Mental Health Matters: What is Your Backstory?
As I write this article, I am finishing my fall classes. I am pleased with how diligent my students were in embracing a new learning environment and pushing through obstacles with tenacity. Although I am busy grading papers, I like to reflect on the high points for each class, and in doing so, I realize how much my students teach me. The relationship is reciprocal; I teach them, and they teach me.
During a recent class discussion, a student remarked, “We don’t really know people’s backstories.” Her statement provided the foundation for a rich dialogue in our Zoom classroom. Students then committed to doing a better job of understanding one another without judgment or assumptions. Their voices were strong and ambitious, recognizing that people are indeed multifaceted.
As you welcome the New Year, I’d like to invite you to embrace the idea that everyone has a backstory. I don’t prefer the term baggage, as I think it is a loaded word with negative connotations. Instead, I love the word backstory, as we all have a story to tell about our past, which influences our current narrative and propels us into our future stories.
Each of our stories is as unique and beautiful as its author. Some stories remain buried under years of regret and shame, yet they remain our story. The adage of don’t judge a book by its cover is real. What stories lie hidden behind a smile or the response, “I’m fine,”? We are too accustomed to putting a smile on our face and telling the world we are okay.
What would it be like if you shared how you genuinely feel? And, of course, the nature of the relationship guides our level of sharing.
One of the activities I often used in group therapy was to ask my clients to share with other members of the group a statement that goes like this: “If you really knew me, you would know this about me.”
Each client would share something about themselves that was unknown to the others. It was a powerful exercise built upon the trust within the group and a willingness to be vulnerable and be seen in a new light. What would your “If you really knew me, statement be?”
In 2021, consider taking the time to connect with your friends and family in a more meaningful way. We all have a backstory and a voice waiting to be heard. If you are not comfortable sharing your story, be open to listening to someone else’s story. Are you ready to truly see people with open eyes and let go of your assumptions? We all want the same things in life: love and to be loved, seen, and heard. Your story is priceless, and your mental health matters to you and me.
National Suicide Prevention Line: 1(800)273-8255. Help is available
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1(800)662-HELP. Mental health and substance use disorders.
Dr. Skillestad Winans retired from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, after 24 years of service, where she served as the Chief of Psychology Services. She is currently an Associate Professor at Northwest University and a Clinical Supervisor at the University of Washington, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. The information in this article does not constitute a doctor-patient relationship, assumes no professional or legal liability, and does not represent the views of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Northwest University, or the University of Washington.