Why are stories so important to us humans?
Human beings are the story species. From the earliest mythic hunts retold around tribal fires to the modern-day family evenings spent bingeing on the latest Netflix series, stories have captivated us. And yet, when it comes to our own life story, we are more liable to tell well-practised narratives that are unable to explain our struggling relationships, our lack of fulfilment or a life we feel adrift from.
As the human mind and its cognitive powers exponentially increased over millennia, humans found themselves increasingly at an evolutionary advantage. Like no other species, humans were able to learn from the past – through memories recalled and pored over – and imagine and shape future possibilities. This way of experiencing ourselves has placed us at the centre of our own story-world with us as the protagonist of a story moving from the past to the future in a continuous present. This uniquely human experience, where we can out-think our competitors, also tends to mean that we get pulled along by the mesmerising, dreamlike narrative.
Is what we experience and do in our awareness?
Though we believe we live in our own lives close-up and in technicolour, the truth is that much of what really happens is hidden from us. This can be a difficult thought to accept. We get a sense of this being true, however, when we try hard at our relationships, for example, but they keep breaking down in similar patterns, or when we achieve a life-long goal but it doesn’t make us happy. We can get a sense that our stories don’t match up with our experience.
The majority of the processes that the body and mind carry out – such as controlling our heart rate to deciding if we trust a person we’ve just met – are performed out of our awareness. This can be likened to an iceberg where only one tenth of its mass is visible above water. Nine tenths are out-of-sight below the surface.
How the past presents in the ‘now’
Another key factor is that many of our life decisions were made in childhood. This might sound strange, perhaps even outlandish, but think about it. Did you decide the family and culture you were born into? Or did you choose the personalities who surrounded you and their specific needs and struggles? Of course not. You – like all of us – did the only thing you could as a child: you adapted to your environment to try and get your needs met. While the impact of that process and what the cost was to you is often unseen.
Within early and intimate relationships, we do the best with what’s on offer to receive some level of acceptance and approval. These hidden life decisions, based on the logic of a young, immature mind, set us on a course for life as we try to make sense of experiences and create an unconscious working model of how we can be in relationships with others and who we are in those relationships. As a consequence, our self-stories have likely faced little challenge through their life journey to where we are at this very moment.
Through our life, we have been surrounded by other people’s stories – in our family, with friends, in the broader culture. These can have a positive, reinforcing impact on us. They can also overly influence us, make us maladapt and even make us lose touch with our own stories. Or trying to make our life fit someone else’s story.
How psychotherapy is about your story
People come to psychotherapy often due to problems encountered in their immediate lives, such as suffering from depression or a relationship breakdown. These issues however often point to deeper, underlying issues. Therapy offers the opportunity to look at what is going on underneath the one tenth of the iceberg. We do this together, therapist and client, in a collaborative process, using curiosity and compassion. It is through this unfolding process that a fresh and more connected story can emerge.
Through this therapeutic re-storying process, you engage with your personal narrative as the adult you are now, not the younger version of yourself who found themselves locked in rigid narrative episodes. As Jeremy Holmes, psychiatrist and writer on attachment theory and narrative, said, “Each story is there to be revised in the light of new experience, new facets of memory, new meaning” in a process of “narrative deconstruction and construction”. It is through this therapeutic work of review and rebirth that “narrative truth” and new meaning can surface and your story not only becomes understandable and real but it again becomes yours.
The mythologist and academic Joseph Campbell, who wrote about the ‘monomyth’ or common hero stories common across cultures, said, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
And perhaps this is a key aim of working with story in therapy: through opening up and meeting your self-story afresh, you can make sense of it, reclaim it and play an active part in its ongoing development. This offers the possibility of living a fuller and more engaged life, where you feel more here and more alive.
Thad is an experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor and a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). He works long-term with individuals in our Brighton and Hove practice.