Stories help us heal when our thinking deepens over time

Shekhar Kapur gestures while telling a story, illustrating when it is that stories help us heal

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Stories help us heal when they add understanding

One of the exciting aspects of the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program was that we were able to identify word categories that reflected the degree to which people were actively thinking. Two of the cognitive dimensions included insight or self-reflection words (such as think, realize, believe) and another made up of causal words (such as because, effect, rationale).

The people whose health improved the most started out using fairly low rates of cognitive words but increased in their use over the four days of writing. It wasn’t the level of cognitive words that was important but the increase from the first to last day.

In some ways, use of insight and causal words was necessary for people to construct a coherent story of their trauma. On the first writing session, people would often spill out their experience in a disorganized way. However, as they wrote about it day after day, they began to make sense of it. This greater understanding was partially reflected in the ways they used cognitive words. These findings suggested that having a coherent story to explain a painful experience was not necessarily as useful as constructing a coherent story.

We can get stuck, and while we’re stuck it’s no longer true that stories help us heal

This helped to explain a personal observation that had bothered me for years. When the first writing studies were published, my work was often featured in the media. At cocktail parties or informal gatherings, I sometimes found myself to be a trauma magnet. People who knew about my research would gravitate to me in order to tell me all about their horrific life experiences. Many of them also were in very poor physical health. At first, I thought that their talking about their stories would be good for them. However, I’d see the same people at another gathering months later and they would often tell me exactly the same stories and their health would be unchanged.

The word count research revealed the problem. The people telling their traumatic stories were essentially telling the same stories over and over. There was no change to the stories, no growth, no increase in understanding. Repeating the same story in the same way is not unlike ruminative thinking—a classic symptom of depression.

Stories help us heal when they add perspective

There is an important lesson here. If haunted by an emotional upheaval in your life, try writing about it or sharing the experience with others.

However, if you catch yourself telling exactly the same story over and over in order to get past your distress, rethink your strategy. Try writing or talking about your trauma in a completely different way. How would a more detached narrator describe what happened? What other ways of explaining the event might exist?

If you’re successful, research studies suggest that you will sleep better, experience better physical health, and notice yourself feeling happier and less overcome by your upheaval.

Thanks to the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program, we found that three aspects of emotional writing predicted improvements in people’s physical and mental health: accentuating the positive parts of an upheaval, acknowledging the negative parts, and constructing a story over the days of writing.

Stories help us heal when we switch between perspectives, and we include first-person

The more people changed in the ways they used function words from writing to writing, the more their health later improved. As we started to focus on different classes of function words, one particular group of culprits stood out as more important than the others: personal pronouns. More specifically, the more people changed in their use of first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) compared with other pro- nouns (e.g., we, you, she, they), the better their health later became. The effects were large and held up for study after study.

The writings of those whose health improved showed a high rate of the use of I-words on one occasion and then high rates of the use of other pronouns on the next occasion, and then switching back and forth in subsequent writings.

In other words, healthy people say something about their own thoughts and feelings in one instance and then explore what is happening with other people before writing about themselves again.

The multiple perspectives in stories help us heal, in a way, like therapy helps us heal

This perspective switching is actually quite common in psychotherapy.

If a man visits his therapist and begins repeatedly complaining about his wife’s behavior, what she says, how aloof she is, and so forth, the therapist will likely stop the client after several minutes and say, “You’ve been talking about your wife at length but you haven’t said anything about yourself. How do you feel when this happens?”

Similarly, if another client—a woman in this case—with marital problems sees her therapist and spends most of her time talking about her own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without ever talking about her spouse, the therapist will probably redirect the conversation in a similar way by asking, “You’ve told me a lot about your own feelings when this happens—how do you think your husband feels about this?”

Perhaps like good therapy, healthy writing may involve looking at a problem from multiple perspectives.[2]


  1. Kapur, Shekhar. “We are the stories we tell ourselves.” com, Mar. 2010, www.ted.com/talks/shekhar_kapur_we_are_the_stories_we_tell_ourselves/transcript. Accessed 14 June 2017.
  2. Pennebaker, James W. The secret life of pronouns. What our words say about us. Bloomsbury Press, 2011, Scribd pp. 23-27.

Great storytelling shares self-knowledge

Robert McKee shows that great storytelling shares self-knowledge.

Great storytelling matches how we remember

So, what is a story?
Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes.

How would an executive learn to tell stories?
Stories have been implanted in you thousands of times since your mother took you on her knee. You’ve read good books, seen movies, attended plays. What’s more, human beings naturally want to work through stories. Cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember…[1]

In this world, you will have trouble[2]

What makes a good story?
You emphatically do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.

What’s wrong with painting a positive picture?
It doesn’t ring true. The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side. We would all rather be lotus-eaters, but life will not allow it. The energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully.

So acknowledging this dark side makes you more convincing?
Of course. Because you’re more truthful. One of the principles of good storytelling is the understanding that we all live in dread. Fear is when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Dread is when you know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Death is the great dread; we all live in an ever shrinking shadow of time, and between now and then all kinds of bad things could happen. Ever since human beings sat around the fire in caves, we’ve told stories to help us deal with the dread of life and the struggle to survive. All great stories illuminate the dark side. I’m not talking about so-called “pure” evil, because there is no such thing. We are all evil and good, and these sides do continual battle. Audiences appreciate the truthfulness of a storyteller who acknowledges the dark side of human beings and deals honestly with antagonistic events. The story engenders a positive but realistic energy in the people who hear it.

Does this mean you have to be a pessimist?
It’s not a question of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic. It seems to me that the civilized human being is a skeptic – someone who believes nothing at face value.

Great storytelling faces trouble

So, a story that embraces darkness produces a positive energy in listeners?
Absolutely. We follow people in whom we believe. To get people behind you, you can tell a truthful story. The story of General Electric is wonderful and has nothing to do with Jack Welch’s cult of celebrity. If you have a grand view of life, you can see it on all its complex levels and celebrate it in a story. A great CEO is someone who has come to terms with his or her own mortality and, as a result, has compassion for others. This compassion is expressed in stories.

How do storytellers discover and unearth the stories that want to be told?
The storyteller discovers a story by asking certain key questions.

  • First, what does my protagonist want in order to restore balance in his or her life? Desire is the blood of a story. Desire is not a shopping list but a core need that, if satisfied, would stop the story in its tracks.
  • Next, what is keeping my protagonist from achieving his or her desire? Forces within? Doubt? Fear? Confusion? Personal conflicts with friends, family, lovers? Social conflicts arising in the various institutions in society? Physical conflicts? The forces of Mother Nature? Lethal diseases in the air? Not enough time to get things done? The damned automobile that won’t start? Antagonists come from people, society, time, space, and every object in it, or any combination of these forces at once.
  • Then, how would my protagonist decide to act in order to achieve his or her desire in the face of these antagonistic forces? It’s in the answer to that question that storytellers discover the truth of their characters, because the heart of a human being is revealed in the choices he or she makes under pressure.
  • Finally, the storyteller leans back from the design of events he or she has created and asks, “Do I believe this? Is it neither an exaggeration nor a soft-soaping of the struggle? Is this an honest telling, though heaven may fall?”

Great storytelling shares self-knowledge

Does being a good storyteller make you a good leader?
The art of storytelling takes intelligence, but it also demands a life experience that I’ve noted in gifted film directors: the pain of childhood. Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling. A storyteller creates all characters from the self by asking the question, “If I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do?” The more you understand your own humanity, the more you can appreciate the humanity of others in all their good-versus-evil struggles. I would argue that the great leaders Jim Collins describes are people with enormous self-knowledge. They have self-insight and self-respect balanced by skepticism. Great storytellers – and, I suspect, great leaders – are skeptics who understand their own masks as well as the masks of life, and this understanding makes them humble. They see the humanity in others and deal with them in a compassionate yet realistic way. That duality makes for a wonderful leader.[1]


  1. Fryer, Bronwyn. “Storytelling that moves people. A Conversation with Screenwriting Coach Robert McKee.” Harvard Business Review 81.6 (June 2003): 51-55.
  2. The Bible. New International Version, 2011. John 16:33.

Better stories are personally significant and include relevant details

An older couple and a younger couple drinking coffee at the table, smiling because the older man has learned to tell better stories
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Better stories are significant, and detailed

The tale is in the telling. …choosing a personally significant event, and recalling it in some detail results in high quality ratings.

…level of detail is an important predictor of global story quality. …individuals are judged as more confident, more persuasive, and more believable when they share specific details… Providing details not only gives credibility to the storyteller…, but provides the listener with a sense of re-experiencing the original event, allowing the listener to gain knowledge and information about the world without having to experience it directly… Transmission of experienced events may be the primary function of memory-sharing…

Another important predictor of quality was… Personal significance of the shared memory story… When people recall and choose to tell personally significant autobiographical memories, they talk longer and produce better stories…. …sharing personally significant memories increases rapport and caring…, intimacy with romantic partners…, and empathy, as well as serving other social functions…

Indirectly relevant off-target information may supplement the remembered event, providing the listener with additional contextual information, but does not actually improve overall global story quality.

Better stories, with more relevant details, are told by young women and men, and by older women

…young men and women, and older women, all tell equally good autobiographical memory stories… …older men’s stories lack quality…

Older adults tell less detailed autobiographical memory stories and fictional stories… …observed age differences in detail may be due to both communication style and communication goals… …older adults’ communication style is… focused on communicating meaning… …compared to younger adults’ literal style… …older adults prioritize telling the gist of a story over the details… …late life is a phase in which the goal of story-telling may be to communicate directive lessons… Older adults self-report sharing stories with the goal of teaching others through passing on experiences… …older adults’ communication style and goals are consistent with recalling stories without focusing on specific details.

…telling the gist of a story is generally adequate for conveying the message. Telling less detailed stories, however, may alter the social-sharing dynamic…[2]


  1. “Family Meeting.” disinherited.com, 26 Mar. 2015, disinherited.com/how-to-handle-family-fights-re-aging-parents/family-meeting/. Accessed 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. Baron, Jacqueline M., and Susan Bluck. “Autobiographical memory sharing in everyday life: Characteristics of a good story.International Journal of Behavioral Development 33.2 (2009): 105-117.