July 24, 2024

SStorytelling plays an important role in every culture and society. It is through stories that we communicate, learn and understand the multifaceted nature of human experience. Beyond their social function, stories play a crucial role in shaping our internal narrative – the ongoing story we tell ourselves about who we are.

This narrative, formed from our beliefs, past experiences, and mental frameworks, deeply influences our self-concept, our expectations for the future, and our responses to new situations. As Canadian Indigenous author Harold R Johnson asserted, “We are the stories we are told and we are the stories we tell ourselves.”

The narrative is not static, but tends to be self-perpetuating. Every new experience we encounter is interpreted through the lens of our existing narrative. For example, someone who views themselves as resilient and capable will approach challenges with confidence and determination, increasing their chances of success or attributing failure to external factors rather than personal inadequacy. Conversely, someone whose narrative centers around failure and inadequacy may avoid risks and view setbacks as confirmation of their self-doubt. This cycle emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the stories we build about ourselves. They can be empowering or disempowering, helpful or harmful.

Recognizing that both our sense of who we are and much of what we do is based on the stories we tell ourselves, rather than an objective truth, is a critical step in allowing us to change it. This recognition allows us to more easily challenge our dominant internal voice and rewrite our story to be more flexible and supportive. But this process is easier said than done. This is especially so since parts of our story may be outside of our conscious awareness, often requiring the help of a therapist.

Storytelling is central to therapy, where we are invited to share our conscious stories and thereby hear them out loud. This process helps us get a sense of the continuity and coherence of our stories, even as we find there are gaps in these stories and hidden layers beneath their narratives.

It helps us form new connections, examine past experiences, identify patterns, and gain insights into which aspects of our narratives may be limiting and which may be helpful. Therapists work together to understand and empathize with the origins of these stories help deconstruct useless narratives and co-create new stories with greater potential for growth.

Consider the case of Maria*, a talented 35-year-old artist who sought therapy for chronic anxiety. Maria’s internal narrative was dominated by a story of inadequacy, stemming from a childhood marked by pressure to achieve unrealistic goals and being overshadowed by siblings who were more academically capable. In therapy, Maria explored these early experiences and their influence on her internal script, in which she told herself that she was “a waste of space” and was never going to amount to anything. Her anxiety would peak around exhibitions, sometimes causing her to withdraw or withhold artwork she deemed inadequate.

Through therapy, Maria began to gain a new perspective on her internal script, and gradually felt empowered to let go of elements that did not serve her well. She and her therapist worked together to construct a new narrative that included her many strengths and considerable artistic achievements. This shift strengthened Maria’s sense of competence and worth, enabling her to approach her career and personal life with renewed confidence, greatly reducing her anxiety.

While this may sound simple, it is actually a process that takes time and patience, with many potential setbacks along the way. By adulthood, our internal narratives are often deeply ingrained and resistant to change. Even when we see them for what they are, they still hold significant power. As therapists, we encourage patients to approach this process with self-compassion, recognizing the difficulty and the slow pace of change.

Our stories are challenging to change because they do not form in isolation. They are written within the context of our family stories and the collective stories of our communities and societies. These broader stories can provide a sense of belonging and identity, helping us understand our place in the world. But they can also marginalize those who don’t fit into the dominant narrative.

Maria struggled to see her creativity as a strength in a family that valued academic achievement. Similarly, her identity as a gay woman made her feel like an outsider within a heteronormative cultural narrative. By examining and challenging our internal narratives, we must also critically evaluate the family and social narratives that inform and influence the stories we tell ourselves.

On a positive note, Maria’s success as an artist helped shift her family narrative. In fact, her parents and siblings recognized the value of her artistic talents long before Maria did, challenging their previous family narrative of what constitutes success.

Maria needed the help of a therapist who could help her see that her own story was behind that of her family. We develop stories as shortcuts to navigate our worlds and it takes energy and focus to reevaluate how useful they are. Often narratives that seem unhelpful on the surface are unconsciously felt as protective.

Maria telling herself that she was useless allowed her to deflect the impact of someone else telling her that. Our narratives are layered, but for us to be mentally healthy, they must have some fluidity. They must be able to change, whether on a personal, family or social level. Given the powerfully defining nature of our stories, we must keep them light and flexible and liberally edit them when necessary, not only for our own health, but that of our societies.

*Maria is a fictitious amalgam to illustrate many similar cases we see

Prof Gill Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship are co-authors of The Talking Cure. Gill also appears on the podcast Three Association in which relational psychotherapists explore their blind spots

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