to my habit of telling stories… Lets zoom in on the parts who want people to know that I grew up in the circus. I sense there are a bunch of managers around who want me to tell those formative circus stories over and over again, in order to keep the vulnerable, exiled parts of me safe. To find out who these managers are and what they are trying to achieve, I have a wonderful piece of equipment, a big shiny copper cone called a Brain Trumpet. If I just put the small end against my skull, we can all have a listen…

Me: Hey beings who live in my body/mind! How are you all doing? May I ask, who of you wants everyone to know I grew up in the circus and why?

1.) Pushy Stage Mum 

“Oh hey there! Have you met my Holly? You wouldn’t believe it, but she grew up in the circus! I know! She’s fascinating, isn’t she? Go on, ask her anything!”

How does the Pushy Stage Mum try to protect me?

When Pushy Stage Mum is running the show, I get to perform well-rehearsed material, make people laugh and hopefully offer myself as a little likeable oddity. Being an entertaining curiosity can take the stress and awkwardness out of interactions; when people are focussing on me and I am clearly enjoying the attention, they don’t have to do much except ask the occasional question and show a little interest, I can make it easy for everyone.

How does the Pushy Stage Mum hinder me?

Being a curiosity can trap me in my well-rehearsed material, taking me away from the moment and not allowing me to discover other modes of relating. When my exotic upbringing is the focus of the conversation, other people’s experiences can be overshadowed and this can make them feel inadaquate.

2.) Health and Safety Officer 

“Careful everyone! This one’s a live one! But don’t mind our Holly, she’s harmless enough! She’s not a mad person, she’s a clown!”

How does the Health and Safety Officer try to protect me?

When the Health and Safety Officer is around, people get an early warning that I might not do or say things that are normal or expected. Growing up in the circus, where eccentricity and exhibitionism were normal, means I don’t always understand how to behave in polite company and my Health and Safety Officer helps to manage people’s nerves and expectations, giving them a lens through which to view me.

How does the Health and Safety Officer hinder me?

When people view me through the lens of ‘clown’, they can’t unsee that and their version of ‘clown’ might be very different to mine. My Health and Safety Officer then takes it upon himself to offer a series of subsequent lenses to help people see me “correctly,” which again, dominates the conversation and makes it all about me.

3.) Meat Market Auctioneer

“Check out the Herculean strength and stamina on this one! This one’s from THE CIRCUS, and we all know how hard circus folk work! This one’s stayed up all night, lashing down the circus tent through storms, before slapping on the glitter and getting up on that trapeze the very next day!”

How does the Meat Market Auctioneer try to protect me?

When my Meat Market Auctioneer is around, I get to connect with other hard-working folk, through our love of grit and graft, this crosses over barriers of class, gender, age. I get kudos for the amount I can get done and I get asked to do many things and this keeps me connected to the human race.

How does the Meat Market Auctioneer hinder me?

When my Meat Market Auctioneer is running the show, my softer, more gentle parts get obscured. If I take all my advice from this guy, I end up saying yes to so many things that I burn myself out. 

What Would Happen If I Didn’t Tell My Stories?

If I were to go down the IFS route, I would dialogue with each of these parts and find out what they are worried about happening if I don’t tell my stories. Often the fears of the managers are legitimate, these parts generally manifest at times of trauma and they do what they do to try to avoid further trauma. Let’s get out the Brain Trumpet again and have a chat with the Pushy Stage Mum to find out what’s happening for her…

Me: Hey Pushy Stage Mum, how are you doing?

Pushy Stage Mum: I don’t really like that name, I’m not pushy, I’m just helping you to be your best.

Me: OK yes, I'm sorry, what would you prefer to be called?

Pushy Stage Mum: I’m your Champion

Me: OK, Hello Champion. Thanks for being there for me. 

Champion: It’s a pleasure.

Me: I was wondering about the way you get me to tell my stories of growing up in the circus all the time…

Champion: It’s great isn’t it? You have so many brilliant stories. You can really get a party going at the drop of a hat.

Me: Yes, that’s true and I’m grateful for your input. The circus stories rarely fail to get people interested in me, but I was wondering, what do you imagine happening if I didn’t tell my circus stories?

Champion: Urgh! You’d just be an ordinary person! You’d be looked over, no-one would be interested in you!

Me: So, are you afraid of me being boring?

Champion: Yes! You deserve an extraordinary life darling!

Me: Hmmm. What would that bring me?

Champion: Love, adoration, notoriety.

Me: Aha, so you want me to be safe, by ensuring I stay connected with the human race?

Champion: Of course, darling! 

Me: How old do you think I am?

Champion: What a silly question, you’re 13!

Hmmm. so this part manifested during the time when I was ill with ‘post viral syndrome.’ That's in quotation marks because I think my 'post viral syndrome' was a physical reaction to trauma, which I'm not going to write about in this blog. 

Anyway, from age 13-15, I spent the best part of two years alone and isolated on a sofa island. My Pushy Stage Mum Champion's motivation to have me tell my stories  is born in fear of me never being able to reconnect with the human race again. But her strategy offers a limited, one-sided experience of connection, where I perform and people are dazzled, which is not really that satisfying for anyone.

I am aware that this could all be seen as a bunch of stories, but as I teased out that narrative, I felt a shift inside. In bringing awareness to the parts of me that drive my choices, I am able to untangle myself from automatic and unhelpful reactions and create space for wiser choices that lead me to deeper, more satisfying connection. Next time Pushy Stage Mum Champion pipes up, I’ll be able to hear her voice with compassion and soothe her fears around me being alone for the rest of my life.

What About You?

Do you find yourself telling the same stories over and over?

Which parts want you to tell these stories and why? 

How might it support your connection to tell these stories?

How might it hinder your connection to tell these stories?

What do your parts fear will happen if you don't tell these stories?

Dialling Visibility Up and Down 

This weeks version of the Non-Self Experiment felt quite extreme. I pulled right back, almost to the point of disconnect. I don’t think this is the ultimate goal, but I feel like it was a vital stage in a process of getting comfortable with a broader range of ways of relating. After I posted my last blog on social media, my friend Goetz, who is a fool and a jester, wrote to me about his own experience:

“…I can dominate the available space and make it about me and my past or i can step back and allow other people to show themselves, tell their stories or just let the moment unfold and the situation to create itself. It is in the possibility of creation where i find the most magic regarding interactive social activity. Like this my past can be an asset for creation and not the door that blocks the way. This applies to life on and off stage and just now i understand what always led me to choose stages and roles that allowed an exchange with the audience.”

I’m inspired by Goetz’s elegance and ease around being able to turn his visibility up and down in this way. I feel like I’m able to do that within the safe confines of the theatre. As a performer, director, teacher and researcher, I’m interested in finding the sweet spot of co-creation, where both performer and audience contribute to the unfolding experience together. This fascination allows me to step out of my ordinary  / automatic modes of relating and tap into a consistent quality of discovery. It takes a lot of trust to let things evolve and grow in unexpected and surprising ways, but in my experience, this is where creativity, play, flow and connection really come alive. 

So how do I draw on this more in real life? Goetz wrote about how he developed his ability: “One challenge i took over years was not taking credit for my achievements and exploits and taking jobs to support others, jobs with insignificant titles, like plate washer...” 

Oooooh, my Pushy Stage Mum Champion is tearing her hair out in dismay at the idea of me not taking credit for my achievements! As a freelancer, my business is reliant on me broadcasting my achievements. I had to learn how to do this, braving the crowd of dissenting parts who would prefer me to just shut up and die, to develop my voice as a writer and public speaker. I’m realising that the depth of the attachment I have to receiving credit for my work is equal to the effort it took to put myself and my work out there in the public realm. 

My work is built on my story of recovery from self-hate through clowning, therapy and meditation. My story and my work have become fused together. I tell my story to sell my work. I tell my story to inspire others to tell their stories. I’ve told my story so many times, it’s become a myth. Sometimes it feels like I’ve become a myth.

Blimey, it feels good to let all this go for a year and to live a simple, non-dramatic life, like Goetz with his plate washing. I’m really appreciating the simplicity of the work we do here at The Barn and the support of the team and the space to explore who I am without my stories. It’s not that I’m trying to eradicate my past, but it feels like a good mission to develop a more healthy relationship with it, so that I can be more available in the present. 

I’m wondering how it would be to soften the edges of the experiment next time, to find a slightly more gentle way to come in and out of connection with my stories, the parts that want me to tell them and the retreatants…

Watch this space!

I am living and volunteering at The Barn meditation retreat centre in Devon for a year. 

I am sporadically blogging my way through the year, in a series called 'The Barn Diaries.' You can find those blogs here or you can sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page to get them sent directly to your inbox.

If you'd like to learn more about IFS, start here on the IFS Institute website.

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