What is your BACK STORY and should you share it?
Updated: Jan 12
As an actor or director, the process of building a character involves finding their motivation. What is the subtext, their reason for being? A character’s back story is where you fill in the gaps. You read between the writer’s lines for clues to the characters past life. Where they were born, educated, family relationships, what experiences they had. Anything and everything that they went through to bring them to this point in their life.
Why is this important? Because it informs all of their interactions within the story and with the other characters. It can explain their behaviour and of course the motivation to do what they do. This story is what makes the character three dimensional, relatable and authentic, i.e. believable.
It was because of this process that I came to realise that our back story is important. It is what motivates our behaviours, our relationships at home and at work and how we cope with situations and events.
Sharing your story is not about dumping your ‘stuff’ out there. To do that without context is unhelpful (depending on your audience, obviously – to a therapist, fine. To a board meeting, no!) When you do this, you label yourself a victim. A victim of circumstance, of a perpetrator, of the system. When you see yourself as a victim you subconsciously scream to the world ‘Why me!’. You hold yourself back. Your story defines you and becomes your excuse.
I know because I did it.
For years, unaware of what I was doing I bound myself in hurt, grief and shame. I’d lost several babies in early miscarriages and then had breast cancer. All before my 30th birthday. My life was out of my control and I felt responsible. It was obviously my fault; I was a bad person. I had failed to perform the most basic of female human functions and then on top of it all to get the ‘C’ word. The shame of it!
And so, during my late 20’s and well into my 30’s when I should have been discovering myself and the world, I armoured myself up. I couldn’t be seen to be vulnerable. People would tell me I was so brave, so strong and I even convinced myself I was fine, getting on with it, but I wasn’t. Inwardly, I was knotted up and unhappy. I fought hard to get where I wanted to be but never felt I was good enough. I became resentful of other people’s success in their work and domestic lives. I really didn’t like myself back then. That’s not to say a brush with death in terms of the big C didn’t spur me on to following my dream of becoming an actor but it had knocked my confidence.
It took 8 years of denial before I took my consultants advise and saw a councillor. I had 6 sessions with a very lovely lady called Shelley who, as far as I remember, didn’t say very much but she listened. She gave me the time to tell my story and through the process of speaking it out loud, hearing it for myself, I realised how brave I was, how strong I was, how loved I was. Far from being a victim I was a survivor. I wasn’t bad or unlucky. I now see these experiences as a gift. Today I feel confident, empowered and grateful. Also, more tolerant and empathetic. I’m not worried about showing my vulnerability.
After my sessions with Shelley I dropped ‘the baggage’ and rewrote my story. I dropped the big ‘V’ label. I understand how my story has shaped me and how I have grown from it and I’m not the only one. Lots of prominent and influential people have used their stories to pass on lessons they have learned.
For example, in her more than 30 years on TV Oprah Winfrey has used her own story of growing up in a poverty stricken Afro American community in Mississippi to inspire others to share and change their stories.
Lisa Nicholls, a very successful motivational speaker, tells of the time when she was a single mother with a husband in jail and a baby at home. Lisa tells of how she looked down at her child wrapped in a towel (she had no money for nappies) and told him that she would find a way to make a success of their lives. Lisa uses the powerful imagery of this experience as part of a motivational talk to demonstrate resilience and determination.
Dr Brené Brown is a research professor and author. In 2010 she spoke at a TED event sharing her research on vulnerability and shame. It went viral receiving more than 4.5 million views. Why? Because she used her own experiences as a wife and mother to illustrate her points. She was humorous with it, which helps. She now helps leaders get better results from their teams by being open to vulnerability.
Marcus Rashford is a very recent example of how to use your story to influence others. He managed to get Boris Johnson to do a U turn over the government voucher scheme so that millions of deprived children will be fed during the school holidays. He managed this by sharing his own story of poverty and disadvantage, both vulnerable and courageous.
I have shared parts of my story not to elicit sympathy, that would be self-indulgent, but to pass on what I’ve learnt from my experiences – resilience, strength, kindness and tolerance, amongst other things, but stories don't have to be just about the traumatic events. We are often held back by what you we are told as a child by a parent, a teacher, the school bully – you can’t sing, you can’t draw. You’ll never be blah blah blah… We are often unconscious of, or play down, the effect these throw away comments have on us. These comments often say more about the commentator than you.
So, if your job is to motivate or lead, to create characters or avatars, examine your own ‘back story’. What are you holding on to? What can you drop in order to move on? Can you use what you’ve learnt to motivate and teach others? What can you share to be the example rather than the victim?
The experience of lockdown and the pandemic will become part of all our stories. For some it has been traumatic, frightening and exhausting but for others it’s been time to rest, reflect and re-emerge. How has it been for you? What will you take away from the experience?