Relatable Stories and How to Share Them

relatable stories

When supporting friends going through hard times, there are mixed opinions about whether you should share relatable stories from your own experiences. On one hand, some feel like this hijacks the conversation and makes it about the relater. On the other hand, some feel like this is a good way to show solidarity and understanding. So, who's got it right? Let's go into the ins and outs of being heard and how to navigate relating!

First, let's talk about the challenges and pitfalls in trying to relate to someone who is having a hard time. There are many times when relating is not, in fact, the best way they will feel support. One of the best ways I've learned to support people is not to relate their experiences to my own, and report my proof to them, but instead to tell them what I hear them saying. People want to know the work they've put into expressing themselves is effective. Even if my understanding is expanded upon by my own experience, that doesn't mean sharing the details will always help them. I can think about what they've told me and say to myself, for example, "this sounds really frustrating. I know when (story) happened to me, it was really frustrating." They don't always need to know that story! They are likely to feel understood if I say "that sounds really frustrating." This basic reflection triggers the release of calming neurotransmitters for your friend. They are likely to feel safer and supported as they share their experience with you.

This method of supporting people is also helpful when you don't have direct and relatable experience. I can imagine how I would feel if I was in my friend's position and say, "wow, I'd be mad if that happened to me." I can also skip thinking about how I would feel and say, instead, "what's that like for you?" This allows for my friend to speak for themselves rather than be filtered through my own perspective alone. Two people going through what sounds like a similar experience, for example a breakup, can still experience that breakup in very different ways. Thinking they're similar might not be correct.

If relatable stories are told with many details and the story starts to run long, it might feel like the relater's experience is now taking over the conversation where you just needed support for your own challenges. Additionally, sometimes hearing that other people have been hurt too doesn't feel great. While this is factually true, it might not be the time and place to remind the speaker that others have also had a hard time. It is ok for you to need a moment for the focus to be on just your experience, before you are ready to think about the bigger picture.

There is also danger for backlash in sharing what you think will be a relatable experience. While you might not be trying to compare your situation to theirs by any means, sharing a story for similarity's sake innately draws comparison. This only works if you match the details and intensity correctly. If I've experienced an important friendship betrayal and you relate to it with a story of similar importance and betrayal, I may feel understood. If you relate it to a story that I don't think matches weight and topic, I may feel more alienated and misunderstood. For example, relating my important friendship betrayal to a time when everything was otherwise fine but you ran out of ketchup for your hotdog is not likely a good match. I might feel like you think my experience is unimportant and be less likely to share difficult experiences with you in the future.

So, should people ever share a story to show they relate? Yes, so long as certain guidelines are considered. There are absolutely times when relating with your own experience may help your friend feel understood, normalized, and supported.

  1. Ask! Consent is everything, my friends. A great question to ask is, "would a story about how I relate help you right now, or will my just listening to your experience work best?" If your friend is feeling particularly isolated in what they are going through, they might appreciate hearing about your own experiences. This also gives them the option to consider they might just want to be heard more directly.
  2. Keep it direct! It's a good idea to start simply. Consider something like, "I felt (shared feeling) when (event) happened, because (a couple of main details)." Your friend might accept this sharing and feel encouraged to keep talking about their own experience, or they may feel comfortable asking more about yours. There may also be room to discuss both in tandem! This sort of direct focus leaves the door open for whatever everyone is most comfortable with.

Everyone's experiences are different, and so are the ways we communicate about them. Relatable stories have an appropriate time and place. I don't believe in a universally "right and wrong" way to view any communication preference. I don't think those who relate or prefer not to relate are selfish. It's a matter of what works best for the people involved at that time. The best way to find out? Ask. The more specific we can be about expectations and hopes, the better.

I hope this helps!

Dr. Stephanie Bloodworth, PsyD, LMFT