Karin Lawson, PhD is a licensed psychologist who is passionate about helping people create change in their lives through self-reflection, self-compassion, new perspective and new ideas. In her writing, Dr. Lawson offers some thought about the power of storytelling both in and outside of therapy.
Feeling incredibly honored to be a contributor for the OPC Blog, I am jumping in this week with a reoccurring theme for me these past few months . . . storytelling. While this has actually been a theme in much of my life, more recently it has been popping up consistently. As a psychologist, I have the privilege of hearing people’s stories. In that work, it’s important to note the stories that they were told, the stories they tell themselves and the new stories that we create together. While I have never been formally trained in narrative therapy, I have used it without realizing it. Being someone who naturally has gravitated toward journaling and creative writing in my early life, that thread continues on in my blogging and the talk therapy that occurs in my office. My recent run-ins with reflections on storytelling have clarified some incredibly important aspects to why storytelling in our life matters. I’d love to share them with you.
In his University of Pennsylvania commencement speech on May 16, 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the wildly successful Broadway musical Hamilton, says this:
Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life, without ever overlapping incidents. For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are ten I left out…This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life.
To me, this speaks to a couple of things that we can look at more closely and gain insight. Take any story of your life, maybe the one you have told yourself or your therapist most recently and take note of what details you were pulled to emphasize versus which ones didn’t seem as interesting to you. Why are those details so important to us? This question isn’t meant to be a judgment that someone has chosen the wrong details to signify, but rather an opportunity for gentle curiosity to explore and understand better how we work and what’s important to us. Then we get to play around with perspective and think of the story we’ve recently told and tell it from another perspective. Was there someone else in the story? Can we tell the story from the imagined perspective of that person? Or can we tell it as if someone had been looking in from a far, but wasn’t a part of the story, as much as an observer? What is it like to think about this life experience as a “story”, not a made-up story or a fiction story, but a story, none the less?
My second recent run-in with the concept of storytelling was in the May-June 2016 issue of Psychotherapy Networker, in which the editor Richard Simon writes about The Moth. The Moth is a international phenomenon started by a poet in New York City, in which average people (i.e. people who don’t necessarily professionally write or perform) gather in groups, in cafes and theaters and tell true stories, as remembered by the storyteller, 5-minutes in length. There’s always a theme for the story night such as fathers, food, grudges, life in the fast lane, etc. The piece of Richard’s discussion of The Moth that struck me the most was the sense of connection that people feel in the shared experience of hearing stories. There is often tears, laughter and a knowing that even though the audience’s experience doesn’t mirror the storyteller’s experience, there is a relatable emotion at the heart. That’s the hard-part though for most of us, allowing ourselves to be revealing rather than omitting, self-editing and trying to keeping the rawness at bay.
In the spirit of knowing that our true stories are healing and connecting, I encourage you in the journey of recovery to share your truth, to know that others want the truth and to give yourself that gift of not being alone with it. That may mean that you reveal yourself to your family, your group therapy, your individual health care providers, your friends . . . whoever is safe and deserving of hearing your stories.
You can watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s speech on YouTube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4