In her bestselling book Rising Strong, Brené Brown—whose keynote address at this year’s Networker Symposium received a thunderous response—writes that as human beings, we’re quite literally “wired for story.” According to neuroscience research, “hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin,” chemicals that “trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.”
For the second time in a row, the Networker demonstrated its faith in that idea at its annual Symposium, once again putting on an evening of storytelling, during which eminent therapists shared their most unforgettable therapeutic moments. And, as before, the audience was wildly enthusiastic, some calling it “the absolute highlight of the conference.” But in a way, this reaction isn’t surprising—people always love stories, probably because they help us make sense of our lives, define who we are, and connect us millions of otherwise random dots of existence as nothing else can. And it makes sense that therapists would be particularly drawn to stories. After all, every client has one. Just the way they present themselves in therapy constitutes a story—however incomplete, disguised, or confusing it may be.
And yet many clients come to therapy because they don’t like their own stories, or they’ve somehow come to accept limiting, impoverished, false, and even hateful stories about themselves. Or perhaps their sense of their own story is incoherent, a muddle of feelings and thoughts and memories that they’re unable to decipher or describe. In those cases, the therapist becomes a kind of storytelling coach, someone who can help clients become the authors of their own narratives, and thus get a new, liberating perspective on their own lives.
These days, however, when psychotherapy is supposed to be “evidence based” and “empirically validated,” standardized and manualized up the wazoo, therapists often aren’t encouraged to be in the business of storybirthing. The idea of spending time listening to, or painstakingly drawing forth, a client’s individual, idiosyncratic story, with all its plot twists and unexpected denouements and subjective vagaries, may seem not entirely legitimate as a “scientific” enterprise. Still, most therapists stubbornly keep on listening to these stories—continuing the age-old work of healers, sages, and gurus throughout human history.
Of course, therapists must have the requisite knowledge and skills to do good clinical work of whatever kind. But to tell good stories is a craft. Further, to discern a client’s story—perhaps unrecognized even by the client—and then help that person reconstruct it, piece by piece, as an honest and meaningful life narrative is a healing craft. At the very least, this story-eliciting work requires therapists to have themselves learned, perhaps with great difficulty, how to tell their own stories truthfully, in full acceptance of their human vulnerability, with wisdom, humor, and grace.
Although considered leaders in their clinical specialities, our Symposium storytellers weren’t being “experts” on the stage that evening in front of an audience of hundreds of their colleagues; they weren’t delivering polished workshops, replete with protocols delineated in bullet points. They were telling their stories, exercising the human mind’s inborn capacity to make sense of itself, which is still, and probably will forever be, the heart and soul of therapy.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.