The Psychological Importance of Storytelling

psychological importance of storiesHuman 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.

Maybe:

  • 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.  fiona@yellowdotwomen.com

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.

Emotional Triage

To illustrate blog on Emotional Triage Yellow Dot WomenMuch has been spoken and written about emotional first aid recently and, whilst it is a useful skill set, I want to take you back a step to emotional triage.  In a medical setting triage is used to determine the degree of severity of a wound or illness in order to plan the most appropriate and timely treatment.  The same is true with emotional triage.

Emotional wounds can stem from issues such as overload, loneliness, fear, rejection and failure.  At the moment, during this period of isolation, it is likely that you have experienced/are experiencing at least one of these issues.

Emotional triage requires awareness; awareness of the problem, of how you are feeling about it and what your current level of capability is for dealing with it.  You might find the following plan helpful – grab a notebook and jot your answers down.

  1. Ask yourself: What am I feeling?

It is important to be able to name an emotion, to recognise what you are feeling.  Sometimes it’s really difficult because you are feeling a complex mix of different emotions.  Try to tease them out – e.g. I am feeling a bit sad, very anxious, hurt and let down.  Sometimes, it is helpful to give a particular set of feelings a name so that you recognise it when it happens – Winston Churchill famously referred to his depressive state as “the black dog”, this was simply a short hand for the complex mix of emotions he felt at the time.

  1. Ask yourself: Why do I feel that way?

In psychological circles there is a great deal of debate about whether an emotion is a reflex which is followed by a thought or vice versa.  For example, if you came face to face with a tiger would you feel fear as a reflex or would you first go through a thought process about the tiger which then elicits fear as a response, not to the tiger, but to the fear.  This is important.

Are you feeling lonely because you are alone and on some level, in your mind, alone = lonely?  Or are you just feeling lonely but can’t really identify why?

Is your emotion a reasonable response to an event or occurrence?  Or perhaps you are looking around for a reason to explain the way you feel.

  1. Ask yourself: How long have I felt that way?

Is this a new feeling for you?  Or is it a familiar occurrence – an “old friend” like Churchill’s black dog?

Is this a fleeting feeling?  Has it lasted a few hours/days/weeks?  Can you ever remember feeling better than this?

  1. Ask yourself: How intense is this feeling?

Think of your emotion in terms of a pain score.  Rate your emotion from one to ten where one is “barely noticeable” and ten is “unbearable”.  These scores are somewhat arbitrary but will help you to monitor and understand your emotional state.

  1. Ask yourself: Can I make it better?

Have you handled this before?  What did you do then?  Can you do it again?

If this is new to you, is there information you can draw on which will help?

Do you feel utterly incapable of dealing with this alone?

The answers

diagram illustrating the idea of emotional triage

Depending on your answers you will need to do one of the following:

Rub it Better

If your emotional triage reveals a state which is the equivalent of banging your shin on the edge of a cupboard (i.e. it scores 1-4 on the “pain scale” but it was fleeting and I understand why I feel that way) then all you need to do is acknowledge it and rub it better.  Use whatever soothing activities work for you – a few minutes of deep breathing, a moment or two of space to gather your thoughts while you wait for the pain to ease.

Apply Emotional First Aid

When emotional triage reveals a state which won’t simply pass if you take a moment out, then you need to apply more significant first aid.  Apply your knowledge and experience, do some research, use your existing skills and stick on a plaster.

e.g. If you are feeling lonely, make contact with someone, if you are upset by someone’s words give them some calm feedback, if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and then prioritise.

Seek Help from a Friend

If your personal resources are low and you feel incapable of applying emotional first aid it’s time to acknowledge that problem.  It might be that emotional triage shows that the pain is too intense (5-8), that you have felt this way for too long and you are exhausted, maybe you have tried your usual strategies and they just aren’t working or perhaps you don’t understand your feelings and you don’t know what to do.

It is time to phone a friend.  Choose someone who is kind and patient, someone with a degree of empathy, someone who knows when to empathise and when to give you a metaphorical kick up backside!

Talking to someone you trust can help you to gain perspective, to see your emotions for what they are.  It can help you to formulate a plan – your friend might remember what helps you even if you can’t.

Seek Help from a Professional

If talking to a friend doesn’t help, or if you don’t have anyone in your life who will listen and understand then it’s time to talk to a professional.

If your emotions are high on the pain scale (6-10), if your usual strategies aren’t working and if your feelings aren’t dissipating, then it may be time to talk to a professional.

Depending on your situation that might be a doctor, a helpline, a charity specialising in your particular problem, a coach or a therapist.  A coach can help you to find the best approach for you and to identify ways in which you can help yourself.  A counsellor/therapist can keep you safe whilst you explore long term emotional issues and can help you to heal.

Please do seek help.  Doctors, charities, coaches and therapists are all still working (albeit differently) throughout the lockdown and they would want to offer you support if you are struggling at the moment.

During this period of lockdown Fiona is offering her coaching/counselling sessions via Zoom on a “pay what you can” basis.

 

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Grief and Loss

Wilting orange roses in a white jug to represent grief and lossI seem to have been working with grief and loss quite a lot recently.  At any given point I am likely to have clients who are dealing with bereavement, the end of a relationship, redundancy or some other kind of profound loss.  Grief and loss are often evident even if that was not the initial purpose of the consultation.  Of course, everybody’s experiences are different but I am also drawn to the similarities I see when women are grieving.

In 1969, after years of working with the terminally ill, and campaigning on their behalf for better understanding, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published the book “On Death and Dying”.  In it, she noted that people who are dying tend to all go through a similar pattern of adjustment.  She identified five key stages to this process; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Later, in “On Grief and Grieving”, Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler, noted that those grieving the loss experienced a similar pattern of adjustment and they adapted the model accordingly.  It is this pattern of similarity that I often see in my clients.

It is important to note that the model was originally developed to help doctors understand what might be going on with their patients.  It is in no way meant to suggest that everybody has the same experience of grief and loss.  Your loss is yours and is unique to you.  Some people will experience all the stages, some will experience only three or four and some will experience extra stages all of their own.  One person may sail progressively through the stages and another may get stuck at one particular point.

Over the years, additional research has shown that the same five stages seem to apply to any kind of profound loss so, if you too are experiencing grief and loss at the moment, a brief review of the Kübler-Ross model may prove helpful – not as a manual to tell you how you should grieve, but as a way of helping you to understand your grief.

Denial

During this stage you may be in shock.  You genuinely cannot believe that this terrible event has happened to you.  You cannot imagine being able to continue with your life without the person/situation you have lost.  In a sense your unconscious mind is protecting you from the full force of your loss, allowing you to deal with it bit by bit and never giving you more than you can cope with.

Anger

People often feel incredibly guilty that they are filled with anger but it is an entirely natural and very helpful part of the process.  The anger may be aimed at the person you lost or the person who you think caused your loss (perhaps the HR manager who fired you or your ex’s new partner).  It may be directed at someone who just doesn’t understand your pain, someone who says “I know what it’s like”, when they couldn’t possibly.

But that anger is a connection.  After the isolation of denial, anger re-connects you with people – even if it does so in a negative way.  Anger, and all the other negative emotions it holds hands with, bring you back into the world.

Bargaining

The bargaining stage is easier to understand before the loss, when you might make deals such as “If you let X live I promise to raise lots of money for cancer research” or “If I keep my job I’ll work really hard and never ask for a pay rise again”.

After the loss, this phase is experienced more through the phrase “what if?”  “What if he had never smoked?”  “What if the doctor had caught it earlier?”  “What if I had worked harder?”  These “What ifs?” give us another focus for anger and it is common to vacillate between the two stages.

Depression

Eventually, the anger and the bargaining may give way to a sense of despair.  There is nothing that can be done to change the situation and so depression sets in.

Please understand that depression is a perfectly sane and appropriate reaction to grief and loss.  It does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from a mental health problem nor that you need medication to pull you out of it.  In general, people (including many doctors) don’t know what to say to a depressed person, they feel awkward and instead of showing empathy they want you to be fixed and so point you towards a clinical solution.

Depression is actually the first stage of acceptance.  The denial is gone, the anger is diminishing and you are no longer trying to make bargains.  Depression is actually a sign that you are progressing through the stages of grief and loss.  You may find that talking to a counsellor helps at this stage – not because you need to be fixed but because you need to be understood.

Of course, if the depression lasts too long, becomes increasingly debilitating or if you experience persistent thoughts about self-harm, you should seek medical advice.

Acceptance

The final stage in the process is acceptance.  Acceptance is not the same as happiness.  Acceptance does not mean that you are “over it”.  You may never entirely get over the grief and loss.

However, acceptance does mean recognising that this is your new reality.  From this point you can begin to countenance the idea of a future albeit a future without your loved one/a job/a partner.  You may still experience anger.  You may still feel sad.  But somehow you can creep back towards life and find a way of being that is not clouded by denial.

These five stages take as long as they take.  You cannot rush them.  You can pretend that you are ok but they will find a way to expose the truth of that.  Grief and loss will out.

As a society we are not very good at dealing with death and bereavement.  We don’t know what to say or how to be.  We expect people to “get over it” far too quickly.  The Victorians used to impose a twelve month period of mourning where black was worn and social lives were curtailed.  This is probably too prescriptive but it is somehow more understanding than today’s norms where workplaces often have a sliding scale of compassionate leave (a week for a spouse, 3 days for a parent etc.).  Being back at work does not mean that someone should be back to normal.

I hope this blog has helped you to understand your own response to grief and loss or to understand that someone else’s response may be entirely normal given their circumstances.

If you would like to talk through your experiences with someone impartial but caring please get in touch by clicking on the button below.

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