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  • Grant Turner

The Power of Story

The narrative we hold about our life helps us understand the past and manage the present.



Not only am I fascinated by hearing people’s stories but they are also very important in the therapy process. The narrative people hold about themselves is significant and in many ways, it can define how we understand ourselves. A clear, linear sense of our own story can act like a handrail to steady us along the route. We hold onto the past so we can have support to move into the future.


Almost as important as the story itself is the way it's told. If I were to compare it with how films are described by genre some people’s story unfolds like a romantic comedy while others as an action movie. And the glossed-over parts can say just as much as the sections expressed in rich detail.


There’s some theory that suggests that if a person has a decent grasp of their history with its realistic, and to be expected, ups and downs that’s a good thing. So the idea that having a coherent narrative about ourselves seems to be underpinned by something, it’s certainly a good starting point. Yet, it’s common for there to be holes or even no memory about sections of early life. To me, this feels like the through line of the story has snapped. It leaves certain parts isolated, broken off like small islands. It becomes a half-completed dot-to-dot drawing where sections are left unformed.


Part of connecting with our own story more deeply is that we are actively engaged with it rather than passively holding the story we’ve been given. Being curious about the events and people that have shaped us is valuable as over time different layers reveal themselves. And as we go through different life stages we notice new things and the story evolves into a richer relationship.


 

I was in a session once and the therapist pointed out something very simple about my own story. I thought I had a very clear idea about a particular way I defined myself and how it framed my early life. Yet with a few words he significantly changed how I understood that part of my life and the narrative I’d held onto for so long fell away. It didn’t so much disappear, as become a much bigger, nuanced picture. This aspect of my history suddenly came alive as a very different story. Something that was slightly misaligned that I'd got used to suddenly slotted into place. And what was fairly obvious or inconsistent to the therapist was seamless to me. An element of therapy not often mentioned is that of describing your experience out loud for another to hear. On the surface this can seem mundane yet can often feel incredibly powerful.


Being able to understand and process our past gives us the tools to make sense of and manage difficult situations in the present

I was recently listening to an interview between therapist Julia Samuel and writer Abi Morgan (Therapy Works, podcast). Abi was describing a series of destabilising life events and what helped was her ability, particularly as a writer, to hold a narrative around what happened. Julia Samuel suggested that being able to understand and process our past gives us the tools to make sense of and manage difficult situations in the present.


It seems that if parts of our history are cut off or forgotten we have fewer resources to draw on when things get difficult. Additionally, we can be left with a range of uncomfortable feelings and have no idea where they came from. A solid narrative can make life feel more than a series of random events and becomes a reassuring way of framing our experience.


Myth is one of the primary ways some people make sense of their lives. It’s as if something is borrowed from the bigger story to hold the abstract personal one. Maybe there’s an element of the larger picture that helps us transcend our immediate situation. Giving us the confidence to move forward when things feel uncertain.


 

There are a number of practical ways we can begin to engage with our own story. One is to write it down. I think there’s something very powerful about the physicality of writing it down on paper. Firstly, there’s an external object so we can begin to have some clarity about it. But also it takes the half-formed, half-felt feelings and images swirling around our mind and lays it out in a sequence. We then have a sense of what the overarching themes are. We can ponder what’s missing and what we’ve left out. And ask ourselves a few questions. What kind of film would it be, is there a comparison to an existing film? If it was a poem what kind of ending would we want it to have? How does the central character of your story relate to other literary characters? It may suit some people to sketch out various scenes from their life and make a collage. It could all be joined together and hung on the wall. What overall sensation do you get from looking at the whole image? How would other people describe it? If you imagine yourself much older and looking back at the snapshots of your life what feelings come up? What would you have done differently? Can you add an image of the future you’d like to see?


With these simple exercises, you can begin to engage with your own narrative. By coming back later to what you’ve done you can begin an ongoing dialogue with your own history. It’s only by gaining a sense of our personal story that we have the opportunity to change what comes next.



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