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The Transformational Power of Storytelling

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We are storytellers. Perhaps more than anything else, it's what makes us human. Whether it's an archetypal myth, the events of the day on the 11:00 p.m. news, or our own personal lives, stories are the fabric of our existence.

In a very literal sense, we are stories. The narrative that is our personal history is the essence of who we are. Long-term memory doesn't fully become operational until we're about 4 years old. As the neuropsychological linking mechanism develops that ties the flow of events together, we begin to experience our life as a story. It is at this moment in time that our sense of self is born.

Figuratively speaking, successful living is being able to have script control over our life story. Ironically, it is during stressful times when we have a bit more leverage to change ourselves and shift the storyline. It is during these difficult moments when we're forced to find internal resources to cope with a particular challenge. Successfully doing so alters our perception of ourselves and affords us an opportunity to do a bit of rewriting.

Listening to and reading stories can help jumpstart the process. There are a variety of storytelling formats, but three have particular relevance for changing our narrative: myths, metaphors and shared personal experiences.

In terms of depth and resonance, the myth of "the hero" is a powerful example. Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist, wrote extensively about this myth in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He described how a person takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary. Experiencing some difficulty in life, the individual is briefly removed from reality, goes through a profound transformational experience and returns a changed person. The message is clear: We're all capable of much more than we realize, and it is only when we're tested do we discover our strengths. This discovery can alter our self-perception and change the trajectory of our life.

While myths, as vehicles for conveying wisdom, have been around since the beginning of human history, the therapeutic use of metaphor -- the subtly structured "story with a message" -- is a more recent development.

Over the past few decades, due primarily to the brilliant hypnotic work of the late Dr. Milton Erickson, metaphor has become more widely employed. Constructing a storyline that parallels the problem a person is experiencing offers the unconscious mind an opportunity to draw an analogy.

In his later years and confined to a wheelchair due to polio, Erickson would hold workshops in his home in Arizona.[1] With participants sitting in a circle, his wife would wheel him in, and he would tell stories about his years growing up on a farm. Intuitively, he knew which tale was relevant to an individual's life. He would use his voice and his eyes to send the message "this is for you." The term "conversational hypnosis" is typically used to describe Erickson's storytelling technique. His folksy style belied this subtle linguistic skill.

Our third storytelling technique is the most commonly used -- shared personal experience. With the proper timing and content, a personal story can allow someone struggling to feel both normal and hopeful. Often, people tend to think that the feelings they're having during a stressful, unresolved situation are abnormal. Sharing difficult moments can have a profound impact by validating another person's experience, while simultaneously providing practical wisdom.

Throughout the ages children are told stories at times when they need guidance.  As adults, we occasionally need that very same guidance. The magic of a story transcends age and time.

References:

[1] Rosen, Sidney (Ed.). My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

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