The Danger of Storytelling

I don’t know about your circles, but in my circles, there’s a real buzz around the idea of story.  We talk a whole lot about our stories in social work circles, and talk a whole whole lot about our stories in the Church.  Story is critical to vulnerability, growth, and community.  Storytelling is good, healthy, open, and welcoming… most of the time.

But as I’ve been a part of storytelling sessions, or reading blogger’s stories, or watching plot lines unfold on social media, I can’t help but think, there’s an ethical side to storytelling that we don’t talk about that much.

Rarely are our stories just our stories.  Our stories contain conflict, climax, joy, and resolution, and the critical parts are often filled with relationships, whether healthy or strong, present or past, friend or family.  When we’re telling our story, we’re telling others’ stories too, and there’s a weight of responsibility that comes with that.

There’s some sort of right we feel about our story.  We ought to be allowed to share about our parents, our partner, our kids, and our friends freely, because we’re sharing about how our relationships with those people have affected us… right?

Recently, I was sharing rather openly about some challenges with my small group from church, and I looked over at my husband across the room and he had this big-eyed. “whoa, ok, we’re sharing that right now?” look.  And it struck me, this wasn’t just my personal burden to share, this was our burden.  I hadn’t consulted with my partner to see if it was ok that I share that with those folks at that time.

I’ve made this blunder before, and I’ll probably make it again.  I see others making this sharing of others’ stories in the midst of sharing stories blunder, too.  Here are some of the most common ways I see this played out:

In Marriages – whether shared at girls nights or guys nights, in mixed company or with parents, with just one friend or a large group from stage, I’ve seen and heard a lot of mishaps like my above mentioned.  These stories squared range topics from sexual matters to financial pressures, to deep wounds.  And here’s the tricky part; we have to bring others’ into our marriages to talk about the good stuff and the hard stuff.  Relationships take work, and bringing friends/mentors into that work is so good.  But doing so without the permission/blessing of a spouse can be extremely hurtful.

Obviously there are unhealthy cases, in which a spouse is being abusive, unrelenting, unfaithful, and downright awful to the other spouse.  I’m not talking about those incredibly challenging situations, permission needs not be granted to share.  Obviously these are cases when sharing openly is good.

In all other cases, though, I’m simply suggesting that in day-to-day sharing with friends, coworkers, readers, small group members, parishoners…  we set some healthy boundaries and ask ourselves some questions like:

Would my spouse be ok with me sharing about this part of our story?

Would my spouse feel shame if she/he knew I was sharing this with this person/group?

Are my spouse and I prepared to share this with this person/these people, or are we still working through that on our own or with a counselor?

Is this person/group safe? Should this person/group know about this?

Am I considering how my spouse will appear in telling this story?  Am I ok with that?

About Children – I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how this goes, but I hear a lot of parents talking about their children (as they should) but not all of it’s positive stuff.  I’m in a stage of life when most of my friends are having their second and third kids, and so I find myself in groups of parents quite a bit.  I hear a lot of parents talking with one another about their parenting struggles, especially with that one child…  you know, the one whose neck they want to wring every 5 minutes.  I’m all for parents supporting one another in the great struggle that is raising children – except when the kids might overhear those conversations.

I’ve studied child development and human behavior in depth and I’ve worked with children and adolescents for 10 years.  Kids are very smart, and they have very good ears.  I’ve worked with children that have overheard parents talking about their frustrations with them, and they have been devastated.  Most children are very emotionally intelligent; they know how you feel about them, and they know if you’re talking about them – be very careful when you’re having venting time with your partner, mom, or friend, that your child is not within earshot.  And be careful about social media, especially if your kids are old enough to have their own accounts.  Betrayed confidence and public shaming are some of the quickest ways to cut off effective communication with your tween/teen.

Additionally, if you have a public role – whether it be as a blogger, a pastor, or a public figure, be mindful how you speak or write about your children.  Even if they are young, and you’re positive they aren’t reading or listening to your stories about them, they could one day.  One day, they will be old enough to read those blog posts, and understand your podcasts.  And if they aren’t super young, be even more careful.  My dad was a pastor, and he was always very careful to ask my sister and I for permission before using our stories as a sermon illustration.  For years, I have sat through sermon illustrations and winced for the pastors’ kids whose stories were used as props to communicate a point.  Sometimes I read blogs wide-eyed that a parent feels comfortable to share that with the masses.  

I know that there are so many deep spiritual principles to be gleaned from parenting, but proceed with caution.  Your children’s confidence is precious, their egos fragile, and their feelings legitimate.  Vulnerability is good, however no story is worth sharing if it will damage a relationship.

By Organizations – I’ve spent my professional career in the non-profit/helping profession/church sector, and we love sharing stories.  We are in the business of helping, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t share stories of hope, life-change, and success.  But the line between sharing and exploiting is very thin.  It seems to have gotten even thinner with use of social media.  It’s not just the helping sector that should use caution; it’s any group. organization or business, but it seems the helping folks do more storytelling than the business folks.

Before sharing stories, whether on stage, in a meeting with a donor, in a newsletter, in a blog, in a tweet, or by way of instagram, organizations should consider the following:

Am I telling (exploiting) a client/recipient of services’ story to make myself/my staff/ my organization look better?

Am I using someone else’s loss/pain/poverty to bolster my own agenda?

Am I making the social problem my organization is fixing look worse to further my cause?

Am I sharing more about successes or sadness?

Does the client/clients/community know that I am posting their pictures and sharing their stories, and does that make them feel uncomfortable?

Whether we’re married, single, dating, or confused, whether we have children or babysit children, or work with young people, whether we’re part of a helping organization or a business organization, we have stories to tell, and our stories affect others.  For good or for bad, our vulnerability can unlock vulnerability for another who wasn’t consulted about permission to bear their soul and secrets.

Maybe it would help us all to ask ourselves some honest questions before launching into our story:

1.  Why am I telling my story? (Motive)

2.  What am I hoping to get as a result of telling my story? (Intent)

3.  Who is my audience? (Target)

4.  Who are the other characters in the story (and do they know their story is being told, too)?

What do you think?  Should we be cautious when sharing?  How do we maintain the confidentiality and good reputation of another while being vulnerable about our hurts and challenges?  Who else should be added to the list, whose stories get shared by proxy?

6 thoughts on “The Danger of Storytelling

  1. For me, as a writer of the dating world and single gal persuasion, I don’t share about my current Dude unless he’s given me the a-okay for the topic. I do generalities knowing that only my mom could pinpoint that one guy from 5th grade who did some damage in his words. I have often wrestled with even sharing stories that would make the guy I am dating look less than in front of others, as I do not want to set a precedent in our relationship where that is okay to do for either of us. Thank you for sharing this today as I feel it’s warranted in the sharing free-for-all these days.

    1. Glad to know others are thinking about this stuff, too. And glad to know you’re setting up good boundaries and expectations from the start of a relationship, it sets a great precedent.

  2. I have for many years had a tug-of-war battle over sharing some details from my own childhood story, feeling that to “get real” I would need to share them publicly, particularly through writing. I went through a season when I shared pretty openly in some closed circles for my own healing, but I came out of that realizing that there were those in my life, particularly family members, that were part of that story as well, and my sharing would inevitably affect them. We are so often told to “own” our story, just as you said we seem to feel a “right” to our stories, but you are on to something, they are not just our own, and great care should be given when sharing them.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jen. There’s this fine line between sharing openly about our pain, our history, and our healing, that allows others to know they’re not alone, that they’re normal… but when we are in the midst of processing that pain, or healing, it’s a pretty terrible idea to “own” or share that publicly. Once healing has happened, we have a better shot at sharing more clearly and being able to help others. There’s probably a lot of ethics we could talk about with storytelling, huh? But as far as the ethics of bearing another’s soul in the process of bearing our own, I like what you said, “great care should be given.”

  3. Great post! This is difficult for me when blogging or writing newsletters about our life in China. There are so many good and difficult things I want to share, but they involve the lives of others and that makes them sensitive for many reasons.

    1. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we have to treasure in our hearts, like Mary did. I think we’ve lost the art of that with social media and blogging…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s