The power of story: how personal myths hold you captive or set you free

What is your personal myth? What is the story you live your life by? Is it time for a better life script?

In a personal therapy session several years ago, I became all too aware of the power of story.

I remembered a story my mother had told me as a child. When I recounted this to my therapist, she looked me right in the eyes and said, “Your whole life is in that story…it might be time for a better version!”

I realised there and then that I had to change this ‘inner script’ that had governed my life since I was about 4 years old. So I went away and got to work.

And as the story changed, my life in the real world changed too. I’ll share that story with you in this post; how it had shaped my life and how – by changing it – I was able to break free.

So, let’s dive into the power of story and find out how stories can hold us captive or set us free.

What story are you living?

I his seminal book, The Seven Basic Plots, author Christopher Booker points out that all stories fall into just a handful of different categories…

There is the ‘rags to riches’ story. There is the ‘overcoming the monster’ story. Then we have the ‘voyage and return’ (think Homer’s Odyssey written over 3000 years ago). Not forgetting ‘quest’, ‘tragedy’, ‘rebirth’, and ‘comedy’ stories.

Which plot line most closely echoes the way you live your life?

Is your life one of struggle, fighting the ‘monsters’ who appear in the form of tyrannical bosses or abusive partners? Perhaps you feel that you are on a quest of self-discovery. Or maybe you have experienced a ‘rebirth’ – a powerful transformative moment that made you feel ‘born again’.

Do you see your life as a tragedy and that you live as a victim, having been dealt a poor hand?

These seven basic plots can help us identify which story we are playing out in our lives. And then we get to questioning…

Is your life story still working for you?

People come to therapy because something isn’t working in their lives. This may be the result of a relationship issue, an unresolved trauma, or perhaps having to live in a toxic environment, to name but a few.

If we are caught up in these plot lines it’s hard to see a way out. If we’ve always been the victim, our identity is one of victimhood and it shapes all that we see and do.

Usually, around midlife – call it a crisis or an opportunity for transformation – we begin to challenge the story (and roles) we’ve been living.

We start to ask, Does it always have to be like this? Is this script still serving me? Who do I want to be in the second half of my life? How can I draft a new (and better) personal myth to live by?

How stories shape our lives

Several years ago myself and a colleague ran workshops about the power of story. We looked at myths and legends, folk and fairy tales, sufi stories and stories from the Bible, as well as more personal anecdotes – such as the story told by my mother (which I’ll share in a moment).

We looked at how stories work on two levels…

There is the surface level (such as in the moralistic fables of Aesop) but also a deeper, metaphorical level.

Deeper meaning resides in the fairytales told me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life

Albert Einstein

The thing is that a story told well has the power to enrapture us. And whilst in the ‘story-listening trance’ (1) the deeper patterns form a kind of blueprint, picked up by the unconscious mind.

The story informs us that life can be dangerous – there are ogres, witches, wolves, and wicked stepmothers – but that with a little help, courage, and skill we can overcome adversity and succeed. This is the message that the brain receives.

As Allen Chinen says, “Fairy tales, no less than myths, convey the wisdom of the ancestors. Both are the genes of human culture, and like DNA in chromosomes, contain highly compressed information essential to human life. Passed from person to person, century to century, culture to culture, folktales undergo a process akin to natural selection, where only the stories with enduring appeal and deep insights survive.” (2)

The importance of stories in childhood

So, stories told to us in our formative years can serve as a template about how to negotiate our way in the world. Indeed, there is ample evidence to show that children who were read to, go on to be better adjusted to life as they grow up. (3)

But what if the story wasn’t so helpful? What if the story carried deeper meanings that only the child’s unconscious mind absorbed, like receiving a wrong signal? This is what my 4-year old brain did.

As children, we are so vulnerable to misinterpreting all that we see and hear. The wrong message can sink deep into the grey matter, shaping our very life.

To my mother, the story was just a pleasant little tale she’d made up. But to me, as I listened repeatedly (because I loved to hear it, whilst sitting on her lap) a deeper meaning was inscribed on my neural pathways. A pattern that held me captive for decades…

The story of the cuckoo clock

I won’t tell the whole tale here but the gist of it goes like this…

Once upon a time there was a little cuckoo who happily lived in a clock and every hour – on the hour – he would pop his head out of the hole and announce the time. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” he would say.

cuckoo clock
Image: Horia Varlan 

Cuckoo felt safe, warm and snug in his little home. But one day, noticing the window had been left open, he was tempted to the ledge by the blueness of sky and the sight of other birds flying freely.

They called to him, “Come and join us…come on,” and after a moment’s hesitation he spread his wings and took off into the open air. It felt wonderful; flying high, swooping low, the sun on his back, the wind in his feathers. He had the best day of his life.

Come evening time, cuckoo decided he’d better head back home. But there was a problem – a big problem; the window was now closed. Cuckoo couldn’t get back in!

He found a place to shelter high up in a tree and spent a frightening night all alone; owls hooted, wolves howled and cats prowled about the bins looking for prey.

Cuckoo decided that, come the morning, if that window was open he would dive straight back into his clock – and stay there.

And that’s exactly what he did. He spent the rest of his days in the cuckoo clock, telling the time on the hour, warm, safe, and secure.

Unpicking the story – what does it all mean?

I’m not one for analysing stories – I prefer that they weave their magic unconsciously. But when my therapist told me my whole life was in that story, I knew I had to change it.

You can see that my mother was emphasising the important need for safety and security (one of our primary human needs). A good message for 4 year olds! But it seemed that my unconscious – so enchanted by the story – had overplayed this message and I learned all too well that ‘the outside world can be frightening so you’re better off staying with what you know’.

As I worked with my therapist we identified how this message had influenced my life…

Why had I stayed in a dead-end relationship for 12 years? Why had I always been so insecure? How come I was unwilling to take risks and go places. Hell, to that point I’d only been out of the country a couple of times.

So I changed the story. I rewrote a new ending so that the window was always open. Cuckoo could come and go as he pleased.

And my life in the real world changed accordingly. I felt more willing to take risks, to go places. And I felt more comfortable on my own and later in new relationships; the old neediness and insecurity of the past faded into history.

The story’s spell had been broken and I’d set my cuckoo free to choose for himself.

Plato’s allegory of the cave

Mum’s cuckoo clock story contains echoes of Plato’s allegory of the cave and the quest for freedom.

What storyline is holding you captive? What patterns keep repeating themselves? Is it time to change your own story?

Id love to know what your thoughts are on this piece. What stories have shaped your life?

What stories do you remember hearing in childhood? Are you still living that story?

Let me know in the comments section below.

Notes and references

(1) The story-listening trance experience https://www.jstor.org/stable/542104

See also The Web of Silence: storytelling’s power to hypnotize https://storynet.org/the-web-of-silence-storytellings-power-to-hypnotize/

(2) Alan Chinen, Beyond the Hero – classic stories of men in search of soul

(3) Why stories matter for children’s learning https://theconversation.com/why-stories-matter-for-childrens-learning-52135#:~:text=Stories%20help%20children%20develop%20empathy,for%20single%20or%20literal%20responses. And from the BBC ‘Why is Storytelling Important to Children’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/why-is-storytelling-important-to-children/zvqcnrd

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