Human beings have been telling each other stories ever since we first daubed drawings on a cave wall. As children stories help us to develop empathy, understanding and a moral code (Vitz, 1990). Stories are how we connect with each other, how we establish our similarities and our differences (Chamberlin, 2003). Stories help us to learn and to grow. I cannot over-emphasise the psychological importance of storytelling.
Most of us have a natural ability to tell stories in a structured and cohesive way – with a beginning, a middle and an end. We may enhance a story to make it more amusing or more dramatic. We may change our language to reflect the needs and capabilities of our audience, but we still tell the story.
Stories in a Therapeutic Setting
In a therapeutic setting, the psychological importance of storytelling becomes even more pronounced. The client is offering a narrative of their life, trusting that the therapist will listen and understand. The more empathy that is shown the more open the client is able to be. It is often the case that a client offers their story to the therapist in the hopes that a professional will know what to do with it, how to fix things. In reality, the really transformative work begins when the client hears their own story.
In order to tell your own story to a stranger you have to give it context, background, structure and detail. You may hear your whole story in one sitting, possibly for the first time ever. Therapists will pick out salient points and emotional details. They will paraphrase to show you that you have been heard and understood. Within that process, you will hear some of the important parts of your story reflected back to you. The very act of sharing your story helps you to understand what it is about.
For example, some years ago I worked with a client who lived with an abusive partner. Her friends and family were aware of some of the issues but not of the severity. In telling her story to them she had felt a need to protect them and defend her partner so they had heard only edited snippets. In telling me her whole story she heard the unedited version for the first time. There was a key and important moment when she stopped and looked at me in surprise: “He’s a bastard isn’t he?” This moment was transformative. Of course, real life is not a fairy tale, she added many more chapters to her story before she effected lasting change but afterwards she identified this moment as pivotal.
Stories in a Time of Covid-19
Recently, I have been reflecting on the psychological importance of stories during this current Coronavirus lockdown. So far, I think too many individual stories are missing from the overall narrative.
At a governmental level, we are given statistics. Night after night we listen to the day’s death count and look at impenetrable graphs comparing the data from previous weeks and from other countries. But we are not moved by numbers, we are moved by stories. Those people who ignore the lockdown are not motivated to stay at home by 30,000 lost lives. But they might be influenced by one story with which they can identify. This week we have also marked the 75th anniversary of VE day. Most of us will have gained more compassionate understanding of the war from individual stories (real and fictional) than we ever have from the cold statistics. As a nation we need individual stories of loss and of hope to really understand this pandemic.
Front line medical staff and other key workers are all individuals with individual stories. Every time we call them heroes we commit them to one narrative, to one story with a predictable and sometimes devastating ending. As a hero it becomes very difficult to admit to weakness, to ask for help or to tell your own story when that story seems to be too far off script. The psychological weight of carrying your front line experiences quietly and heroically must sometimes be overwhelming.
The majority of us, staying at home as instructed, are told that “we are all in this together”. Once again, the sense that everyone is the same denies people their own narrative. People may feel that their story doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of this crisis. Last week I spoke to someone who had lost a loved one and had been unable to attend the funeral. She told me, in an apologetic tone, that he hadn’t died of Covid-19, as if that somehow made her loss less important.
Every day I hear someone say, “Well at least I still have a job/am not home schooling/am fit and healthy” etc. Showing empathy for other people is wonderful as is the ability to feel gratitude but you still have the right to own and tell your own story. If you were the only person whose life had changed so dramatically you would recognise the bizarre nature of your situation. The fact that something similar is happening to everyone else does not lessen the psychological impact on you.
Tell your Story
So, I invite you tell your coronavirus story, with a beginning a middle and a temporary end.
- Tell a friend and then agree to listen to theirs, all the way from start to finish.
- Write it down (maybe keep a journal) and read it aloud to yourself, in the mirror.
- Contact a counsellor and tell them your story – many, like me, are working remotely at the moment, using Zoom or similar.
- Write it down and email it to me – I promise to read and acknowledge it. firstname.lastname@example.org
Never underestimate the psychological importance of storytelling. Your story matters. In the telling of it you may find that you experience your own transformative moment.