By Dr. Eva Patrick
As I walked into the dark pathway, only lit by fireflies of the present and ghosts of mistakes past, I held my breath. I thought I heard a woman’s voice, crying for help. Or was it my own?
What happened to you as you read this? Hopefully, if I had done my job well, you were intrigued by what possible mistakes I could have made; you pictured how the fireflies shone; or you were wondering what about the cry for help was. Basically, if you’ve thought any of these things, you have accepted my invitation to a story.
Everything is story; we are story
Humans have been telling stories from the dawn of time. We’ve done this through cave paintings, stone formations, attempts at communication with cultures that do not share one’s language etc. In short, we want to tell and listen to stories (Campbell, 1991).
Each person has a different way of telling their story. Some write a consecutive and logical turn of events, without subjectivity entering into it even once. Some dance till a limit has been broken and their story is renewed through new rhythm and movement. Some talk to themselves repeatedly about a certain summer vacation 10 years ago, and dare to tell only themselves how that summer sun and sky felt on whose body and when. Some talk about movies they love and characters they hate. Some tell jokes that aren't always as funny as they hope they’d be. In other words, our self can be learned through the way we tell stories in the world and in therapy. Moreover, if we pay close attention to what is included and what is omitted and how throughout a person’s lifetime, we will discover that our self in itself is a story (Clausen, 1995; McLean & Pratt, 2006).
Why myths and stories work so well with psychotherapy?
Within the field of story-telling, a specifically useful concept in psychotherapy is the myth; Jung asserts that psychology and storytelling, or the use of the mythological stories in psychotherapy, was an inevitable marriage (Jung, 1967/1911). We create general myths—stories of gods and heroes—and personal myths—narratives of our lives—because of our needs to answer our existential anxieties, our origins, our pasts, and our future goals. At the beginning, the mythological stories might be allegorical in their depiction of those gods and heroes, but we soon see the psychological meanings of the different struggles, transitions, or realizations that these characters go through (Anastasopoulos et al., 2010; Campbell, 1991). Also, the field of mythology acknowledges the fact that gods possess not only powers but also afflictions and constraints; by personifying these gods, myth making gives space to the different parts of an individual to coexist (Anastasopoulos et al., 2010; Jung,1969/1934; Jung, 1966/1946).
Jung (1967/1911) was a pioneer in exhibiting the ways in which the understanding of myths can help us to understand psychology and vice versa. Psychologists and researchers Feinstein and Krippner (1988), drawing heavily on Jung’s work, define personal mythology as the self-psychology that guides one’s behavior and establishes the way in which we think and grow in the world. Through one’s personal mythology, one interprets the experience of one’s senses, organizes new information, and finds inspiration and direction. If one’s personal mythology remains unconscious, then it might guide him or her in limiting ways and inhibit psychological growth and success in life (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988). For example, say a person lives a story that he’s a damsel in distress and is helpless in removing obstacles in his way to his dream job. With a therapy client presenting with such a story, it might prove liberating to teach him to experiment with telling himself (through work and repetition in therapy and in life) that he is also the knight in shining armor, ready to slay any dragons in the way to that corner office. Put generally, we explore in therapy our personal myth or personal story and the ways in which we tell, we are, we live our story. Through the growing awareness of our story and its impact on our successes and failures, we are likely to learn to change limiting patterns and being to create new, less-limiting myths by which to live (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988; Hillman, 1977).
Psychotherapy as Story-ing and Re-storying
How does psychotherapy specifically work then in line with story-telling practices? First, upon entering our office, the therapy client invites us to his or her story, but more importantly, they invite themselves into their story. How so? Well, there is much that we don’t know about ourselves. Therefore, starting on the journey of psychotherapy is like starting to write a novel for a character whose past and background aren’t yet fully discovered. A character that is always changing and growing, and who, through increased awareness by way of therapy, continues to change perspectives about self, life and world. It’s a novel with chapter outlines that are messy and full of syntax and grammatical errors, and where the resolution keeps evading us in favor of life continuing to unfold in unexpected as well as expected ways.
Psychotherapy work teaches us to patiently and lovingly listen to the previously mentioned unique ways in which our clients tell stories and the internal workings that they share with us through that practice. This then allows us to help them discover their own threads, themes, main characters, villains, and motifs. Eventually, such collaboration allows the client to liberate him- or herself from the hold of an old story that they had not participated in writing and to re-author one that is truer to their current self, current ambitions, and current possibilities in the world (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988; Hillman, 1977). Once a client truly captures the meaning of this process—that it’s only one story out of an infinite number of possibilities with a million possible endings—he or she then can extricate themselves from oppressive story-lines and outdated identities.
We each carry poems, short prose, novels, epic tales, fables and fairy tales within our actions and choices. Our actions tell others which prince we are today, our choices tell others which monster we will fight tomorrow; and our yesterday might tell us which of them will win.
How does the story above end? Well, I’m still in that pathway surrounded by fireflies and help myself and others who ask for help to move forward. I know that it has a million possible endings, so I just relish in the possibility of it all. What story will you write or begin to rewrite today?
Written by Dr. Eva Patrick
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Anastasopoulos, D., Soumaki, E., & Anagnostopoulos, D. (2010). Adolescence and mythology. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 36(2), 119–132.
Campbell, J. (1991). The power of myth. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Clausen, J. A. (1995). Gender, contexts, and turning points in adults’ lives. In P. Moen, G. H. Elder, & K. Lüscher (Eds.), Examining lives in context: Perspectives on the ecology of human development (pp. 365–389). United States: American Psychological Association.
Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1988b). Personal mythology: Using ritual, dreams, and imagination to discover your inner story. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Hillman, J. (1977). Re-visioning Psychology. New York, NY: Harper.
Jung, C. G. (1966). Psychotherapy today. In G. Adler & R. F. C. Hull, Trans. & Eds., The collected works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 16: The practice of psychotherapy (pp. 94–110). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1946)
Jung, C. G. (1967). The collected works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 5: Symbols of transformation (G. Adler & R. F. C. Hull, Trans. & Eds.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1911)
Jung, C. G. (1969). Archetypes of the collective unconscious. In G. Adler & R. F. C. Hull, Trans. & Eds., The collected works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 9 (Part 1): Archetypes and the collective unconscious (pp. 3–41). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1934)
McLean, K. C., & Pratt, M. W. (2006). Life’s little (and big) lessons: Identity statuses and meaning-making in the turning point narratives of emerging adults. Developmental Psychology, 42(4), 714–722.