The Power of Storytelling: Set Yourself Up For Growth and Meaning

mother and baby in covid masks

During times of personal struggle, so many of us become interested in meaning. Storytelling is both a survival technique and a way for us to truly look at our situation for what it is, and ask ourselves, what good can come out of the situation that I am in? It is a way to attribute an experience with greater meaning.

Whether that means we’re struggling in our relationships, can’t make ends meet financially, or a tragedy occurs in our own personal circle that has left us shaken to our core, we want to find meaning in our struggle. Now that we are in a global pandemic, millions of us all over the world have found ourselves in a crisis – at the exact same time. We have found ourselves working from home and teaching our children from home, as we follow government mandated protocols. The reality is, it’s not as simple as “working from home” – we’re working from home in a crisis.

In order for us to mentally survive this pandemic, we need to look at it from a meaning and purpose perspective. Sometimes it isn’t enough to simply try to “get through it,” as we endure and stay as resilient as possible in this time of crisis (aka “white knuckling it). By creating meaning in any situation, good or bad, we can lay the groundwork for a good life — and dare I say a better life — regardless of how the world and our experience changes around us. This is where storytelling comes in.

The Essence of Life

Before we get into storytelling (wait for it…), let’s first connect on this heady concept: the essence of life and why it’s so important to be able to find meaning in your day-to-day activities. After all, you can’t find true meaning in your day-to-day activities without first understanding what the essence of life means to you.

The essence of life is constant growth. It is knowing your purpose and your existence, understanding that there is a deeper meaning behind your life, and determining your impact. We are only given one life and have the opportunity to spend it purposefully. Whether it’s taking time out of our day to help out a fellow citizen, taking care of a family member, or making an extra effort to take care of your personal growth, you can focus on enriching your life and the lives of others as best you can. By stepping outside of your comfort zone you grow, so that you can living up to the essence of life, contributing consciously every day.

Finding Meaning in Your Everyday Life

Finding meaning in your own day to day activities can help shape the narrative of your life. Author Emily Esfahani Smith speaks about the four pillars of meaning in her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. In this insightful and impactful book, Emily talks about how happiness is a light feeling. While we all love to be happy, and happiness can make the difference between us wanting to get up in the morning and wasting the day away in bed, this light feeling of happiness is just that, light. We have the opportunity to find a more powerful engine.

For example, everyone wants a job that makes them happy; that’s a given. And what if you could do meaningful work, instead of a job that feels light and airy and lacks impact? If you can do meaningful work, you won’t be happy all the time, because meaningful means it’s hard work. With meaning, you’ll have a richer life and richer experiences. After all, meaning has a certain depth to it. When you face challenges, you’re doing something worthwhile. It may not be easy and it may not be light, you’re trading that in for depthful and rich.

The Four Pillars of Meaning

So, how does storytelling relate back to all of this? Well, storytelling is actually one of the four pillars of meaning, according to Emily Esfahani Smith, and is one crucial aspect to finding meaning in your own life. The four pillars of meaning are:

1. Belonging: Being part of a group, connecting with people.

2. Purpose: Finding meaning in raising children, work, or caring for your elderly grandfather.

3. Storytelling: The interpretation of your own life and the narrative you apply to it.

4. Transcendence: Rich, spiritual experiences.

The Power of Storytelling

child telling story to grandma
The Power of Storytelling: Set Yourself Up For Growth and Meaning 4

Now, if storytelling is your interpretation of your life, what do you tell yourself about your life and what’s the story you tell to other people? In Composing a Life, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson describes storytelling an act of creation. It’s a composition of our time. When you talk about how you were raised, where you grew up, what school you went to, or what your marriage is like, you’re telling a story. There are facts in your story and you’re arranging the facts to make sense to you, to come to a conclusion and share something with the listener – creating a narrative behind your life.

We engage in storytelling all the time. It’s important to give yourself credit for what you’re dealing with right now, and you might need to shift your story in order to do so. Edit your story to remind you that what you’re dealing with right now is crucial to your growth – and in turn, crucial to understanding and participating in the essence of life. This is incredibly important for mental health. After all, your story is 25 percent of creating the meaning of your life, as noted above in the four pillars of meaning.

The Two Distinct Types of Stories

Psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University is an expert on narrative identity – meaning who we are, where we come from, and what it all means. He found there are two distinct types of stories we tell when something big happens. These types of stories are:

1. A redemptive story:  Where you go from suffering to salvation

2. A contamination story: Where you go from good to bad

Say that when you were little, your parents taught you how to swim by tossing you in a pool. You can go in two directions with that story. Your redemptive story may be that this is why you are the brave, strong person that you are today, while your contamination story is that this is why you have a problem with trust and hate swimming.

Both stories may very well be true, and you control your narrative. The facts are the facts, and how you weave them into a narrative is your choice. You may have heard the phrase that, “History is written by the victors.” However, this is your history, and your life, and it can only be written by you. You can shift the story you keep telling yourself over and over about your life. You’re the author of your life. You move yourself forward and you determine your own path. If you’re not happy with your life, start rewriting things. What’s your story going to be? When there’s a twist or a turn in your story, how do you interpret it and make it yours?

Controlling the Narrative Is Not Minimizing Your Struggle

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that storytelling does not mean minimize your struggles. It means changing the narrative so that we learn, grow, rise. There is no hiding the fact that we’re in a global pandemic and no spin we can put on it to pretend that we’re not. So, it’s important to remember to not minimize the crisis that we’re in. We need to remember it and if possible, reach out to help someone that is in a deeper crisis than we are, or reach out for the help you need.

So, what’s the story you’re going to tell yourself about 2020, as we continue to navigate this unprecedented situation that we’ve found ourselves in? We cannot change the events that have happened. However, we can change the way that we tell our story, making it thick with impactful experiences and one that has helped us achieve further growth.

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