Human beings are story-telling animals. Once our needs for shelter, food, and connection are accounted for, that which we most require is stories. Narratives are so fundamental to humanity they appear to be co-emergent with the origin of the species. For as long as mankind has existed, there are stories — painted on cave walls, carved into stone, sung in ballads, inscribed on parchment, printed into books, made into movies, and binge-watched on Netflix.
Storytelling seems to comprise a basic underlying way our brain works and the way in which we understand the world, ourselves, and others. It’s so much a part of the elements in which we live and breathe that we often don’t notice how much we both internally generate and consume stories, endlessly, all day long.
It’s easy to assume we do it merely to stave off boredom. But there is something about stories human beings can’t live without. Narratives, it would appear, serve some deeper, essential purpose in our ability to function. Our story-telling instinct continues even when our conscious minds are shut down. At night, our brains throw out dramatic scenes heavy with symbolism. Sleep science suggests that this nighttime plot-generating process is essential for our physical and emotional regulation.
Telling our personal stories is easily the world’s oldest form of psychotherapy. Millennia before the invention of psychology, we went to our elders, shamans, priests, imams, and rabbis for the healing process of relating our experiences, being attentively listened to, and receiving guidance and wisdom. All modern psychotherapy is, in a sense, a storytelling cure. Therapists are expert listeners: they first work to understand their clients’ experiences, then assist in the construction and consolidation of their personal story. The therapist can ferret out false narratives, self-undermining stories the client may have been telling for years (sometimes without full awareness), and help in the revision of more authentic and life-giving autobiographies.
The impact of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves is profound. If we tell ourselves stories of confidence and capability, we are filled with energy and drive. If we tell ourselves deflating stories of unworthiness, we hold ourselves back. If we tell ourselves stories of fear and avoidance, we may deprive ourselves of positive, life-enriching experiences. In the case of traumatic experiences, the story of that trauma may play on a continual loop in the background of our minds, colouring our entire experience of the world. We may not be fully aware of the narratives we internally weave, but they continue non-stop, day and night.
We are all living an epic tale in which we ourselves are the protagonists. And so perhaps the reason we are so attracted to stories – especially the archetypal myth of the victorious hero — is a reflection of our yearning to overcome our seemingly insurmountable obstacles, our debilitating wounds, our habitual patterns, and reach inwards to the selves we know we truly are. In the hero’s story, we hear echoes of a forgotten potential or capability within, not yet realized. We identify with a nagging sense of an undiscovered, not wholly manifested, fullness inside each of us, and an untapped energy to change our lives for the better. Stories can be an escape from the mundane, but they can also serve as a challenge to reach our true potential.
In our world of quick-fix self-help programs, and pills and anodynes for what ails us, perhaps we’ve lost sight of the regenerative power of telling our own stories. No one else can tell them for us: our stories are ours alone, as unique as we are, formed by experiences through which only we have lived, perceived through the framing lens of our distinct inborn personalities. We ourselves — each individual — have never appeared in the world before and never will again. We owe it to ourselves to discover what our one story of this life will be.