Tell me the story of 2023.
What would be your story about this past year?
I imagine the shortened version would be a list of major events that occurred.
That's part of your story, but there's so much more.
If I told you about a girl who really wanted to go to a party and she finally got to go, you might nod and move on. If, however, I told you a story that started with tragedy when a young girl's parents died and she was left with no one to care for her except a stepmother and two sisters who were anything but caring, then explained to you how important the party was because she finally feel seen as acceptable instead of an outcast, and added in how, because of that one party, the girl who was once invisible to everyone was suddenly intensely pursued by someone who wanted to care for her and change the course of her life, you might find it more interesting. (You also might recognize it as the story of Cinderella.)
How would your story of 2023 start? Would it go chronologically, month by month, or is there some backstory you would add? Where are the locations where this story takes place? Are there major events that shape the storyline?
Who are the main characters? What are they bringing to this storyline - past hurts, unfulfilled dreams, strengths, vulnerabilities, resilience? Every character has unique qualities and also imperfections and vices. How do those impact the story? What are the characters' values that impact how the story plays out? How do the characters change as a result of events that occurred? Did they learn new skills, grow stronger through testing out their skills, or change their views of the themselves, others, or the world?
A good story usually is organized around a main theme - perhaps something the main character(s) wants or is trying to achieve. Most every scene and every event of the story would then relate to the theme in some way. If you were to put all of the pieces of 2023 on the table, would there be a theme? Some kind of meaning you could make from the parts? Likely as you pull further back from the separate events, you will find some underlying values or desires that thread through the events.
Stories follow characters through some kind of conflict. What conflicts have happened for these characters in 2023? Some conflicts are external obstacles and easier to bring to a resolution just through decisions the person makes, but some of those conflicts are probably internal and require some kind of inner change to their personhood. Maybe it's internal pitfalls the character has struggled with over and over. Maybe it's a vice they want to change. Maybe they find themselves repeating patterns over and over in different ways and want to find a new way of being in the world.
Tell me the story of this character’s journey to reach their goal. Did they get there yet? Did they travel over some lovely mountaintop moments and through some painful, dark valleys to navigate?
Every choice a person makes is a yes to one thing and a no to something else.
Maybe you remember from some of your classes that a story has a rising action - some kind of way the problem intensifies for the character. It's a moment when the stakes grow higher and there's more pressure. More they could lose. Less time now to make a decision. The challenges get more difficult, and the character now has to use the skills and strengths they've been developing along the way in new ways. How would you help your listener understand the risks - that is, what happens if the character fails? Every choice a person makes is a yes to one thing and a no to something else. What's at stake if the character succeeds? What did they have to say no to in order to achieve their goal? What were they willing to trade or give up along the way? Or why were the stakes too high that the character would choose to not release anything in the present and instead give up on the goal?
Is there an ending yet? A good ending explains the impact of the hero's journey. How did the character change? How did their world change? What didn't change? Did they find the journey worthwhile? Would they do it again or are there different paths they wish they had taken?
Why is a therapist talking about storytelling?
When we become good story-tellers of our experience, it has tremendous benefits for our mental health.
Story-telling really comes down to emotion. It's drawing your listener into the struggle and helping them feel what the main character feels. In order to do that, you have to make sense of the emotions associated with the struggle - the ones that feel good and the ones that hurt and everything in between. It's the act of making sense of the experiences we have that helps out mental health.
Why does identifying emotions and adding meaning (making sense of our experiences) matter? Our brain receives information from our body about what's happening. Those signals come from all of our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) as well as organs connected to the vagus nerve (stomach, heart, lungs, adrenal glands, etc.). The information is first routed through a very fast (but not so high tech) area in the middle of the brain that scans for danger. This is an area responsible for engaging the fight/flight system. As information comes into your brain, the brain scans for whether we need to fight or run away. If the alarm bells don't sound, then we engage the slower but more accurate parts of the brain.
The right side of the brain gets information first, and that side of the brain is most connected with emotion and experience. This side focuses on sensory information, emotion, and imagination, but it is nonverbal and has no real sense of time. It's very much just about how you feel in that moment, creating an overall "felt sense" of the experience. The right side pays attention to interpersonal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, and a sense of our position in the space we're in. If the information stops there, we can feel overwhelmed or frightened by some experiences, like a toddler who hears loud thunder but doesn't know what a thunderstorm is.
Ideally, the information leaves the right side of the brain and travels over through the left side where we add logic and language to what we're feeling. That's when we create a bigger picture of why things are happening, motivations of other people, the sequence of events, and an understanding of our part in the bigger map that was created. This side is about fine-tuning by placing experiences into categories and creating a sense of understanding, or "story," about our experience. When we understand that the loud sound that activated our flight response is because of weather and that by taking certain precautions, we can reduce the danger, we create an "integrated" understanding of the experience - integrating both the felt sense and the larger context around it. We now have a storyline of what that feeling is, what causes it, and what we can do about it.
The more integrated your understanding of your experiences is, the less reactive you will feel about your experiences and the more proactive you can be in your life. The more you are able to apply a storyline with a beginning, middle, and end to your experiences, the more confident you are in knowing what to do in similar situations.
So tell me...what is the story of 2023? What happened? What did it feel like? What factors influenced the experience? What challenged you? And how did your responses help or not help you solve that underlying theme that you've been dancing around throughout the year? Now that you've identified a theme, where will you take the story in 2024?