Memory and Story

“Our memories are our stories and there’s no story that we tell that isn’t from our vantage point,” says our guest this week, Cathy Loerzel, MA.

As we engage our stories and try to recall past events, some of our memories may feel unclear, incomplete, or even untrustworthy. Dan Allender and Cathy Loerzel unpack how the brain fragments or scatters painful memories as a trauma response, and how we can work to shed light on those parts of our stories from the past in order to help us live into our present stories with greater freedom.

Listener Resources:

  • Enroll in To Be Told, the online course that can help you explore your story

About our guest:

Cathy Loerzel received her MA in Counseling Psychology in 2007. She is a Co-Founder of the Allender Center at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and co-author of Redeeming Heartache: How Past Suffering Reveals Your True Calling. She has spent the last 15 years developing the theory and methodology of a popular new coaching and therapeutic approach called Story Work that moves people through their past stories of heartache to heal and discover healthier ways of being in the world.

She is a story work coach, popular speaker, writer, and consultant based out of Seattle, WA where she lives with her husband, 2 little boys, 2 big dogs, and 7 chickens on their urban farm. You can connect with Cathy on Instagram at @cathy.loerzel 

Episode Transcript:

Dan: We are going to step into the somewhat controversial issue of memory and story and all the issues that rise with, well, why am I supposed to remember and what if I don’t? But to do so, I get the great privilege of working with my co-author of a book called Redeeming Heartache, colleague and dear friend, Cathy Loerzel. Hi, Cathy.

Cathy: Hi, Dan. Thanks for having me.

Dan: Oh, what a pleasure to be able to do this with you. So first, let’s just talk about your lovely memories. How are they?

Cathy: Flawed?

Dan: Flawed? Yeah, that’s a very kind description of the universality of none of us have what could be called complete, accurate and undisputably true memories. So let’s talk memory first. Why should we even be talking about memory?

Cathy: Okay. Well, I think the thing about memory, and even more so the idea of story. Our memories are our stories and there’s no story that we tell that isn’t from our vantage point. Every story, every experience that we have is going to be different. So my husband and I could be sitting at the same dinner table having the same exact conversation, and our “memories” of that time are going to be different because we’re different human beings with different experiences, with different stories. And so the way that we’re picking up on what’s happening or the things that stand out to us are just different. And that’s lovely. But the thing is that as we grow up, as we experience life, our makeup is made up of our memories, our stories, our experiences in life. And I think that’s what makes us uniquely human. That’s what makes us complex, is that we are made up of our stories. And the combination of all of our stories is what makes us who we are, our personalities, our way of being in the world. And really the way that we interact with the world is going to be based a hundred percent on the stories that have gotten us to the place that we are in today.

Dan: To neglect our memory is in some way to obscure or deny our very personhood. And so it becomes so crucial to say the past is present. There is, as Faulkner would say, in some sense no past at all, but the present is being played out from that. And in that reality, you’ve also underscored that in one sense, no memory is a videotape. It’s not a verbatim, it is a kind of artistic creation to some degree framed from our unique way of seeing the world, which is another way of saying bias. And so memory is never neutral and a kind of, well, I’m just reporting. I’m just reporting what happened. Well, you can’t report each and every second, the particular raise of the eyebrow that changed your direction of what you said. You might tell me what you said, but how do you take into account every molecule of even decision making that you weren’t even consciously aware of? So it is a important word to say that our memory is a form of fiction. It it’s a kind of artistic creation that we need to, in one sense read even if we are to some degree the writer. Does that take you anywhere?

Cathy: Yeah. It took me to the idea of so why are we talking about memory? Right?

Dan: Fair enough.

Cathy: If it’s so flawed, if we can’t trust it fully, then why is it important?

Dan: Oh, because even in the text you write, you can’t help but reveal something about yourself by what you have written. In that sense, I’m using the word written as a form of your memory. What you remember tells me something about you. And certainly you holding your own memory, it tells you something about yourself. So there has to be, in some sense, an externalization of our memory enough to be able to say it’s a text worthy to be read, but also to know I’m the author, I created this, yet so much of good fiction writing for those I know who write fiction will often say I’m not even aware of what I was writing. There was something so surprising in what I wrote that in some sense I wrote it, but I’m not fully actually the author of what I wrote. And that’s not blaming, it’s not exculpating to someone else. It’s actually honoring the creative process. Does that begin?

Cathy: Yeah. And what I think as I’ve come to understand this work and even what happens, what changes our minds, what actually heals and shifts our capacity, because really what we’re talking about is almost an apologetic on why is memory important and why do we need to engage memory? And how do we start to reconcile the reality that if it’s not a hundred percent accurate, then isn’t it is trustworthy? And how do we actually know that? Because what we’re talking about is painful memory more than anything else. And so we all have painful experiences and things that we’ve gone through that are very, very difficult, and they shape who we are and then how we operate in the world from that place forward. I was just reading a book by James Ellis and he was talking about the kind of ruse of therapy and saying, if therapists were honest, they would have to tell you that it’s not actually the wound that is the most painful. It’s the defenses that we’ve built in order to deal with the wound that is more painful. So in order for us to understand even how we’ve built defense structures around how we’ve been harmed and how we’ve experienced difficult things in our life, we have to go back to understand the original wound so that we can understand the defenses. And oftentimes we just want to cure the defense and say, oh, well, I’m just not going to overeat anymore, or I’m not go, I’m just going to learn how to exercise… we’re at the end of January when we’re taping this, 99% of you who made decisions January 1st to do something different in your life, have already failed. Dan’s covering his face because of the shame. You do not change things in our lives by just deciding. Not always, there are certain people who are able to do that, and that’s lovely but most of us, we have to actually go back and understand what our behavior is serving in us and how it’s become a defense against something that happened to us that we want to avoid. So what we’re inviting you to, I think, Dan, I’m not sure, this is your podcast. What we’re inviting you to is the idea that you have to go back and start to be curious around your memory, around your story, so that you can start to understand the original wounds that then created these defensive structures that are now maladaptive as you’re living in your day-to-day life.

Dan: And again, the memory may be sparse, it may be biased and it may indeed be very difficult to engage, but there is something of integrity to be able to say, I need to be open to turning my heart and mind and body to step into what has deeply affected me, even as I’m living out present relationships. So I think you’ve said that really, really well. But let’s go back to that question of, well, what if my memories are sparse, incomplete? I don’t remember. I know that a terrible thing happened at age eight, but I barely remember anything about it. Whether it be my father leaving in the middle of rage and eventual divorce, past sexual abuse or some form of humiliation in third or fourth grade, I kind of know, but I don’t have “a memory” about that. And what most me people mean at that moment is a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end with enough detail enough complexity to be able to represent largely what occurred. How do you, particularly in your work as a story coach, how do you help people engage memory that they don’t have access to?

Cathy: So anytime you’re talking about memory and trauma, you’re now in the realm of fragmentation. And so we know that there are three responses to trauma that happened to all of us, whether it’s current trauma or past trauma. One is fragmentation, which I’ll go into in a bit of detail. The second is dissociation, and a third is isolation. And so what you can assume for any of our memories is that when we experience something as a child, that’s difficult. We don’t have language for it. We don’t have the capacity to understand what’s happening to us. It overwhelms our capacity to metabolize it. That’s the basis of trauma. Our brains help us by fragmenting, and dispersing the memory to lots of different places all over our brain, including the separation of our left and right hemispheres. So basically your body holds the memory. Your brain is like, it’s too much. Let me just disperse it. It’s throwing up a puzzle up into the air and just letting it land all over the place, right? And so we have access to a piece of the puzzle. And so a lot of the work that we do in story work is helping people defragment their story. I’ve been reading a lot of David Schnarch’s work around mind mapping. And he wrote this brilliant book called Brain Talk. And so what he says, and I think what we’re starting to be able to prove in neuroscience is that the memories are there. They’re implicit, they’re within our body. And the way that we heal is by being able to craft a more accurate biographical narrative of our lives. Because when we have these harmful stories that are lodged in our brains and are fragmented and are not, the pieces aren’t put back together, we can’t actually live in whole integrated ways because we have all of this kind of embedded trauma. I think of it almost like in a heart, you have blockages. Well, so embedded trauma end up being blockages in your arteries, of your mind, of your soul. And the more blockages you have that are unaddressed, the more your body has to work twice as hard to get the blood to flow. And eventually it bursts. And so we’re saying the memory ends up being the way. If we can defragment, if we go back and pick up these pieces and put it back together, then we can start to dislodge some of that embedded trauma and allow us, and so what I’ve found is that with memory, I don’t need the whole puzzle. Our job is to reconstruct the puzzle together. I just give me a piece, give me a sense. Give me a picture of your dining room table. Give me a memory in a bedroom where you would go after your mom raged at you start wherever you have access to that one puzzle piece. And oftentimes when you can relax and you can move into that one piece, other pieces start to emerge and you start to put it together and you start to remember more. I’ve done, I’ve done a lot of this work in my own personal life, and I’ve gone into memories where I have very little, I don’t remember the names, I don’t remember the people, I don’t remember what I’m wearing. By the end of doing this work, I have a clear sense. I remember the shoes I was wearing and the way the tea cups had flowers on them. I could remember such detail. But it’s also interesting as you go into those memories, because there were some things that were still foggy, which tells me that the foggy places are often the places where the memory needed to fragment in the first place. So I’ll put all these pieces together and then all of a sudden my therapist will ask me to see the face of my father, my mother, a person in the room, that the whole thing is centered around this difficult interaction between the two of us. And I’ll try to look at their face and the memory and it’s blank. I can’t see it. And so that tells me that there’s something in their face that I did not want to see or could not see, or was too difficult for me to understand as a child too painful that I’ve blanked it out. And so now, so much of the work is to go back.

Dan: Well, I love that you used the word implicit, and often we talk about memory as the intersection between implicit memory, which in the broad sense means there’s something your body holds with regard to what occurred, an explicit memory. Often we refer to it as autobiographical memory, meaning what you’re able to recall with that narrative framework of the beginning, middle, and an end. But even a fragment has a kind of beginning, middle, and end. And you’re actually naming the fact that for many of us, when we hold, for example, a photo, a photo is a fragment. And I was cleaning out portions of my office, the bottom of a box that I held, books and a few other things. There were about 50 photos from the event in 1987 where there was a gathering to celebrate. When I got my doctorate, finished my doctorate, and as soon as I saw the first photo, I had a visceral, strong body response. Like, oh no because many of the relationships from those moments are no longer intact losses, friendships, some still there, but heartache from that particular period. And to go to a celebration that I remember in the broadest sense as incredibly joyful to finish what felt like a seven year agony process, and yet to know that the first photo was a people that I miss. And to have that physical response, I literally threw the photo down. And that act of…. no…. out of me, out of my hand was enough to be able to go, whoa, going on here. There’s loss, there’s heartache, but there’s also joy and wonder what’s going to keep you from entering these photos? And I think for many of us, whether it be a fragment of a photo, a fragment of going back to your elementary school and walking around the playground or as sometimes the spirit does, simply brings that particle into a kind of consciousness. The question is, what does our body, our heart do with it? And the stance of it’s too much. That’s what you’re putting words to, as we often in our defense, create even more harm than what the original harm may have been.

Cathy: And I think so much of the healing is being able to go back and be brave enough to reengage those memories, knowing that when you defragment, it actually gives you a lot more freedom, a lot more settledness, and a lot more capacity to live currently in the way that you so deeply long for.

Dan: Yeah, well, it didn’t at first for me. So…

Cathy: Over time, perhaps?

Dan: Well these were photos I found about six days ago, and I can say that at first, literally threw it down, and that was enough to be able to go, wow, what’s going on for you? And so that first stance of curiosity, will you listen to your body as a particular portion of a memory returns? And if you find aversion, if you find rage, if you find anxiety, your body is telling you this is a threat, can you own the threat, honor the threat, and be able to say, this will not be easy to step into, versus simply distracting yourself or feeling the pressure to remember. So I think that first stance of what do we do with the small. And I love that phrase that’s so embedded in scripture, be found, faithful with the small, and he will give you the large. With regard to memory, you don’t have to remember, you have to be faithful with what’s given, what your body, your mind can hold in the moment versus feeling the pressure to run from it or to actually engage it and resolve it. So I think that first day was enough for me to have the photos. I kept them on my desk and just keeping ’em on my desk, literally seeing them as I was doing other, it opened up kind of the next part, which was I began to filter through a few of them, not all of them, but a few of them, and then settling on, oh, it was good to see the face of person X. It was really hard to see this face and letting myself have a response, but not even trying to remember. But the photos over the entire party actually began to tell the story, and that was a great aid. Sometimes I don’t have access to a series of photos. Some of my past abuse, obviously I don’t have photos of, but it’s not a lot different in terms of collecting parts and letting the parts begin to be, even if they’re islands, some sense of what’s the water between and are there bridges that we can begin to build or a ferry to bring you from one island to the next? And that seems to be how we stitch memories together. And even the term recollection, we recollect what is, as you’ve put it, so well, fragmented parts, is that what you’re meaning in part by defragmentation?

Cathy: I think so, yeah. And I oftentimes, I’ll use the image of a thread. I think that’s what you’re saying is if you just follow and pull at the thread that’s available, instead of feeling the demand that the whole story needs to be revealed or that you have to remember everything. Oftentimes when we’re dealing with stories, there’s at least a thread that you can start to pull and that takes you somewhere. And so all you have to do is be faithful to that one thread that’s being presented. And also what caught me also about what you’re saying is the idea of how hard it is often to settle down and actually acknowledge what we’re really feeling in a moment. And that’s been, for me and my personal life, that’s been a really important act as I’m doing more memory work as I’m defragmenting to be able to acknowledge like, oh, when I’m encountering this scene or this picture or this moment, I feel my chest is tight. All of a sudden I feel exhausted. I could just go sleep for 12 hours. Something’s happening. What am I feeling? And that sounds so silly because I’ve been doing this work for so long and I’m still at the baseline. How are you feeling right now? I feel sad like, okay, that’s a start. But it is something that we so often overlook in our own bodies. We skip over those really small moments that are actually very deeply meaningful and able to show us something that we need to listen to and slow down long enough to be able to recognize and say, okay, I’m having a response.

Dan: Yeah. Well, and even as we’re talking, I need to remind myself and maybe the audience, but it’s a labor. Again, we know that, for example, cortisol, our stress by a chemical is very influential in terms of our ability to remember so that the higher the event of cortisol, meaning the higher stress, the higher trauma, is hard to remember when there’s very little cortisol, meaning it’s just such a normal, habitual, no big deal kind of event. It doesn’t have enough cortisol to, in one sense market. So too much hard to remember, too little hard to remember. None of us can have that control over the optimum amount. Nonetheless, as we’ve been saying, it’s in your body, whether it’s normal daily events or whether it’s once in a lifetime and severe and hard, there will still be something implicit in your body that holds that memory. So I need to again come back to that question, why do so much work and so much work, and a lot of times, a lot of heartache and sadness, or in the case of the photos of this party joy, I felt like, oh, that was such a sweet time… Oh, look at the cake. That was such a nice gift. Oh, there’s the face of a person, a person haven’t been in relationship with for 40 years. I missed them. So that intersection, even sometimes joy is too hard to bear. Why are we doing this again when there is so much struggle to defrag?

Cathy: Well I could only speak to my own experience, and as I have again been committed to doing this work in my own life and I have been for actively for 18 years, but really specifically, I’ve really deep dived into it for the last two in another round. And I’ve been doing really deep difficult work around some memories and places where trauma has embedded and that I haven’t had healing in, and that have deeply impacted my capacity for relationships, my capacity to lead, my capacity to parent and be a partner. And so let me just tell you a story. So I was at a friend’s 40th birthday celebration. There was a group of women. There were nine women in our forties altogether in a small house for a weekend. If that sounds like a nightmare to some of you, I understand; some of you, that sounds like a dream come true. For me, it was a dream. This wasn’t my group. This was a friends group, and they had all been journeying for the last 15 years together. I was the new one into the group, and I know each of them. I really appreciate them. They’re beautiful people. And I was the new kid at this weekend, and we were gathering around the woman who had just turned 40 and blessing her. And I was watching all of these women pour their hearts and their memories and the collective memory that they all had as a friend group all out on behalf of this woman. And it was one of the most stunning, beautiful moments that I’ve seen in a long time, privileged to be part of. And all of a sudden I felt this wave of exhaustion, and I was just like, I want to get out of here. This is, and all I could feel in that moment was, I’m so tired, I must just be exhausted. And so I started to withdraw. I started to get antsy. My body hurt. I was having a physical response to this moment. And the person noticed, and she came over and she said, and she was like, are you okay? Are you bored? What’s going on? And I was like, oh, no, I’m just tired. I’m just tired. And so we left that night, we’re walking back to the house, and all of a sudden I had done enough work where I could pause and go, I think this is more than tired. I think you are sad and you are grieving the loss of past friendships, and you are grieving the fact that you don’t have a group anymore of women who have known you for 15, 18 years of your life who would surround you and bless you in this way. And I was like, oh gosh. Oh, there it is. And so I then went back and went back to this woman who’s a dear friend, but our friendship is a little bit newer and just said, Hey, I want you to know that what you are experiencing from me, I’m grieving the loss of friendships, and I’m grieving the loss of a space that would be comparable to this for me and my own life. And that is sad and it’s really impacting me. And I just want you to know that what I experienced from you is so beautiful, and this group is so beautiful. This was not a reflection on you guys. This is me grieving, and thank you for inviting me. Thank you for letting me be here. And I just sat there and cried and felt sad, and she literally held me on a bed as I’m crying, it’s such a sweet moment. But the reason that moment could exist in my life is because of the work that I’ve done around understanding my own heart, my own patterns, my own loss. And I’ve gained access to a part of me that’s more tender, more available, more able to be known and to be seen and to be availing to other people what’s actually going on in my heart. If I hadn’t been doing this work that moment would’ve looked like this? Yep. I’m sad. We get back to the house, we could have glass of wine and I stuff it, and then never think about it again. That’s how that would’ve gone.

Dan: And I think there are plenty of people who would say, that sounds better to me, then, then sitting out of bed, having a friend hold you as you cry. Yet the connection that had to deepen between you and that person, your own integrity, to be able to say, I’m not going to flood somebody with my life. Yet they have the wisdom to ask. And therefore there is a sense of honoring them for their attunement to you instead of blowing it off. It actually created a context of greater care, greater connection, and greater honesty. So it, it’s a hard sell to be very honest. I think this is a really hard sell, and I think the majority of people are going to say it’s not worth it. It’s too risky, too much pain. Just shut up, drink your wine, not too much and just get on with what life holds. But that’s again, why, coming back to this whole question of do you want to be found faithful with the small? And is the Spirit at work calling you not into a narrative where you’re the point and you’re the only point, but the larger question of can I engage my life in a way that brings even greater honor to others, even greater joy, to the one who has created me and has redeemed me and is restoring me? And part of that word restoring is the framework of defragmentation. That is a lovely picture. But if you don’t mind me asking another question, given what you just put words to, I know enough of your story to know that you were a new kid in a lot of places.

Cathy: Yes.

Dan: How did that play out?

Cathy: Well, that was embedded in the story too, right? So for those of you who know or don’t know, my dad was in the military and we moved around all the time, and I was always the new kid. And that triggered something as well. But I think what was sweet about the moment is that I didn’t fall apart on the bed and just take up all this space and absorb. There was something of I could recognize that I was feeling like the pressure of the new kid, I don’t quite belong. You guys all have stories. I’m triggered in that moment from my own past. And I was able to articulate that land it in my own body, and then it didn’t take a ton of care in order for me to recover, right? It’s like I cried a little, I landed into it, and then it was like I was soothed. I felt okay. I felt like there was sweetness between the two of us there, but I was able to contain and care for myself and do my own work in the moment. And I think that does go to that history of being the new kid where my choice when I was little was deal and be fine, power up, handle it. Don’t feel the terror, don’t feel the intimidation, don’t feel any of it. Just power up and just find a way to be liked by these people.

Dan: Yeah. What again I’m hearing is it’s a framework for repentance. Yes. If we can’t name the shaping and how the shaping structures our way of being in the world. Yeah. I mean, as a brilliant, young, attractive human being like you, you would’ve powered up and you would’ve made connections. And they would’ve been, in many ways, satisfying up to a point, but I doubt it would’ve had the same level of both vulnerability of humility, but the key word, courage. The courage to be able to say what you said to your friend. And again, a connective link, even more so deepened that just feels very sweet. All I’ve done so far with my photos is I’ve now been through them all. And what I was able to do is to say of this some almost 50 photos, there are about 20 that I’d like to keep. There are 30 and they’ve each been held and like, Hmm, do I want to keep this? And some are redundant. So those were easy to discard, but there is a sense in which we’re not absorbing in a memory, we’re inviting that memory to propel us into a present and future that has a chance to be, in one sense richer and deeper and closer to who we are meant to be. And so it was in that process of coming to my 20 photos. I’m so grateful for being able to hold the memory, but now, yes, there was loss. Yes, there is still loss. Yet being able to hold those 20, I’m not quite ready to go back and look at them again. I’ve done some really good work, but I can tell even as I’m talking, like they’re not more than actually about a foot from me right now. I’m not ready to go back, but I think there will be a day when I’ll want to go back. But I also know the Spirit’s going to be asking, and what do you want to do with the photos? Not so much where do you want to put them? But are there people you want to reconnect with? Are there people that you need to ask forgiveness from? Are there conversations that are embedded in the memory that’s inviting you to the more that is ahead for you? And I think that becomes the intersection for many of us. We don’t want to remember because we don’t want the implications of what that will take us to with regard to tomorrow, let alone today. Your freedom I think, is very compelling. And it creates, again, for me at least that clarity of, oh yes I need your story to remind me that it is good to step into my own. And in that I hope others are hearing that. You need to make an investment, not go dig out your past photos as much as asking the spirit. What is it that you would have me hold with regard to some of those events that I know shaped me and being able to do writing? I know you’ve done a lot of writing with regard to memories and just what words would you have regarding that?

Cathy: I think the beauty of writing is that it naturally engages your left and your right brain. So even just writing alone is a way for you to start integrating. And what I found is that when I’m writing it comes out of me. So if the trauma or the sadness or the feelings that are inside that feel trapped when I’m writing them out, I have access to them in a different way. They, there’s a freedom that comes out, there’s a release. And I think I’m always surprised by how much language I have for things that I didn’t think I had articulation for. And it’s a gift, and it can be something that can be more gentle and can be a way to just engage. That feels a little bit less threatening than perhaps working with the story coach.

Dan: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s one of the reasons why when we do the Story Workshop, we invite people to do take a scene of some level of heartache and to write 600 to 800 words and to invite, not just tell us what happened, but describe the context. Because often context sets something of the meaning of the event, where it occurred, the plot, how it occurred in time in space, the character, the dialogue. And I know most people might say, I don’t remember. Well, something about the person. What were they likely to say? You have a sense of who you may have been as age 8, 10, 12. So even that framing of putting sentences. One particular researcher at University of Texas advised people to write no more than 12 sentences about an event, and the significant change that happened neurologically as a result of 12 sentences was discernible and remarkable. So I think part of this labor is make an investment, make an investment to at least be curious to open the door to some degree of articulation. But I think further to be able to say, a lot of this needs a submission of that text to others. Because even if it’s your memory, oftentimes others have a better sense of contour, context people, because you do come with a bias that often the person who’s hearing doesn’t have. And that bias shapes how deeply clearly we’re actually looking at the event. But as where I think we’re both convinced some of the deep and profound changes of the human heart can occur.

Cathy: Absolutely.

Dan: Well co-author, any last thoughts, particularly on Redeeming Heartache, Story Workshop, your coaching? Anything that you would like to end with?

Cathy: Oh my goodness. I mean, I think if you’re intrigued, and if you need a starting place, then To Be Told and Redeeming Heartache are great starting places for you to start to understand story and the amazing offerings at the Allender Center. So if you’re intrigued or even peaked that maybe this is something that you want to lean into, then please, please follow that. It’s the biggest gift you can give to yourself, to others, to your children, to your spouse. And we need more healers out there who have gone through their own healing process. So please answer that call. I feel like I should give an invitation to follow Jesus after that. But it’s just really important. I’m an evangelist for story work, and if you want to work with me or other story coaches, you know, can find a lot of us on the Allender Center website, my website is and find a way to start to engage this. It’s profound and holy work.

Dan: It is. And as simple as this, you are utterly worthy and you can afford 12 sentences. And that simple, I don’t have enough time to exercise. You could do five sit ups. Ah, it can’t be that much help. Well, it’s more help than doing nothing. And in this sense, 12 sentences really, truly could change the trajectory, not just of your past, but of your future. Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy: Thanks, Dan.