Why are we addicted to stories?

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories”

– Jonathan Gottschall

Everything in life is centered around stories.  We teach and learn through stories. Smart businesses market to the masses through a compelling story. We connect with those in our lives by sharing stories. Even in our quietest moments, we spin the thoughts in our head into stories. But why are we so magnetized by both the telling and listening of stories?

The sharing of stories is a road to connection. In our telling of stories we don’t just aim to entertain, we share to be seen, understood, and ultimately to reassure ourselves that our thoughts and feelings have been experienced by those before us, those with us, and those generations to come. They serve as a reminder of the threads that connect us on a higher level, that of humanity.

The pull of a good story has the capacity of pushing us to donate to a cause, purchase a product that we find ourselves not needing, and even motivate us to change our lives in a way that we couldn’t have predicted.

When filling the shoes of the storyteller, the words in our stories undress us by peeling away the many layers that we wear to shield us from being too vulnerable. We use our story as a mirror that grants access to the privacy of our closely held authentic present state of being. As the story unravels, our emotional responses to the experience are exposed and we allow ourselves to be seen.

Stories, as innocuous and light-hearted as some may be, always reveal a glimpse of the storyteller’s character. When our story resonates with our listener(s), we can’t help but feel validated. When we have the courage to share a story with complete vulnerability, that validation elevates to a feeling of acceptance.

We are compelled to tell stories because the desire to be connected and accepted with all of our positive qualities and imperfections is enticing. This isn’t to say that our self-acceptance isn’t sufficient, it is that the mere telling of our story to others assists us in processing our experiences, a processing that many times leads to self-acceptance.

Though some may argue that storytelling is merely a habit stored in our basal ganglia, a group of nuclei in our brain that records and retains information for routine behavior, there is a richness to storytelling that does not allow us to disregard it as merely habit. There is an emotive and reflective component in the exchange of stories, both for the speaker and the listener.

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in my chair inside of a beautiful theater in San Francisco at a storytelling event. Every seat in the theater was filled and as a tall man in his late 30s took the stage, chatter subsided as we all readied ourselves to listen to his story.

It quickly became apparent that this 3rd storyteller was telling his story to process and heal. Sure, we were there to show up for him, to take in his words, to try to understand and connect, but the catharsis that was occurring on stage was indisputable and very much his.

His story took us, the listeners, through a portal that allowed us to see his journey for the last year: the guilt that he carries for his inability to be a good husband to his wife, the shame he is still experiencing for those angry moments that led to public humiliations, and his incredible longing to see his daughter and be a part of her life.

Though the story appeared to be for his benefit, when he stopped speaking the 1,693 seats in the audience fell silent. Showing up for his story had impacted us. It benefited me, the listener, because I found myself engaged and connected to his experience. The connection was there not because I’d been through a similar journey, but because by the simple act of living, I have experienced all the feelings that his vulnerability had exposed.

When he shared his story, he reminded his audience of the burden and greatness of being a part of humanity. Through his words he formed a connection with the listener that assured both parties that they are not isolated in their voyage, that the emotions experienced are universal.

We are magnetized by both the telling and listening of stories for the simple reason that they put us in tune with our humanity.

When we share a story with complete vulnerability to those in our every day lives we are inviting them to see us and when we are lucky enough to listen to someone’s story we are receiving a gift.

“You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

-James Baldwin

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