Why Stories Matter

Every life is an unfolding story, a one-of-a-kind tale with infinite potential for comedy and tragedy. Because we lead busy lives, we seldom take the time to notice the roles we play in the stories we tell, and may continue to replay a particular storyline long past its prime. We may also fail to appreciate that we are the spin doctors of our own tales, with the power to shape our story as one of triumph or tragedy.

For example, Melanie, a capable accountant, was passed over for a promotion she wanted very much. She told colleagues and friends that she was “cheated, unappreciated and ripped off,” and unlikely to have much success in the future. Jason, an auto mechanic, developed severe bursitis in his hip, making daily work painful and uncertain. He commented to friends,” Just lousy luck, I guess, but I’m working with my physical therapist, taking my anti-inflammatory, and staying hopeful that this won’t interfere too much with my life.”

Which story do you think has the most power and potential, and why does that matter?

Telling a story about a life experience is a basic way we come to know ourselves and make sense of what happens to us. How we interpret that story affects how we feel about ourselves, which influences how our lives unfold. A “good enough” story creates the conditions to develop our point of view, hone our character, learn to deal with challenges and make decisions, and cultivate particular feelings.

Melanie’s story is one of blame, self-sabotage, and pessimism. It has likely been colored by previous stories she told herself, and can unfortunately be a template for the decisions she makes going forward. Jason’s is a tale of resilience and optimistic determination, which generates the positive emotions connected to good health outcomes and a sense of well-being. He may be the type of person who others characterize as someone who typically makes lemonade out of lemons.

Studies repeatedly show that individuals function more effectively and have better physical health when they can link their personal stories to endings that convey growth, positivity, and renewed possibility. For example, understanding a divorce as a lesson in vulnerability, humility, and personal responsibility will help us feel more optimistic than casting the story as one of blame, failure, and guilt. Certainly, we cannot control everything that happens to us, but we can take charge of the way we interpret our experiences, actively mining them for positive meaning.

Studies also tell us that stories in which narrators draw lessons about the self, important relationships, or life in general are especially associated with better adjustment and greater emotional maturity. It seems we are drawn to those stories in which we can learn how a protagonist gains insight, wisdom, or self-understanding from a series of reconstructed life events. Having such a redemptive story provides the hope—even confidence—that our efforts will bear fruit in the long run. This means that each of us has the power to transform our stories in resilient directions; to reimagine ourselves as the hero(ine) of our unfolding story and to reclaim our everyday experiences through choice and voice.

Find out about upcoming programs with Karen Skerrett at Kripalu.

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Karen Skerrett is a clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty at the Family Institute/Center for Applied Psychological Studies at Northwestern University.

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