The Healing Power of Stories

It's been one year since I wrote "The Parallel Universe Where My Brother Lives", the story of how I tried to move on after my brother's suicide. Re-reading the story now, I remember how painful it was for me to even think about my brother. But “Parallel Universe” doesn’t fit with who I am now. Writing, sharing, and talking about my story was tremendously healing. For this anniversary, I want to explore what it is about stories that can be so healing.

Stories validate strong emotions

Next to Normal  honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Next to Normal honored what my family went through trying to support my brother.

Most of us feel like something is wrong when we're experiencing strong emotions. This happens to me a lot when I get mad. I remember running late to work one day and getting pushed into a dirty New York City puddle of water. I was soaking wet and smelled like sewer. All morning long I felt like I was losing my mind – I was furious, couldn't stop replaying the situation in my mind, and was flooded with criticizing thoughts ("You're so stupid for letting this happen to you").

It wasn't until I talked to a friend that I started to feel better. "I would have been so pissed off if that happened to me!" Hearing that helped me calm down. My friend helped me understand that my feelings made sense given the situation. The more she validated my feelings, the more comfortable I felt.

Validation is one of the main reasons why stories can be healing. By introducing characters who are experiencing similar situations, stories can make us feel less alone and make it easier to talk about what we're thinking and feeling. That's why coming of age films like The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are so important – they validate the experience of being a teenager at a time when so much of the world can seem invalidating. It's also a big part of the psychology of cult TV shows like FireflyBuffy, and Doctor Who

Watching Broadway's Next to Normal was deeply validating for me. The musical is about a mother's struggle with bipolar depression and the impact it has on her family. Not only is the music beautiful (check out "I Miss the Mountains") but seeing the family’s struggle to support their loved one captured much of what happened to my family after my brother’s diagnosis.

Stories challenge stigma

Done right, stories can also reduce stigma about mental health. Many still believe problems with mental health are caused by personal weaknesses, that individuals should feel ashamed for their struggles, and treatment should be kept secret. We know this stigma has no basis in reality. Problems like anxiety and depression are caused by many biological, psychological, and environmental factors and affect a wide variety of people from all backgrounds. Stories can challenge these stigmatic beliefs and speak to the reality of mental health.

Often, the most helpful stories are true accounts of mental illness. That's why I'm a big fan of Glenn Close's Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, which encourages people to share their personal stories and start a dialogue about mental health.  

Films such as A Beautiful Mind and books like The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing have also done a lot to tell the story of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I also love what Temple Grandin has to say about autism and why the world needs all kinds of minds.

Reading Willy Linthout’s graphic memoir Years of the Elephant, a story about a father's struggle to mourn his son's suicide, went a long way to challenge my stigma about suicide. I used to think “I should be able to cope with this” but Linthout’s story taught me that most people grieving from a suicide go through a complicated process that lasts for a very long time. The Live Through This project also made this think our culture might be ready for a conversation about suicide.

Stories demystify mental healthcare

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Ellen Forney’s Marbles brings phenomenal clarity to the experience of therapy and medication.

Because of stigma, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually happens in therapy. Stories about mental healthcare have the power to demystify treatment. The best example of this is Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles. Forney shows what it’s like to be diagnosed with bipolar depression, what treatment with a psychiatrist looks like, the role of medication, and how things outside of traditional mental healthcare can help recovery. Marbles is a masterpiece in the world of graphic memoirs and should be required reading for all therapists in training.

I also use stories to explain what I am doing in treatment. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I'm essentially a coach whose job it is to teach my patients new ways of coping with distressing feelings, intrusive thoughts, and challenging situations. Whenever I teach a patient a new skill, I link it to a story they're passionate about. Relaxation training becomes Jedi training, cognitive coping skills are linked to Harry Potter's patronus charm, and exposure therapy is grounded in Batman's origin story. That's what geek therapy means to me – using stories people love to make therapy more fun, relevant, and effective (for more on this topic listen to Geek Therapy's "How Comic Books Saved My Life" or read Dean Trippe's "Something Terrible" ).

Stories help us grow

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

Batman always reminded me that growth is possible after traumatic experiences.

So far, everything has focused on consuming stories. It turns out that creating your own story can also be very therapeutic.

Many scientists and clinicians believe that avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is the common problem among all mental health concerns. Avoidance works in the short term but as a long term strategy it just ends up intensifying problems. Therapists Giorgio Nardone and Paul Watzlawick summarize this nicely:

“Clinical experience has shown that, ironically, it is often the patient’s very attempt to solve the problem that, in fact, maintains it. The attempted solution becomes the true problem.”

The solution is to help people experience all emotions, both the positive and the negative. That's the basis behind a number of effective treatments like exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and the unified treatment for emotional disorders. Short-term focused writing about emotions can bring about many of the same effects. Psychologist James Pennebaker's research has shown that writing can reduce anxiety and depression while increasing immune functioning. Some therapies also integrate writing as a major part of treatment. Cognitive processing therapy, which is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, helps people get unstuck from their thoughts and develop meaning out of the events that have happened.

Just knowing that people can recover from traumatic experiences can make it possible for someone to start moving towards post-traumatic growth. Hearing stories about recovery from a loved one's suicide was key to my growth. My friend and colleague Melinda Moore shared her story with me, how recovery from her husband's suicide led her to become a psychologist who promotes suicide prevention. Hearing from her made me believe that I too could gain something from my loss.

Stories ignite social support

Following difficult emotional experiences, the single best predictor of recovery is how much support someone gets from their friends and family. That's what made my recovery so difficult – I didn't talk about my pain with anyone so I didn't get much social support. Of course people asked how I was doing but I ignored them because I wasn't ready to open up.

When I did finally share my story, I was overwhelmed by messages of support. It wasn't just people I knew, but also individuals I never met who went out of their way to let me know they wanted to help. To date, I've received over 3,000 messages in response to “Parallel Universe”. I save each one and re-read them on particularly tough nights.

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Katie Goldman, the "Star Wars girl"

Sharing a story, regardless of the way in which you do it, has the potential to activate a support network. One of my favorite examples of this comes from 7-year-old Katie Goldman. Katie was repeatedly bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. Her mom wrote about the experience on her blog and asked for help. The story quickly spread across the internet. Here's how Katie's mom describes what happened next:

Katie is overjoyed by the comments coming in!!!  My sweet first grade daughter has been sitting with me at the computer, reading aloud all the wonderful, supportive notes from readers, and her face is shining...We are going to print the comments out and make a book for her to read whenever she feels the need. Today she wore a Star Wars shirt to school and said to me, "Tell the people about it!!!!" This is really restoring her self confidence. She did a jaunty little pirouette in her Star Wars shirt before school.

The future of "Parallel Universe"

The stories we develop about ourselves shape our behavior, filter our memories, and inform our decisions about the future. My story is now forever linked with "Parallel Universe". Every month it's the most widely read article on Brain Knows Better and it’s what I’m most known for outside of my professional work.

Like other survivors of suicide, a part of my life is now dedicated to promoting suicide prevention and helping others who are experiencing complicated grief. That’s why I’m announcing a new project that will turn my story (Growing Up Trekkie, Parallel Universe, Most Honest Year of My Life) into a graphic memoir. I hope to share this new story with you in one year’s time at the third anniversary of “Parallel Universe”.


This was written in honor of Mental Health Month and the American Psychological Association's Mental Health Blog Day. To hear more about the healing power of stories, check out the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour mental health episode.

The Lego Movie Could Help You Become a Better Parent (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

The-Lego-Movie-title.jpg

I didn't want to see The Lego Movie. It looked like it was purely made to push Lego products and promote Warner Brothers properties. But I was intrigued by the film’s 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating. What finally convinced me to see it was hearing from my child and teenage patients last week – many had plans to see it opening weekend and I knew if I didn't see it soon someone would give away the ending at our next appointment (spoilers are an occupational hazard for clinical psychologists).

I’m so glad I saw the film because it was a ton of fun! Stop-motion inspired CGI brings the iconic Lego toy universe to life in a beautiful way. The acting is spot on, especially Will Arnett's hilarious take on Batman. There's also an amazing cameo by one of the most famous spaceships in the galaxy but I won't ruin the surprise here. 

Things move at a frenetic pace and there isn't much room for conversations between the movie’s different franchises. I wanted to see Gandalf, Dumbledore, the Justice League, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hangout more, but it was fun just to see them together on the big screen. My bigger concern is the limited role of females in the story. There is a female lead, but like Louis Lane in Man of Steel she’s mostly there to advance the story of the male characters. This is sort of a big deal since Lego toys have a big gender gap (be sure to read this 7-year-old girl’s take on the issue). 

I wish  The Lego Movie  gave us more interactions across franchises and stronger female characters.

I wish The Lego Movie gave us more interactions across franchises and stronger female characters.

Even with these limitations, The Lego Movie is still more than just another children’s film. What makes it awesome is the story's theme of imagination. The main character is caught in a struggle between following the rules of Lego manuals or embracing his creative instinct. At first this seems like the film's way of honoring the inventiveness of Lego fans. But things become much more personal as the film turns into a story about connecting with children. 

This is where The Lego Movie really resonated with me. I work with a lot of parents who come into my office concerned about their child's behavior. Maybe their kid is throwing a lot of tantrums, pushing peers at school, or just can't calm down. Labels like "aggressive", "oppositional", and "disruptive" get tossed around, kids feel pretty crummy about themselves, and parents don’t know what to do. I always start treatment where The Lego Movie ends by teaching parents how to improve their relationship with their children. 

One of the most effective treatments for young children with these types of behavior problems is called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). Parents place a small microphone and speaker in their ear and are coached in real time by therapists behind one-way mirrors. PCIT puts kids in the lead of play and teaches parents how to encourage their child's imagination (kind of like The Lego Movie does). PCIT skills like “labeled praise” encourage positive behavior, “reflections” increase language development, and “descriptions” show that you’re interested in what your child is doing. Yes, we talk about discipline in PCIT too, but study after study has shown that discipline alone doesn't lead to long-term change. The relationship between a parent and child has to be improved first and the best way to do that is by connecting with your child using imaginative play. 

Parent Child Interaction Therapy in action. Photo by Robert Barclay via Central Michigan University.

Parent Child Interaction Therapy in action. Photo by Robert Barclay via Central Michigan University.

Will the film sell a ton of Lego kits? Absolutely! Does it increase our anticipation for 2016’s Superman VS. Batman film? You betcha! But The Lego Movie achieves more than its commercial self-interests. Writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have created a story that is entertaining and has the possibility of helping parents become better parents. There's much more I could say about the psychology of The Lego Movie and its commentary on conformity, totalitarian states, government surveillance, and commercialism. But this is the message I want to leave you with – everything is awesome when you encourage kids to use their imagination.

Rating: 8.5/10

For more perspectives on The Lego Movie, check out The New York Times' positive review and The New York Post's negative (and spoilery) review.

Prometheus and the Fallacy of Origins (Film Review)

Note: This article contains minor spoilers for the film Prometheus.

I had very high expectations for Prometheus. Not only was this Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he fundamentally influenced through Alien and Blade Runner, but the film's viral marketing (see below) made me believe Prometheus was going to be more thought-provoking than the run of the mill scifi.

When the movie was released, I was extremely busy transitioning between jobs, so I uncharacteristically delayed seeing it. Later, after reading all of the mixed reviews, I put off Prometheus until I could Netflix it. I was already bummed that so many people hated the film and I didn't want to spend $15+ on a movie that was going to break my fanboy heart. 

I finally saw the movie on Blu-ray this past week. Visually, Prometheus was stunning. The special effects, cinematography, and sets all gave the film an expansive sense of scale that hasn’t been seen since 2009's Avatar. I LOVED Michael Fassbender's android, David. His acting was nuanced and Oscar-worthy (which of course will never happen). 

David the android, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is the highlight of  Prometheus . 

David the android, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is the highlight of Prometheus

Unfortunately, there's not much else to like. The remaining characters were one dimensional (e.g. the corporate boss with a hidden agenda) or acted unrealistically (e.g. scientists doing very unscientific things). Marc Streitenfeld's score was dull, which is unfortunate since Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator had such iconic music. And then there's the plot…

Prometheus is about the quest to understand the origins of our species (like Star Trek: TNG's “The Chase”), at least the first half is. The second half closely mirrors Alien (strange goo + android under orders from an evil corporation = xenomorph on the loose). Both stories are drawn out from the iconic image of a “space jockey” in Alien.

The iconic "space jockey" from 1979's  Alien  was the inspiration for 2012's Prometheus. 

The iconic "space jockey" from 1979's Alien was the inspiration for 2012's Prometheus. 

The film doesn't do either story justice. The pieces are all there, but they never come together. For example, there was an opportunity to link the extraterrestrial creation of humans with the human creation of artificial intelligence:       

Charlie Holloway: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie Holloway: We made you because we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
Charlie Holloway: I guess it's good you can't be disappointed.

That thread is never fleshed out. Neither are the film's other big questions about science and faith. There are glimmers of bold and ambitious ideas, but they never crystalize.

prometheus.jpeg

When it comes to the action, Prometheus doesn't achieve the suspense of Alien or the excitement of Aliens. There wasn't anything fresh - the film is filled with predictable variations of moments every science fiction fan has seen before.

Clearly, I was disappointed. It was the same type of disappointment I felt while watching the last episode of LOST, Battlestar Galactica's The Plan, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Wars: Episodes I-III, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and bunch of other prequels/sequels that promised to deliver big explanations about already established mythologies. The issue isn’t getting answers, but the post-hoc nature of stories that provide new explanations long after the original source material was developed (e.g. using Prometheus to explain the backstory of Alien’s space jockey). You can almost always tell the difference between stories that have completely developed arcs (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) versus stories that backpedal explanations (e.g. Caprica) (notable exceptions include Godfather: Part II and X-Men: First Class).  

Outside of storytelling, this type of fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because of this") has long plagued evolutionary theories. Stephen Jay Gould (one of my favorite science authors) describes in Bully for Brontosaurus how we use current behavior to make explanations for past evolution:

“We have no proof that the [giraffe’s] long neck evolved by natural selection for eating leaves at the tops of acacia trees. We only prefer this explanation because it matches current orthodoxy. Giraffes do munch the topmost leaves, and this habit obviously helps them to thrive, but who knows how or why their necks elongated? They may have lengthened for other reasons and then been fortuitously suited for acacia leaves.”

Like evolution, you can always make up explanations for source material but since the explanations must fit within the established rules of an existing story, writers are constricted and the results tend to suck (which is why I prefer reboots like 2005’s Batman Begins, 2009’s Star Trek, and 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead of prequels).   

The same issue comes up in my clinical work. People often ask, “what happened in my childhood that caused me to feel this way?”. We try to find explanations for our current struggles based upon our early experiences. Psychology is complex, therefore the cause of almost every problem is a combination of genetics (and epigenetics), environment, learning, and stressors. People have a hard time hearing that and prefer more mythical explanations rooted in the past.

Why is this the case? Old ideas about psychology continue to thrive in our culture. These theories claim by simply understanding early causes of problems you will change. Psychotherapy is not archeology - understanding the origin of one's struggles is always a beginning in therapy, never an end. Real, long-term behavior change is a process that requires sustained motivation in learning new ways of approaching your life. 

It seems like ParadisePrometheus’s sequel, might delve deeper into exploring the origin of humans, primarily because it will depart from the shackles of the Alien mythology. I wish Ridley Scott made that film instead of falling into the trap of a prequel. While Prometheus is decent science fiction, it pales in comparison to the director’s prior work and doesn't measure up to the current standard-bearers (Children of Men, Moon, Inception, and Looper). 

Rating: 6.5/10.