Trauma creates a rupture in a person’s life story. Assumptions about ourselves, our place in world, and our expectations about the world are shaken, even shattered. Through telling new stories that we are able to rebuild our sense of self—to reconstruct an understanding of who we are, our place in the world, and what our expectations of the world are.
Human beings are storytellers. It is human nature to make meaning of our lives by organizing what happens to us into stories. We tell stories to understand what happens to us and to provide us with a framework to shape new experiences. We are immersed in stories throughout our lives. We are told bedtime stories while we are growing up. Later on, we watch movies, listen to the radio, and read novels and newspapers. We also tell our own stories. We talk to our partners when we get home about the day we’ve had. We listen to their stories. Together we create shared understandings that shape how we make sense of our experiences.
Stories help us to bind together our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a way that is continuous with our view of ourselves and our past history. A few words skillfully combined can be powerful enough to bring a nation together. One need only think of Winston Churchill’s stirring speeches during World War II and how they undoubtedly shaped resilience in the population: “You [Hitler] do your worst, and we will do our best.” Or of John F. Kennedy’s oft-quoted “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Viktor Frankl, the author of Mans Search for Meaning and a survivor himself of the Nazi death camps and who went on to become a leading psychiatrist, discusses the story of one of his patients, an elderly doctor who, two years after the death of his wife, remained distressed. Frankl asked the doctor what it would have been like had he died before his wife. It would have been awful for her, the doctor replied, as she would have suffered terribly. Frankl then pointed out that her suffering had been spared, and that the cost of this was that the doctor himself had to take on the burden of suffering. This was a brand-new way of looking at what had happened. The doctor shook Frankl’s hand and left the office with a new sense of meaning that allowed him to bear his suffering.
The lesson from this is to be aware of the stories you tell yourself and to realize that you have the power to tell new stories that will help you overcome adversity and move forward.
Stephen Joseph is author of 'What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth' Find out more at http://www.profstephenjoseph.com
Follow him on twitter @ProfSJoseph