verb: stroke or caress lovingly
I'd only heard the word fondle in the context of body parts until my life coach training. Martha Beck warned us we'd have clients who were "story fondlers." What a perfect description for people who love to repeat a story from their past over and over. They grip it and lovingly caress it like a beloved taxidermied pet they won't let rest in peace.
Why would someone do this? While we're asking why, why would someone taxidermy a pet? It doesn't seem useful, but obviously, they get something out of having Barker
perched on the hearth in the living room.
When I first heard the term "story fondling" I immediately thought of Carrie. Carrie and I worked together prior to PA school. She fondled her I-caught-my-cheating-husband story at least weekly. I'd known her 4 hours before I heard all the torrid details. I later learned the other employees had an unspoken agreement to steer clear of any topic remotely connected to husbands, cheating, or redheads.
Working with burned-out clients, many of the story fondling cases I hear involve past places of employment or former bosses. And don't get me wrong, each and every case sounds horrible. I agree these are situations I'd rather not encounter, but the stories are also told over and over. I can see the hurt and pain on clients' faces as they recount the awful-ness. I also notice how the pain from their past gets transferred to the present with each recounting or remembering.
Regurgitating a story can initially be healing as it helps the brain process what happened. This is a natural part of the grieving process. The fondling issue occurs when you're still choosing to repeat it years later. What happens if you don't consciously choose to repeat the story, but it still pops into your head? This was the case with a friend who heard my podcast episode on story fondling. "OMG, am I a story fondler?" her message asked. She explained how, a year after a painful situation, she still had physical sensations when she saw this lady. She didn't want to feel shaky and nauseated, she didn't want to fondle the story, but her body couldn't seem to forget.
This is an example of our evolved nervous system remembering "danger" so we don't repeat past mistakes. I reassured her this isn't story fondling. Her body is trying to protect her from future pain by reminding her about past pain. If you've been to a yoga class you may have heard, "We hold issues in our tissues" and it's true, we do. For my friend, it may take therapy or repeatedly reassuring her nervous system she's safe.
Unlike my friend, story fondlers use the past as an excuse for not moving forward, or they blame present-day hardships on a story from their past. The key difference is what you choose to focus on. We can't choose what happens to us, but we can choose whether or not we let that situation dictate how we spend the remainder of our days.
Imagine your life is a journey, and you're driving along when BAM! You hit a big pothole. The car is damaged. You stop and repair the car, then drive a little further. There is a fork in the road. One way loops right back to the pothole. The other road leads to the "great beyond", aka, the rest of your life. If you grip a story from your past, it's like choosing to hit the same pothole over and over. It will damage you. It will keep you from moving forward. The pothole isn't your fault, you didn't put it there. In this way, the pothole is the villain, but if you keep choosing to hit it over and over, it's on you.
Another story fondling scenario happens when clients villainize themselves for a past mistake. Instead of learning from the story, they continually refer back to it and negatively label themselves because of their role in the situation. For example, one client who was newly divorced started dating her dream guy. She let him move in with her and her child, convinced he was the "one." I'm sure you can guess what happened. He wasn't Mr. Right, he was Mr. Wrong and she was still berating herself for being "so dumb" 4 years later. She was choosing to drive over the pothole again and again despite the damage it was causing.
I digress. With burnout, it's easy to blame our boss, our coworkers, the hospital administration, big pharma, electronic medical records, difficult patients, etc. Being a healer, you want to fix the situation, so you start doing a workup on yourself. Part of figuring out the cause of your emotional decline is to identify who or what's to blame. This is often how story fondling starts. We want to explain why we're hurting, so we look around and find a story from our past to pin it on. Oh, it all started when we got EMR. When we were bought out, that's when my work life went downhill. That new office manager made my life hell. When I didn't get chosen for the promotion I felt like my career was headed nowhere.
My daughter has a giant pink security blanket, one that's made for a full-size bed but ends up getting dragged all over the house. One day the kids got the idea of having their nanny, a sweet 19-year-old, lay on the blanket so they could roll her up, burrito style. With her arms pinned by her sides and her head sticking out the top, she was essentially trapped. To ensure she couldn't budge, they straddled two kitchen chairs over the burrito and put heavy ottomans on each chair. What started out as a fun game had her royally pissed off by the time I got home. When you hold onto a story from your past, you're trapping yourself in a giant pink blanket. You're stuck. You can't get out unless you find a way to bust free.
Some clients use story fondling to villainize themselves based on a failure or mistake from their past. I am the PA who lost her license, therefore I am irresponsible. I am the PA who couldn't keep up with their patient load, so I'm worthless. I am the PA who got laid off, so I must be a shitty PA. When I hear clients talking poorly about themselves, I try to get them to see that this label, like a piece of clothing, is something they're choosing to wear. Who says you have to be the (fill in the blank)? Who says you can't change? I try not to label my kids, even so, I have the "first born rule follower" and the "wild child". This cages them in and traps them as surely as being tightly wrapped in a big blanket.
Maybe you're thinking it's smart to remember stories from your past to ensure you don't repeat them. This isn't story fondling, This is called learning from and moving on. You ran over the pothole, maybe there was damage, but you kept driving forward. And you're not going to drive the same route again, right? Remember, story fondling is choosing to cause more damage or avoiding repair work because you insist on circling back again and again.
When you've had a bad boss, bad job, or bad experience, you naturally want to make sense of it, but life rarely hands you nice tidy closures. It can feel cathartic in some ways to keep replaying the situation over in your mind to try and figure out what went wrong and who's to blame. It's much harder to simply decide it's no one's fault and move on. How often do you hear someone say "It just wasn't a good fit. It wasn't them, it wasn't me, it just turned out poorly, lesson learned."
I have my own work story I fondled for years. People say "I remember it like it was yesterday" and this is the case with my story. Even today my body has a physiologic reaction when I recall it. The story involved a very scary emotional interaction with a former boss and being accused of something I didn't do. For years I retold the story to whoever would listen, feeling more and more justified each time. I was right and I knew it but I also craved validation from everyone else. I wanted to hear gasps and see looks of shock and outrage when I repeated the story. One day I was at a red light and thought I saw my former boss's car. My heart rate tripled as I was catapulted into full fight or flight mode. I realized the story and the past were holding me hostage. They were determining not only my present mindset but also my decisions about the future.
I had to make a conscious effort to change the script around the story. I physically rewrote the story in my journal to include lessons I'd learned and gratitude for what happened as a result of the situation. Now, if I feel myself steering toward the pothole, I intentionally turned my car around.
You Might Be a Story Fondler if...
You repeat the same story of hurt and pain to whoever will listen. You meet someone new and they automatically get to hear the story.
You use the story to explain why you are the way you are. I am me because this happened, and I'm helpless to change.
You have a physical reaction to the story and yet you keep telling it despite the fear/anger/sadness that comes up.
You try to get others to buy into the story of how wronged you were. With each retelling you feel more and more vindicated or self-righteous. You collect evidence and details to support your side of the story.
No one else involved in the story is still fondling it the way you do.
You use this story as justification for future decisions. You're letting it hold you back in some way.
How to Quit Story Fondling and Let the Dead Rest in Peace:
Write out your story in all the gory details, exaggerating it to your heart's content, immortalizing it in pen or on the computer. Getting the words out of your brain is a form of decluttering and will be healing.
Try telling the same story in third-person using the framework from the hero's journey. What if you, the hero, were required to pass through this situation as a test as part of your journey? And what if this test was meant to shape you into a stronger, wiser, and more resilient version of you?
How can you turn the villain in the story into your teacher? This works whether the villain is you, an old boss, a natural disaster, or a lawsuit.
Ask yourself how an older, wiser version of you wants to see this event or story play out. Would she want it to define her life choices going forward? Ten years from how do you still want to be telling this same story?
Notice how often you think about this story and what body sensations show up as a result. Decide if this is what you want occupying the valuable real estate of your brain.
Imagine your life as a journey and you come upon a fork in the road. One road leads is a towards the next chapter of your life and all the adventures it holds. This road is a toll road, the price of which is leaving your story behind. Bury it, grieve it, but you can't take it with you. The other road loops in a circle and has a huge pothole that'll no doubt damage your car and keep you stuck. Which will you choose?
Examine what benefit you get by retelling the story. What is your unmet need?
Accept the possibility that you might never get closure. If you never get an apology, or if the villain never has to pay a price, will you continue to pay the price by staying stuck?
One final note. If you're in the throes of a bad story right now, fondle the hell out of it if it feels right and good. Cry, grieve, scream, shout, and retell it as much as you need. You're the only one who will know when it's time to repair the damage, say goodbye to the pothole in your rearview mirror, and drive forth on your next adventure