I recently read about the challenges facing veterans returning from war. Many had lived through unimaginable trauma during their service…experiences that will likely remain engraved in their memory for life. Often, veterans, like other victims of trauma, create stories upon their return, based on truth, that can be shared with family and friends without too much emotional risk. Soldiers do not have to go into details and reexperience the emotional intensity of their entire story. They can remain safe in their retelling of their “cover story” without having to risk emotional activation and the stirring of their traumatic memories.
Participants in battering intervention programs have cover stories too. It is often too vulnerable for participants to initially acknowledge and be accountable for, not only the violence bestowed upon their partner and children, but also the violence and cruelty that had been bestowed upon them long before they could do anything to be safe. While the cover story is designed for psychological safety, part of the change process is to help move the conversation beyond the cover story, toward genuineness on a deeper level.
Think about it for a moment. Every time we walk into a gathering of our colleagues or friends, we bring with us a strong desire to be seen a certain way. We have a cover story, or a way of interacting to present ouselves in a certain way. We may go out of our way to be funny, charming, or smart, or we might go out of our way to be unnoticed, invisible or quiet. Most of us have a cover story that includes how we want people to see us and what we do not mind people knowing about us. The purpose of this story is to hide the parts of ourselves that we deem to be undesirable. So, at this gathering, we don’t talk, for example, about our troubled marriage, the fight we just had with our child, our fear of losing our job or not being able to pay our bills. We might not want hide the qualities and or shame.
Every time we walk into a gathering of our colleagues or friends, we bring with us a strong desire to be seen a certain way. We have a cover story, or a way of interacting to present ouselves in a certain way.
In the facilitation of battering intervention groups, it is the job of the facilitator to help participants move past their cover story. There are a variety of ways in which this can be accomplished. Creating conversations, asking questions, and specific group process all can be valuable in helping participants share their own story, in a more genuine manner.
One way to help participants move past their cover story is through an activity that we call “The Two Chair Exercise”. This activity is designed to help participants in the program to identify and share some of their hidden aspects that are protected by the cover story. We place two chairs in the front of the room and explain that one chair represents the part of ourselves that we go out of our way for people to see or know about us. The other chair represents the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden or unknown from many of those around us.
Group members take turns sitting in the chairs and sharing as much as they choose to share. We ask our facilitators to lead by example and go first in this activity to role model the process. First, people sit in the chair that represents the part of themselves that they would like for people to know or learn about them. They share as much as they would like, and then they move over to the second chair and tell the class what they do not want people to know. Again, they share only as much as they choose to share. We generally ask follow-up questions that include. “How are you feeling now?” and, “What is the risk for you if people knew this information that you generally try to hide?”
Following everyone’s turn, there needs to be a group discussion about what people are willing to do in order to keep the information in the second chair hidden. Participants often will discuss their willingness to lie, use violence, avoid vulnerable situations, etc.--all to avoid loss of connection, undesirable judgements, and adverse emotions. Interestingly, participants will often recognize that their attempts to hide the "undesireable" aspects of their character often create the very result they were attempting to avoid.
Interestingly, participants will often recognize that their attempts to hide the "undesireable" aspects of their character often create the very result they were attempting to avoid.
At the Family Peace Initiative, we believe that as people become less afraid of sharing their own truth, they become safer to others. We routinely look for opportunities to encourage participants to move beyond their cover stories to tell their stories in a more authentic way. This “Two-chair Activity”, is just one of many ways to move past cover stories to access more genuine, authentic self-examination.