The Therapeutic Benefits Of Telling Your Stories
Listening is the connective tissue in relationships, and as member of a profession that demands listening with a maximum of attention, it was with great interest that I read a research study showing that an engaged listener’s brain activity synchs up with the brain of the storyteller, producing a shared emotional and cognitive experience in real time. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Psychological Sciences published a study that showed “coupling” in the brain waves of tellers and listeners, showing visible evidence of the way our consciousness connects. And here’s the kicker. This is an effect “that vanishes when participants fail to communicate.” This might mean that making an effort to develop our storytelling skills can pay off in stronger social bonds and an uptick in that intangible but psychologically powerful sense of being heard and understood by others.
Relationships are forged with the raw material of our self-defined themes and the roles we take in our personal narratives. When we shape a story we include specific details, leave out others, and lead with the ways we want the world to see and understand us. Researcher Mary Main published important work that looked at attachment between parents and children inter-generationally. She found that the way parents told their own stories, ‘how they made sense of their past lives — or didn’t — was the most powerful predictor (85 percent accuracy) of whether their own children would be securely attached to them. It wasn’t what happened to them as children, but how they came to make sense of what happened to them that predicted their emotional integration as adults and what kind of parents they’d be.”
Coming to terms with the past, with what has happened and shaped our lives, is in many ways the retelling of a story in a way that makes meaning out of pain. A story that creatively describes a personal struggle and how we faced it can shift our perspective about our strengths and resilience. Telling it to others is a way of giving witness to ourselves and there is always the chance that our story is exactly what someone else needs to hear.
When we tell our stories to others who are actively engaged and listening, our neurons fire together and forge deep bonds. “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: How Relationships and The Brain Interact To Shape Who We Are. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The stories we tell shape our sense of self and the meaning we make out of our circumstances and experiences. Creative interaction is how psychotherapy heals. It is how relationships grow. Listening is an expression of connection with people and a way to participate in shifting someone else’s personal narrative. The stories we tell define us to the people who receive them. A narrative of transformation can be a powerful part of creating one.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages and background.