We can’t feel loved without being known. To be known, we have to share ourselves. Our life story might be the best place to start.
”Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.Psalm 139:16
We have a saying around the Love Thy Neighborhood offices: “You can’t be loved without being known.” How do we apply this in our ministry?
Every year since we launched, we’ve had our missionaries share their life stories with one another. They gather together in small groups of 3-6 people and share the big story of their life: their family’s story, their childhood, their teen years, and their young adulthood. Of course, some people find the prospect of sharing so much terrifying. Who really wants to share about their first heartbreak or their family’s totally-normal-not-weird-at-all dynamics? Did I mention that all of this happens during their first week as missionaries? (What an icebreaker!) But, with courage and a little healthy prodding, each person takes a deep breath, opens their mouth and lets their story come spilling out.
Once everyone has shared, the group isn’t the same anymore. The group of strangers becomes friends – people who know each other’s secrets, joys, pains and quirks. They feel known. And they feel loved.
”You can't be loved without being known.
Like I said, to be loved we must be known. To be known, we have to share ourselves.
There are essentially two steps to sharing your story. First, you have to know your story. Second, you have to share it out loud with people you trust.
Knowing Your Story
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the specific events of your life have played a huge role in the way that you approach your relationships. Everything you know about relationships, about God, about life, about yourself… it all happened in the story you’ve lived. Your story explains so much of who you are, why you relate the way you do and where your values come from. It explains why you feel ashamed of specific aspects of who you are, why you’re scared of specific things in life and why you feel guilty or angry when specific topics come up.
”So, how can you understand your story? A good place to start is by writing down 20 of the biggest events that happened in your life before you turned 20. Then, put them in chronological order.
So, how can you understand your story? A good place to start is by writing down 20 of the biggest events that happened in your life before you turned 20. Then, put them in chronological order.
(If you want a tool to help you map your story with clarity, pick up a copy of our life mapping workbook. It’s perfect for small groups and individuals.)
Then, spend some time reflecting on the story you see in front of you. If this was someone else’s story, what would you notice? How do you think these events shaped the person who experienced them?
This life map will be a helpful reference as you share your story.
Sharing Your Story
In order to experience relational intimacy with others, you will need to share your story. I recommend a few practices for sharing your story:
First, if you don’t have one already, you will want to find (or create) a group of people to meet with regularly where you can each share life with one another. It’s helpful if this group meets consistently. For me, this looks like a larger group of four families from my church meeting together every other week where we do things such as share a meal, have casual conversation, share our “highs and lows” from the week, discuss the sermon from the past Sunday and pray together.
”Our motto is 'Lead with your weakness.' Here, we simply share the biggest burden we’re carrying from the week as well as any big news we’re excited to celebrate.
It also looks like the alternating weeks where I meet with two of the men from this same group early in the morning. Our motto is “lead with your weakness”. Here, we simply share the biggest burden we’re carrying from the week as well as any big news we’re excited to celebrate. Sometimes we confess sin to one another. Sometimes we give advice to each other. The main goal is to share the biggest things going on in our life and be heard by people who love us. We encourage each other, we pray together, and we check in on each other throughout the week via text or phone calls.
For both the family group as well as the smaller group of guys, I asked for people to commit to doing it together for at least three years (huge life changes such as moving to a new city notwithstanding). Meeting with other people consistently like this truly has opened me up more to the reality of God’s delight, presence and grace as I experience it through friendships.
Second, once a group has been established, I recommend starting off your time by sharing your life story. Here’s why: Many years ago, I was in a small group from my church. However, it wasn’t going well. Though we’d been meeting together as friends for years, people felt lonely, misunderstood and disconnected. As we sat together and talked, trying to figure out what was wrong, one person finally said, “I think we’ve made a terrible assumption and we’re paying the consequences for it.” They shared, “We’ve assumed that because we’ve been friends for so long that we should also know each other. But we failed to do the most basic step toward knowing each other. We failed to tell each other our stories. If someone doesn’t know my story, they don’t really know me.”
”They shared, 'We’ve assumed that because we’ve been friends for so long that we should also know each other. But we failed to do the most basic step toward knowing each other. We failed to tell each other our stories. If someone doesn’t know my story, they don’t really know me.'
So, we decided to spend the next few months sharing our life stories with one another. Each time we met, one person would share their life story. I mean this literally. They would start with their infancy, then their childhood, then their teenage years and just keep going forward in time. Week after week, we’d sit and listen to someone open up the chapters of the experiences they’d lived. Do you know what happened? At the end, every single person said they had never felt so known nor so loved by so many people. We could feel the Spirit of God moving among us and healing our wounds. It was beautiful.
God has created us for community. As we draw near to one another, we experience his gospel firsthand and we help the world to see the character of Jesus.
You can’t be loved without being known. How can you exchange life stories with others in your life?
Tips for Sharing Your Life Story
- Every story should remain confidential. If someone is trusting you with their story, they are also trusting that you understand that for people to feel comfortable talking about private and revealing information, they need a safe place to share private details about themselves, without fear of that information leaving the room. Each person in the group should openly acknowledge a commitment to confidentiality before anyone shares.
- If it’s your turn to share, you may want to consider sketching out a brief timeline before you begin. It will help you to focus on the important details and keep your story shorter. (You can also use the workbook from RelateBetter.)
- Share what you feel emotionally prepared to share. Everyone’s story contains moments we are deeply hurt by or ashamed of. If you have trauma in your story that you don’t feel comfortable sharing with a group, you don’t have to. However, always keep in mind that people will be more equipped to empathize with you if they understand the hardships you’ve experienced. You don’t have to go into details. Sometimes a short but truthful statement about a traumatic experience will suffice.
- Try to keep your story under 1 hour. We have found that after about 50 minutes, even the most compassionate ear in the room begins to lose the ability to focus.
- If your story is less than 40-45 minutes, you may be holding back. People want to know you. Share more!
- Anticipate mixed emotions after you share. I’ve found that often after people share their story, they first feel relieved – as if they have released something that has been hidden inside of them. The next day, they often feel embarrassed and overexposed, worried that they said too much. But in the end, they feel more known and loved than ever before. The cumulative impact of everyone sharing their stories results in new bonds and new depths of friendship.
- If it’s your turn to listen, be an active listener. Turn off or silence all cell phones. If you have small children around, arrange for childcare ahead of time. Make eye contact and use facial expressions to show you are engaged in what they’re sharing.
- Try your best to hold any comments or questions until the end. This will help the person sharing stay focused. Once they’ve finished sharing, ask clarifying questions such as “Do you still talk to your sister now?”, “How old did you say you were when you moved?” or “Did you and your dad ever reconcile?”
- Thank the person for sharing their story. It’s an act of profound bravery to open ourselves up. Thank them for trusting you with their story. If there are any highlights in their story that you especially want to celebrate, make sure to do that, too. (i.e. “I just want to say the way you handled that as a 15 year old was amazing. I know it must have been hard but your character really showed.”)
- Know your role. As we hear someone’s story, our job is not to fix their pain, adjust their perspective or give them advice. In this moment, they don’t need counselors or know-it-alls. They need friends to show them acceptance and unconditional love.
Jesse Eubanks is the Founder and President of Love Thy Neighborhood. He’s been leading urban missions programs for young adults since 2005. He is the host of the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast and an ordained minister. He is the author of How We Relate: Understanding God, Yourself and Others Through the Enneagram from Zondervan Books and is passionate about the intersection of social action, relational health and Christian spiritual formation. Relevant Magazine named Jesse one of the top 50 Christian artists and activists making an impact on culture in America.