A Sense Of What Matters: How Storytelling Strengthens Resilience

My dad bought a Sears and Roebuck folk guitar with his first paycheck, when he was 14 years old. It was 1927, the automobile industry setting in motion a cultural transformation that continues today at ever-increasing speed. There was money to be made building paved roads for all those cars and with that money my father got himself a friend for life.

A brilliant mechanic, he knew cars the way Yo-Yo Ma knows his way around the cello. It was a heady time for a guy with a knack for engineering, and not unusual for young men to choose full time work over education. But my dad’s decisions were driven as much by family misfortune as financial concerns, and circumscribed by loss. His mother died when he was six, his father remarried a few years later and moved in with the new wife, leaving an older, married sister to look after him. His oldest brother later drowned in the river that runs through the property, the house was lost to foreclosure. He completed eighth grade, then took off to build roads where none existed.

His lack of formal education and early losses clearly cast a heavy shadow over his sense of possibility in life. A mechanic who longed to be a surgeon, he was overworked, difficult to please, and financially stressed. But his repertoire of cowboy and folk songs — about beautiful girls pure of heart, the open sky at night, desperate love, loneliness, the way things come and go in life, crazy characters in the old west — gave us a glimpse of his life before we were born and opened up important conversations. Understanding the circumstances that shaped him was instrumental to understanding ourselves. And research supports this as a healing and empowering dynamic in important relationships. And that whether or not the story is a happy one, knowing about a parent’s pivotal life experiences helps strengthen psychological resilience.

Facebook CEO Sheryl Samberg cast a wide net in her search for resources to help her young children face the long-term impact of life-changing loss after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death. “As parents, teachers and caregivers, we all want to raise resilient kids — to develop their strength so they can overcome obstacles big and small,” she writes in her New York Times Opinion piece How To Build Resilient Kids, Even After A Loss. “Resilience leads to better health, greater happiness and more success. The good news is that resilience isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.” Stories — both sharing our perception of experiences and listening to those of others — are at the heart of working this muscle. Through story, we can come to terms with, and make meaning of what happened and must be faced. “Stories bring together the external, observable, objective world and our internal experience of our minds,” says Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and author of The Developing Mind.

When we tell our stories to others who are actively engaged and listening, our neurons fire together and forge deep bonds. This sense that we matter, are connected to others and moving through the tough times as part of a narrative larger than our own is linked to resilience. And the language we use to describe an experience becomes the truth we carry around about it. “Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow,” writes Maria Konnikova in “How People Learn To Become Resilient” in The New Yorker. “Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.” Because resilience grows through practice, gaining skills in self-management and self-expression, we can learn to describe what happens as transformational. And in the telling, shift into a new way of thinking.

Samberg writes that “talking about the past can build resilience. When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history — where their grandparents grew up, what their parents’ childhoods were like — they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of mattering and belonging. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has found that expressing painful memories can be uncomfortable in the moment, but improves mental and even physical health over time.”

Storytelling skills stronger social bonds and an uptick in that intangible but psychologically powerful sense of being heard and understood by others. When we develop a story about lived experiences we include specific details, leave out others, and lead with the ways we want the world to see and understand us. Relationships are forged with the raw material of our self-defined themes and the roles we take in our personal narratives. We tell stories to make sense out of what has happened and cannot be changed, a bracing creative process that is helped along by some self-reflection and by the fact that others are going to be impacted. What details we include, for example, and those better left out. The meaning we make from a memory. Our emotional vulnerability and truth — even if they mean revealing our mistakes, misperceptions and missteps — are the music of a personal story that penetrate the consciousness of a listener beyond conscious awareness.

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

My dad lived just long enough to see me complete a degree and find work in the field of music therapy. In the last few years of his life, the fact that music was used to reach into dark, difficult spaces about which people go silent intrigued him, maybe because music told his story more effectively than he ever could through spoken word. When we could not talk about issues that honestly and painfully divided us — like politics or religion or my plans to travel after graduation or any number of other tension-inducing topics — we could connect through his passionate interest in music as a curative force. And it was only through these conversations that I recognized the healing impact of his children’s achievements and higher learning. The story goes on. And crafting our own narrative of transformation can be a powerful part of creating one for others.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer who is President of Lifestage, Inc which designs and facilitates creative professional and personal development workshops and classes. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds.