For those unfamiliar with the term, “sonder” (a word coined by author John Koenig), the word describes “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. Everyone has a story, and sharing them can help us feel more connected.
The practice of storytelling began with our ancestors crouched around open fires, sharing folklore that would later evolve into the books, TV shows and movies we now consume. People told stories then for the same reasons we do now: as a pattern-seeking behavior designed to make sense of ourselves and the world at large.
In mental health, storytelling (or narrative) can help us process traumatic events, reframe negative self-perception and move beyond states of pain and despair into peace, hope and purpose. This can be challenging, especially for those whose lives are so imbued with hardship that joy itself can seem as unreal as a fairytale in a faraway land.
Contamination vs. Redemption
As anyone who has ever watched the news can attest, as humans we have a tendency towards negativity bias. Difficult or challenging experiences might exacerbate this, creating a narrative around our lives where darkness prevails.
Psychologist Dan McAdams calls this a “contamination narrative”, the opposite of which is a realistic, yet hopeful “redemption narrative”. This is not to suggest that we edit our lives in the same way some might edit their socials by avoiding or denying the unpleasant parts; rather, we seek the truth, however ugly or beautiful it may be.
The Author of Your Life
This requires an approach that is, according to self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff, “understanding and accepting, rather than punitive and rebuking”. In this sense, accountability relates to acknowledging the past and taking accountability for one’s own future. By doing so, we can live more authentically (a word etymologically connected to the word “author”).
Similarly, narrative practice, which seeks to separate the self from sensitive issues (rather than internalize them), can help bring more positive aspects of our stories into sharper focus. Like all modes of therapy, it’s not for everyone, but it can be useful for those stuck in negative self-talk or rumination.
The Space Between
The idea of liminal space is sometimes thought of as a state of uncertainty prior to the change (which could arguably describe the last few years of the pandemic).
However, it can also be viewed as a place of transformation, or as an author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes it: “the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”
In a broader sense, our stories are much the same: our lives do have beginnings, middles and endings, but for the most part, we tend to exist somewhere in the middle: in a liminal state of constant change, learning, and growth.
The Journey Continues
All too often, we frame states of being: grief, trauma, a struggle with depression or anxiety in much the same way we would stories: as a linear series of events with a “light at the end of the tunnel”.
In reality, things are rarely that simple: we might experience a multitude of setbacks along our journey, only to realize that recovery was never about arrival, but integration – and that rather than traveling towards the light, it was about the rediscovery of the light we had all along.
Discover your story with support from a mental health counselor at The Truism Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan, offering substance abuse counseling, trauma-informed care, safe space therapy for LGBTQ, and more.
Rennick-Egglestone, S et. al. (2019). The impact of mental health recovery narratives on recipients experiencing mental health problems: Qualitative analysis and change model (PLoS One. 2019 Dec 13;14(12):e0226201.doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226201. eCollection 2019.)
Rozin P, Royzman EB. Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2001;5(4):296-320. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0504_2