Is Telling Your Story Always Good for Your Health?


Many companies, to their great credit, have embraced the use of storytelling as part of the Stevenson/Farmer (“Thriving at Work“ 2017) recommended in-house mental health provision.

They have emphasised, particularly, the sharing of personal trauma as a means to develop a sense of community and, to some extent, to bring about catharsis and a new narrative shape to an individual’s life.

But how do you get the maximum benefits? And are all methods safe?

What’s the data?

There is now over 30 years of compelling data to support the benefits of telling your story – but through WRITING, not speaking – and the story is shared with only one person… yourself.

The evidence-supported benefits of this “expressive writing” (15 minutes of writing a day, for four days) include:

  • Improved performance at work and in study (Lumley & Provenzano 2003; Cameron & Nicholls 1998)
  • Improved ability to handle anger, depression and PTSD (Snyder et al. 2004; Baddeley & Pennebaker 2011)
  • Less visits to doctors (Pennebaker & Beall 1986)
  • Enhancement of immune system (Koschwanez et al., 2013, Lumel et al. 2011)
  • Improved sense of well-being after trauma (Lepore 1997, Barclay & Skarlicki 2009)

These studies all indicate that the participants who enjoyed the greatest wellbeing benefits, were the 50% who wrote with a strong narrative structure.

For the other 50% of people in the workplace, who have a less developed sense of narrative, there is a strong possibility that JUST sharing sad stories with others (or even oneself) can be counter productive – it can sustain a victim mentality, and that is not to anyone’s advantage. There is also the issue of safe disclosure. Writing for yourself means that nothing is off-limits, and no risk of feeling shamed or stigmatised.

So, what should providers of wellbeing initiatives be looking for when using personal storytelling as a tool?

Two things:

1.     The benefits of a more conscious understanding of story grammar.

Which came first, psychology or story? Organized religion, or story?

Story structure provides the core building blocks for all of our species’ attempts at meaning. But it is not a language that most of us speak fluently. We instinctively (unconsciously) know when a story is working well, but to make one up from scratch and have it well structured (conscious understanding)… tricky. Doubly hard if this “story” is formed from the messy detail of our own life, which rarely falls into a neat three acts.

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A more conscious understanding of story structure is the KEY factor in leveraging the therapeutic power of reframing your own narrative. It is the primary element that ENABLES the reframing.

And the good news is we CAN learn – everyone of us is more than half-way there.

The second key technique for the best use of personal stories in the context of wellbeing is –

2.     Write it down.

And this needs to be done with very strict rules (keeping this writing entirely confidential being one of the most important) and with clear narrative guidance.

In-person spoken testimonies can, of course, be therapeutic in terms of catharsis, breaking down stigma and aiding stronger peer-support systems – and I don’t wish to imply criticism. The available data underlines that these initiatives can be amplified in their impact by the suggestions I’m making above.

I’ve been a writer/story developer for nearly 40 years now (a slightly scary number!) and the guided interplay of personal experience and narrative reframing has been my life. About ten years ago, when going through a particularly tricky period of divorce, loss of loved-ones, and a bicycle accident – I finally realised that the language that had served me well to make a living was actually a wonderful map for living well.

The Magic of the Movies – a portal to personal development

Movies are still the most popular medium on the planet for storytelling. They mirror our subconscious thinking in many ways and, by being a form of unthreatening “entertainment”, give wellbeing mentors an extraordinary tool.

They allow us to introduce core personal development issues and skillsets without the stigma of it being about “mental illness” or weakness. The benefits are myriad and include the opportunity to engage with the hardest to reach demographics – those in denial about mental health issues, those fearing repercussions, young men (particularly those from a non-white background), senior management worried about their status.

In our outreach programmes based at the BFI and in our on-going YOU Are Your Story programs for HE and Business, we find that by using movies as a primary reference point, and a light touch approach, it is very easy to get young men and women to engage on intimate subjects; love or lack of love in their core relationships, their desire for growth and meaning in their lives, and their frustration with a prevailing culture and its tendency to see the sharing of vulnerability as a sign of weakness (particularly for men), rather than strength.

We are swiftly able to engage all demographics on core skillsets such as:

  • reframing of negative self-image
  • team communication skills
  • how to deal with confrontational situations
  • how to express yourself assertively while retaining respect for others
  • how to address unresolved trauma
  • how to address depression and/or a sense of being isolated from peers and people in a position of authority
  • how to maximize the opportunity for inspired creative work

I hope that companies will recognise that there is wonderful process available in this area – and that it is not enough to just have a broad approach to sharing stories. This is a specialised field, like any form of therapeutic process.

What we need, surely, are evidence-based tools that shift perspective, that help individuals use these techniques as a preventative strike, that allow us to grow without having to hit the proverbial “rock bottom” before we bounce back up. How can reframing personal narrative benefit company culture – and employee retainment?

Company cultures that appear to disenfranchise the voices of their employees risk losing them to other employers that do – we all know the horrendous cost of this to business. But even the best-crafted mission statements threaten to remove a sense of personal agency in staff.

We all want to feel that we are the author of our own lives, and millenials are particularly sensitive to the threat that they are NOT. But how do we address this?

Perception is projection.

The biggest story in our lives is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves.  And the difference between despair and hope is to tell different stories with the same facts.

The techniques embedded in well-structured story workshops (particularly those that reference movies) can swiftly reframe a negative personal narrative,  and feed this hunger for meaning. Educating staff about how story works can help them move from anxiety to hope and enthusiasm.

One of the embedded wisdoms in story structure is that growth is an on-going process, and rarely incremental – it is a jagged journey of ups and downs.  The key shift of perspective, the magic that can help us feel a sense of purpose and meaning, is to confirm that we ARE the authors of our lives irrespective of our circumstances. Our actions and contributions define us as unique and of value, and we are not a reluctant porter carrying a narrative that has been handed to us by others – whether parents, peer group or, indeed, our employer.

About the Author

Stephen May is Director of the Screen Arts Institute Email: [email protected]


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