The Stories We Live By

Carl Jung said: "The most important question any one can ask is; what myth am I living?"

In the heat of the moment, do you ever catch yourself expressing out of sheer exasperation, “That’s the story of my life!” If so, you might consider how your experience in that moment ties directly into what you encounter as an ongoing story in your life that seems to repeat itself without an end in sight. Perhaps it is relived one too many times because you do not know how to stop it.

As a depth psychologist, whenever my client makes that kind of a statement, my curiosity grows and I respond with, “tell me, what story do you live by?” And then quietly I ask myself “how can I help this person identify his/her myth and reshape it into one that brings more meaning and insight rather than continuous pain?

Myth, like dreams presented in the first blog, is a major ingredient in Jungian psychology. Jung believed that myth accurately captures and depicts people’s life stories and lived experiences. Jung believed that “myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.”

He theorized that myth illustrates universal plots, themes, and characters that any one and everyone relates to at any point in time. Science goes out the door because the mythological stories contain irrationality and unpredictability. Myth speaks to the complexities of life and the psychological consequences and challenges humans face as a result. These psychological complexities do not translate into a scientific formula or logical equation. Life does not work like that.

Fairy tales, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens and Poe exemplify a small sample of the kinds of classic stories and characters found in myth. Characters such as the evil stepmother and stepsisters, Peter Pan the boy who never grew up, Bambi who loses his mother at a young age, and Romeo and Juliet, a tragic love story, all carry a great deal of emotional intensity and life heartache we can relate to at different times in life.

The degree to which we are triggered by the story depends upon how we relate to the characters’ experiences. The more we identify with them, the more inclined we are to listen fully engrossed while hanging onto every word. What pulls us in so strongly? At the center of it all, myth essentially contains the grit of life from an emotional and psychological perspective.

Essentially as we watch our identified characters caught in the grit of life similar to our own experience, we privately analyze the characters’ actions. As we watch what different steps the mythological characters take, we may be inspired to begin our own search for relief and recovery as we consider what steps we could take for the similar kind of experience we face. In essence, we project our personal experiences onto the identified character(s). As a result, the use of myth allows the process of change to feel less intimidating and more intriguing.

The intrigue begins when clients quietly and privately find themselves comparing their psychological experiences to that of the characters. Through thoughtful reflection, the hope is that it entices the individual to gain new insights into what initiated and further supported certain perceptions, and emotional experiences that have led to general issues with depression, anxiety, insecurities or a multitude of other psychological conditions. Through this reflection, the individual begins to open up and share his/her story out loud rather than keeping it untold deep inside.

It is worth mentioning that myth involves stories of tragedy, loss or other significantly challenging predicaments. Stories that involve pure happiness generally do not stick because we learn more about ourselves by facing life’s struggles. Pure happiness requires no search inside because true happiness means life is working well. Therefore, the stories of challenge carry more weight and distance over time. And, in the end they bring more meaning and purpose to our lives when we take the lessons from them and make poignant changes to take a new direction in life.

Speaking from a depth psychologist, I believe people’s stories containing the grit of life deserves to be told. Pat Conroy, an American author, stated, “A story untold could be the one that kills you.” Does your myth lie dormant inside left unattended to? Is it causing an ongoing set of emotional experiences or psychological symptoms that you struggle to work out on your own? If so, perhaps the effects of your story needs attention and time to be listened to, heard, made sense of and finally grieved.

Taking this one step further, Freud explained that even if the story is never spoken of the “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” Is there something in your life story that continues to eat at you? Do you really want to let it die inside of you rather than getting expressed?

In the context of psychotherapy, please note that identifying your own personal life tale and affixing different mythological themes to it is just the start. Yet, it is an important one because it can help you to find the courage to talk about some of the most difficult times in your life that you may not have ever shared with anyone nor told out loud before. Telling the story can help put the experience to rest and in its proper place so you can create a new myth for yourself that is filled with a sense of empowerment, hope and intention.