Resilience: The power of stories that heal

It is not often that you get two light bulb moments in one presentation, but Dr. Carole Pemberton’s keynote at the Coaching at Work conference delivered in style. With the authority of someone who has immersed themselves in a subject for years, Carole calmly escorted us through her key findings, which have now been captured in the book ‘Resilience: A practical guide for coaches’.

Light bulb one flashed as Carole discussed the value of writing. She cited research by James Pennebaker which reveals that writing about emotional topics boosts the immune system of the author. I have always found writing to be cathartic, whether it be the diaries I kept for seven years as a child or the poems I have scribbled on long distance flights or, more recently, the books on challenge and trust. Yet it was still a revelation to think that this story-telling has a measurable physical impact on the body. Carole referred to this as the ‘power of narrative’ and quoted the author John Paul Sartre to illustrate her point – ‘A man is a teller of tales… He sees everything that happens to him through them and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.’

storytelling

I was just absorbing the implications of this perspective when Carole flicked on the second light bulb. Her research has revealed that in a time of crisis our primary identity takes a critical blow and is temporarily ‘knocked out’. In such moments, a shadow identity assumes centre stage and we find ourselves thinking, feeling and behaving in very different ways to the norm. In a short and powerful exercise, Carole asked us to work in pairs with this idea using the following questions:-

  • Identify a recent challenging event that hit you hard but is now in the past
  • What was the primary identity that was ‘knocked out’ by the event?
  • What was the shadow identity that emerged to fill the gap?
  • What did you access to move forward?

For both myself and the partner I was working with, the primary identity that was ‘knocked out’ by our challenging event was the ‘high achiever’. We encountered failure in an otherwise successful narrative and this primary identity took a hit. In its absence, the shadow identity that kicked in was ‘victim’ for me and ‘rebel’ for my colleague. Both of us were surprised when we named these shadow identities because we were repulsed by the idea that we might have become victims or rebels; these were not identities we normally chose to associate with in the story of our lives.

The value of recognising and naming the shadow identity lies in bringing it out of the shadows and into the light, because then we are at choice as to how we wish to move forward. Not recognising or naming the shadow identity allows it to run the show behind the scenes and so weakens our ability to recover from a crisis event.

Putting the two insights together, I was struck by the idea that it is as if we are living our lives as lead actors in a movie of our own making. We star in the movie, we direct it, we produce it, we watch it and we review it. Most times the drama unfolds according to our own script, but occasionally traumatic events interrupt our Oscar-winning productions; the projector jams and the screen goes blank. In the ensuing darkness, shadowy figures emerge and scuttle around the auditorium. We are disoriented and confused. It is not that those who are resilient do not experience the darkness, it is that they are not consumed by it. Either through their own resourcefulness or with the help of others, they find a way of adapting the narrative of their lives to accommodate the reality of the crisis without allowing it to completely derail the original plot. In essence, they re-author their own stories and through this remain empowered yet real.

Dr. Pemberton’s work on the power of narrative should encourage us all to write down our stories and talk them out. It also reminds us of the power of honouring the stories of others through reading and listening. For this is how we heal; slowly but surely and once upon a time.

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