Think of a time in your life when you overcame a significant, chronic, intractable problem that had challenged you for years, until somehow you managed to completely turn things around in such a way that the change has persisted to this day. How did this happen, and what was it that made the greatest difference?
Change is a mystery. There is no panacea, no one answer to how and why some people can alter their behavior, while others cannot, and even amongst the world’s experts there is little consensus for what really makes the difference in successful transformations.
What we probably know and understand about what leads to change
What is it that we do know and understand about how change occurs? Here is a list of some of the most important operative factors:
- Dissatisfaction with life: depression, anxiety, stress, unhappiness.
- External events: economy, war, natural disaster.
- New insight: I’m smart, I don’t have to like it, It’s finally over.
- Hitting bottom: loss of everything, desperation, nothing to lose.
- Trauma: abuse, assault, neglect, death of loved one, illness.
- Life transition: developmental stage, age-related crisis.
- Keystone behaviors: little changes can lead to big things.
- Travel: adventure, nobel enviroment, new resources.
- Counseling: psychotherapy, coaching, consultation, instruction.
- Spiritual transformation: relationship with God, scriptures, transcendence.
- Validation: affirmation, support, feeling understood.
- Narratives: stories, books, resources that made a difference.
- Mortality: close brush wiith death or confrontation with limited time.
- Self-deception: confronting a truth or lie, coming to terms with self.
- Risk: experiment, facing fears, trying new behavior.
- Lifestyle: exercise, health, consumerism, insterests.
- Support: groups, friendship, family, social engagement.
- Solitude: reflection, contemplation, meditation, centering.
- Meaning making: value clarification, making connections, life’s purpose.
- Altruism: serving others, involvement in a cause, making a difference.
Stories are the DNA of memory. Our brains are biologically programmed to organize and store information as narratives, a process that happens automatically during dreams and waking life.
Stories are embedded in almost every aspect of life, from reading or watching films for pleasure, to sharing myths and legends, engaging in gossip, and telling tales of murder, sex, war, conspiracy. Stories shape our attitudes and values, teach morality, instruct us on life lessons, and allow us to live a thousand other lives through the characters we follow. It is the power of stories that makes us uniquely human and, in some cases, shapes our whole identity. In one sense who we are is defined by our own constructed story.
Stories as rehearsal for life’s challenges
Think of a book or film or television show or story that changed your life. What immediately comes to mind? Consider a particularly influential or impactful book you read, as a child or an adult, and how it continues to exert its powerful effects. Or think about a movie or show that knocked you out, that huants you to this day and, in its own way, played a crucial role in some choices you made or patterned your life.
That’s the thing about stories: they provide life lessons and instruction for solving problems we might encounter in the future. Whether awake or dreaming, most stories present challenging or life-threatening conflicts that are resolved, providing windows of illumination about what might be faced in the future.
Stories ften provide alterantive experiences, a different kind of ‘reality’, that supplies us with moments of support and validation. They can show what might be possible if you let go of limiting visions.
Stories leave big impressions
‘Some see the world with fresh eyes through wild adventures. For me, the revelations always come via books.’ So writes journalist Marie Arana, whose life can be measured by the stories that changed her. Memoirs, in particular, have been particularly influential: ‘Ive seen people I might have been Or people I might become.’
That’s the thing about good fiction: it allows us to enter another world in order to imagine other possibilities, other ways of thinking about ourselves. The power of these stories sneaks up on us in such a way that we sometimes unconsciously consume certain messages that we later internalize and make part of ourselves.
Stories have a purpose
Studying stories of history can assist in avoiding mistakes of the past, but it seems that fiction can often be a more powerful and effective influencer than nonfiction in terms of changing beliefs. Don Quixote, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Romeo and Juliet, King Arthur, Captain Kirk, Dorothy, and Scrooge are almost aas alive as anyone else you know intimately. In fiction you surrender control and critical thinking, allowing yourself to enter the fantasy world.
Stories to promote change
Any self-respecting teacher, coach, therapist, trainer, or leader has developed and collected a series of stories that are designed to inspire and impact others. Some arise from personal experience (self-disclosures) or they are collected from others’ lives. These are tales told in such a manner and context that thye work at subtle and unconscious levels to motivate constructive action.
Through the use of metaphors, they have the advantage of operating indirectly and bypassing resistance; they engage in active imagination and require listeners/viewers/readers to eprsonalize the lessons in a meaningful way. Interestingly, it isn’t even necessary that stories make sense since sometimes the more ambiguous the narrative, the more actively people have to created their own personal meaning.