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Unconscious

The Healing Power of Storytelling

Diving deep into the unconscious.

Key points

  • Storytelling has been an essential means through which humanity has made sense of the world.
  • Through storytelling, we can understand how certain narratives were downloaded onto us by society.
  • Dysfunctional role archetypes get passed from generation to generation.
Source: LittleBee80/iStock

Since the beginning of time, storytelling has been an essential way of how humanity has coped with life and made sense of relationships to one another, to themselves, and to nature.

Even though the format of storytelling has changed from cave drawings, to talking around campfires, to movies and video games, it's always the human emotion conveyed in the stories that we connect with.

Combine mythological heroes with bright primary colors and you have multimedia comic book franchises that have now been thriving for a century.

Even if it's an alien or an android beeping and booping, we identify with the soul qualities of the characters and connect to their journey, their relationship dynamics, their grief, their ambition, and their lust.

There are many popular movies with non-stop action and male-centric hero narratives. Car chases and crashes, and fighter jets whooshing over as the pilot jumps out of the plane on a motorcycle.

But the action alone isn’t what creates the memorable impact. Something as simple as the protagonist's Adam’s apple slowly moving down, or the film of sweat on the hero's forehead, is what pulls us into the character's state of mind. With these details, we see the person, we connect to them emotionally, and as we access the character in that story, we access ourselves in our own stories.

Carl Jung talks about elementary ideas including archetypes of the unconscious, and experiences that come from the nervous system that are then assimilated in terms of these archetypes. He also talks about myths and the interrelationships of culture and the environment, and that these ancient myths have been designed to harmonize the mind and the body.

The basic narrative of a young boy, born and raised to be obedient who then must grow into adolescence and start to differentiate himself into independence and autonomy. The challenges of transitioning from childhood to maturity are then met with the next phase of life as the hero progresses to the winter of their years, and eventually passes away. These myths and stories help us understand, cope, and accept the cycles of nature rather than pathologically holding on.

Joseph Campbell talks about this hero’s journey, where he examines the emerging patterns of the hero leaving home in search of something, and then returning—after having gone through a series of trials and tribulations.

Almost all the great stories employ this universality—from Gilgamesh to Indiana Jones—there are these patterns of diving deep into the unconsciousness and the requirement for a death of the previous self and subsequent rebirth of a renewed and different version of oneself.

For instance, Persephone’s abduction to the underworld by Hades, and her return, symbolize renewal and growth. These stories also include an artifact that the hero brings back with them; this may be in the form of a magical chalice, a sword, or wisdom itself.

But this triumph and rebirth can only occur after the hero slays "the dragon." When you think about dragons—either in fantasy stories like in the Lord of the Rings, or the ancient tale of Fafnir—the dragon basically represents greed, or our ego.

Campbell described dragons as guarding heaps of gold and virgins in their caves. The dragon can’t make use of them—he greedily guards them with no true need or ability to experience them. And this hero’s journey and the story talk about the psychology of the dragon and the binding of oneself in one’s own ego where we are essentially trapped in a cage of our own doing.

Rewriting our narrative allows us to explore our unconsciousness and go down deep through our journey to find the dragon within us—our ego that's holding us back from living up to our fullest potential.

The drive of self-actualization is to break free from that cage and to slay that dragon.

Many people are afraid of doing that and would rather be in predictable pain rather than take the journey to the unknown forest of their unconsciousness.

When we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once we are secure with the basic needs such as physical safety, warmth, food, and obviously Wi-Fi, at the top of that need pyramid is self-actualization. The purpose and meaning of our lives.

Through storytelling, we can understand how certain narratives were downloaded onto us by society, including what we think we deserve.

In the privacy of our own mind, we can get extremely cruel and say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone we loved—I didn’t get the promotion, that’s because I’m dumb. The girl didn’t like me? That’s because I’m basic.

Editing our inner dialogue might not feel organic or natural, it may even feel forced at first but over time it will become more natural. Through storytelling, we can develop an understanding of how we learned our assumptions. It’s about locating the first seed that blossomed into a series of thoughts validating the narrative, making it more and more true.

Certain narratives like self-sacrifice or submitting to oppressive social norms get passed from generation to generation. When parents don’t come to terms with the sacrifice they made for their own children, and go through their own trauma, they pass it on. There are so many people who are living with so much of this hurt.

Dysfunctional role archetypes also get passed down—like our pre-prescribed roles of what it means to be a woman or a man in society, and how we create personas, at work and at home, to fit these molds.

Maureen Murdock describes the heroine's journey, dismantles dualistic cultures, and explores a circular, inclusive perspective as a model for living.

At any given moment we are bombarded with messaging, commercials, viral memes, TikTok dancers doing synchronized moves, not to mention all the political propaganda on the news.

Marketing works because it's designed to tap into our primal lizard brains. The compulsive nature of video games and social media is designed by scientists who have studied the mind to explicitly create these compulsions.

The developers openly admit this and yet the use of social media and consumption of digital detritus is at an all-time high.

Basic connections between the visual stimuli and the emotions they elicit are fully taken advantage of to ensure the organization delivering the message wins. That's the business model.

Editing of our story is about curiosity and the exploration of how we learned to think the way we think. Like many of the tech solutions running the world, we humans are also able to be reprogrammed. It will take energy and time, but the information we put into the program will yield what comes out.

The social media apps that are extremely successful are the ones designed with human motivation and human-centeredness to elicit human contact. They are the ones that tap into the human drive of creative expression, the longing to be seen, and the desire to peek into other people's lives.

There is so much that is in our control about how we live our day-to-day lives. Storytelling and rewriting the narrative is about taking the power back. We have the ability to rewrite our narrative and change those relationship dynamics that block us from true connection. We can choose people who will support our growth and energize us. We can choose to spend more time in nature—or as they say on Discord, "Go touch grass."

Whenever we notice our critical inner voice telling us something is too much for us, or that we don't deserve grandiose dreams, it’s important to accept these thoughts, and then let them do what thoughts do and let them float away.

As James Taylor Gatto once said, “You either learn your way towards writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script.”

We have the power to edit our stories. Remember, there is no reason to dream small. Anyone who ever accomplished anything dreamed it first.

References

Balan, D (2023). Re-Write: A Trauma Workbook of Creative Writing and Recovery in Our New Normal. Routledge.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

Murdock, Maureen. Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Shambhala Publications. 1990

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