The Powers of Storytelling

When I was a little girl, I was a storyteller, able to weave tales together like a master. I would try to convince others my stories were true, often because the stories felt so true for me. It was an imaginary world, and growing up in a home with one black and white television, at time before internet, my imagination was a critical source of entertainment for me.

The origin of storytelling goes back thousands of millennia, and for our earliest ancestors, had significantly greater purpose than mere entertainment. Sharing stories has been an integral part of our history, human nature, and survival. Storytelling helped to make sense of and provide meaning for life and death, imparted information about potential threats and means of survival, created emotional connection with others, and of course communicated various perspectives and experiences throughout generations. (Watch video)

Telling our own personal stories can also be profoundly healing. In fact there is an entire psychological perspective known as “narrative therapy,” which focuses on the individual’s ability to tell, explore, and understand their stories in a meaningful way. Ultimately, we make sense of our world through our stories, and whether we are aware or not, we have a plethora of stories going through our minds everyday. Saying our stories aloud can be extremely powerful. When there is someone to witness our story (e.g. a therapist, a trusted friend or family member, a support group, or even a larger audience), we have the opportunity to be heard, felt, and understood, allowing us to view our experience from a different perspective.

For those of us who are a bit more discreet and would rather not broadcast our stories, there are also incredible benefits of writing about our experiences. James W. Pennebaker, PhD has researched and published his findings (Opening Up) on the power of reflective writing. He proposed that by exploring our stories with a willingness to openly address how we feel about those experiences, we are able to understand ourselves better, process past traumas, and ultimately, live healthier lives. Dr. Pennebaker found that people who were able to honestly identify and disclose their feelings about specific life events experienced reduction in depression and anxiety, lower stress response, and improved immune function.

Stories are especially important for children. While the brain is in the earlier stages of development, young children are less able to process abstract concepts like the death of a loved one, changing family dynamics with a new baby in the house, or understanding adoption. However, if they read a story about a character (even if it’s a hippopotamus), and they feel they have something in common with the fictional character, they become better equipped to understand and make sense of their own unique and personal story. Stories also offer children an opportunity to ask questions and gain better awareness and empathy for others.

As children, we are primed for stories, when our imaginative mind may be at its height. I realize as I’ve gotten older, other more practical qualities like logic, problem solving, and concrete thinking have become more dominant, and my creative powers of make-believe have fallen by the wayside. There is hope. Like the muscles in our body we may neglect over time, the imaginative areas of our brain have the potential to be revived with a little exercise and practice.

Like a “moth” to the flame, we continue to be drawn to stories through books, television, film, and more recently social media. In the era of reality television, it’s refreshing to know about community clubs and organizations (e.g. The Moth, Toastmasters, This American Life, etc.) which focus on real experiences… raw, uncensored, and honest human stories. Sharing our own personal stories and listening to the stories of others provide us with an incredible opportunity. Storytelling can help us to feel validated through shared experiences with others, facilitate healing, create a sense of connection, and reinforce our commonality as a species. We need this now more than ever!

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