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Why Telling Your Story is Important to Your Brain

If you were to try and tell the story of your life, how complete would it be? Would it be a straight line start to finish? Have you ever played an instrument when you were young, stopped for years, played it casually one day, and discovered there were a lot of songs you used to know that come back only when you are playing? I know once I start talking about something, I’ll remember six other connecting things that weren’t obvious when I first had the thought. This is because memories are unpredictable. They are treated in unique ways by our brains based on what we remember about the situation. We have implicit memory, which is a state-dependent memory handled by the right side of our brains, and explicit memory which tends to be more about the facts and stories of our lives encoded by the left side. One of the reasons why we can’t remember the song until we are holding the instrument is because our implicit memories of practicing are being triggered in that moment.

An important piece of our implicit memory is how we show up in relationships, or attachment. Since we learn how to be in relationships first with our caretakers, the emotional experience of loving is primed by our memories of it. If we were raised in a secure environment with available caretakers, our implicit expectations of relationships will be, “This person is great! I can’t wait to see them!” If there is a problem, someone who grew up in a secure way will approach the situation like, “They made me mad. I’ll tell them, we’ll work through it, and then we can keep enjoying the night.” Someone who didn’t grow up with security in their lives may approach the same scenario like, “What if they find out who I really am? They will probably leave.” The insecurely attached person may hold back their aggressive feelings until they can’t hold them in anymore. The message they received growing up was that their wants and needs are prohibited, and should be buried and forgotten.

Some of us can’t remember, or prefer to skip over, large portions of our lives when they were hard to live through. It makes sense! If you don’t go digging in those old memories, you might have a good day. It gives us a sense of control, particularly if we have lived with chaos at some point. While there are good reasons not to go back in time to keep a good mood, there are also some brain reasons to continually cultivate and get to know your story. Going back and facing those feelings changes your brain so it is more aware in similar situations that happen later in life.

Louis Cozalino writes in The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, when a parent can’t verbalize internal and external experience and leaves the child in silence, the child does not develop the capacity to understand or manage their own outer world. The ability of language to integrate brain structures and organize experience at a conscious level is left undeveloped. Cozalino cites a study that says a parent’s ability to tell their complete story predicts how their children are in relationships 75% of the time.

To me, this says two very important things. First,our stories are important and have a strong reason for being worked on. It is important to revisit the hard parts of our lives to create safety and awareness for times that didn’t have it. Second, with few exceptions, our internal experiences can change for the better. 75% is definitely a significant portion, and the more open we can be the closer we get to 100%. Some people can learn security later in life and will change the way they relate to others. We learn that through repeated, overflowing self-compassion. We can treat ourselves as kindly as we treat others. It is a matter of practice.

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