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Four Ways Stories Can Help You Better Understand Yourself

"Stories not only give us much-needed practice in figuring out what makes people tick, they give us insight into how we tick." - Lisa Cron, Wired for Story.

I firmly believe the stories we love reveal an incredible amount about who we are. As I've discussed on this blog before, I think stories are a key way in which we examine life and that stories offer us more accessible versions of our complex world. So it makes sense that the stories we most love probably say something about us. If we're paying attention and willing to engage in a little self-reflection, thinking about the stories we love can help us have much better self-awareness. Here are four major ways in which we can reflect on the stories we love most to help us better understand ourselves.

1. What Do We Bring to Every Story?

I run The River Film Forum where we watch movies and discuss them. On one night I had just shown Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. It's one of my favorite films, and we had a pretty sizable group in attendance that night. The discussion was fascinating.

I specifically honed in on one key idea Malick is wrestling with in The Tree of Life. The movie begins with a quote from the Old Testament book of Job. Rabbi David Wolpe argues that The Tree of Life is Malick's reworking of the book of Job for the 21st Century. I think he's right.

My question that night was this: where was God in this story? Was God active or absent? Speaking or silent?

We talked for more than an hour as various people offered up their thoughts and we discovered a fascinating diversity of perspectives. Some felt God was active in the narrative. Others felt the story unequivocally displayed the silence, if not completely absence, of God. There was no consensus. Many of us simply had had a different experience of the film.

What does my experience showing The Tree of Life at The River Film Forum reveal? We cannot get away from the reality that we bring ourselves to the stories we experience. In fact, we bring all of our past experiences and ideas with us to every new experience. As we experience something new we seek to assimilate it into the narrative of our own lives, which is progressing from our past experiences. In other words, we have a particular and unique lens through which we see the world around us. It's an inescapable reality. I can no more take off my particular subjective lens than I can just hit a button and erase my brain like formatting a hard drive. To do either would be to, in any practical sense, cease to be me.

That night at The River Film Forum, I revealed my "dirty little secret" to everyone. I'd shown the movie and posed the question because I knew that what Malick's meditative film ultimately offered us was an opportunity to have a concentrated experience around which we could have revealing conversations about our worldviews. In short, what everyone said that night about whether they felt the film showed God as active or absent really revealed to me more about their particular worldview than it revealed any objective understanding of the film.

There was a pause as everyone took this in, and then heads began to nod and I recall some chuckles. No wonder there had been no consensus on what the film was ultimately saying. The film was only a two-hour experience purposefully introspective, at times abstract, and deliberately subtle. More than any other director today, Malick makes films that not only invite us to exit inside the narrative, they damn near demand it.

But the truth that we bring ourselves to any story we experience is applicable to all stories and all mediums. So if you find yourself having a discussion--even an argument--with someone about how you see a story differently than they do, can you identify how your unique experiences as an individual and your worldview are shaping your response to this story? What does your take on the story say about your view of life? Might this explain the difference between your interpretation and someone else's?

2. What Characters Do We Connect With?

One of my favorite questions to ask at Film Forum discussions is: what character did you identify or connect with the most?

This is another way in which the conversation becomes introspective and revealing. To talk about a character we connect with or identify with is to say something about ourselves. And what's fascinating about this experience is that people often relate to different characters--it's not automatically the hero of the story.

As you think about the kinds of characters you most enjoy in stories, the ones you find yourself rooting for most often, empathizing the most with, it is always worth pausing to ask yourself: why do I feel drawn to such characters?

Do you find you're most often drawn to stories about the underdog who rises above impossible odds to claim victory? What might that say about how you see your life?

Do you find that you most often connect with characters who feel a great burden of guilt that they must atone for in some fashion? Why might you be drawn to such characters?

Do you often empathize with seemingly overlooked supporting characters? Do you feel for the misguided villain? Do you connect with the Luke Skywalkers and Harry Potters that discover they are in fact special and destined for great things? Do you identify with the Frodo and feel you have been presented with some grand responsibility and burden you didn't ask for but must carry anyway? Do you connect with the characters who support the hero, the Sam Gamgees or Hermiones?

The truth is, in some capacity or another, we all likely can empathize and relate to many such characters. But as you think about the movies you watch and the books you read, there are likely patterns that emerge when it comes to the characters you connect with most. What do these patterns reveal to you about how you might see yourself?

3. How Badly Do We Want to Escape?

It is worth also considering carefully the types of stories we turn to most often. What genres do we enjoy most? Why? Are we romantics, thrill seekers, lovers of laughter, so forth?

For many of us, escapism ("I just want to be entertained") is what we seek most in our stories. Before we assume this renders our ability to seek self-awareness through stories moot, the mere fact that we recognize that escapism is our primary objective should give us pause. Why is escapism our highest value? What might this say about how we feel about the rest of our lives that when it comes to the stories we seek out we mostly want to get away, or even be anesthetized from the realities of our daily life? Or maybe this speaks to how we have been taught to view stories?

Before you or anyone else judges you too harshly for being into escapism, I think it is worth pointing out that we need reprieves from reality. Fictional stories are first and foremost a break from reality on purpose. This reprieve can allow us to emotionally process our life's challenges or simply take a break so our subconscious can catch its breath. Escapism in-and-of-itself is actually a good thing.

But like all good things, too much of it can be a problem. If, when it comes to books or movies, the only thing you're ever interested in is "taking a break" and escaping, what might this realization reveal about your life and how you feel about your circumstances? There might be some good reasons to take the time to think about why stories for you are mostly about escaping or just having a good time.

The level at which escapism influences our choices in stories is likely to vary with our stages in life, a particular season of life, past experiences, and other factors. Maybe you love foreign films because they expose you to different cultures and parts of the world. Maybe you love imaginative adventures because you feel trapped and bored with your life. Maybe you opt for a comedy nine times out of ten because you can't seem to find enough to laugh about in your daily life.

Escapism is going to play some role in our story choices. But the question is, how big of a role and what does this reveal about yourself.

4. What Emotions Do We Need to Let Out?

The other big reason we turn to stories is because we need catharsis. Often, our daily reality does not allow for an outlet to all of our emotions. Many times, a story might actually give voice to emotions we were not consciously aware we needed an outlet for. I recall watching World Trade Center and spending a long time in tears after. I hadn't consciously realized I still had a lot of emotions tied to the events of 9-11 that were looking for an outlet. It was a valuable experience.

Romantic stories can allow us to experience the rush of fresh infatuation and budding relationships. Adventures can provide us with a sense of wonder and discovery. A horror film can offer us a safe outlet for experiencing feelings of primal fear while still aware that no actual harm will come to us.

Do you find that you particularly connect with stories that bring up particular emotions? This can connect with some of the questions we've already posed relating to genre choices and the types of characters we most identify with. But it is worth looking at such information again from the perspective of emotional catharsis. Maybe we find we have a lot of pent up emotions around romance, or underdog characters, or characters like Neo who discover they are somehow special, reluctant heroes who simply find they cannot stand idly by while injustice is allowed to continue, so forth.

Do you find you have particularly strong or visceral emotions connected to specific types of stories? Do you need a feel-good story to help pick your spirits up periodically? Do you need tragic stories to allow you to safely experience emotions connected to loss or depression? It is worth meditating on what and why you emotionally connect with and what kind of catharsis seems most important to you.

Again, look for patterns and take the time to evaluate what these patterns might reveal to you about your subconscious needs for catharsis in specific areas. Are there past hurts or experiences that continue to haunt your story choices?


If we are willing to be even a little thoughtful about the already existing pattern of choices we make in terms of the stories we tend to gravitate toward, I think we will find that there is much we can begin to understand about ourselves. Maybe the most vulnerable part of this whole process is that it might be worth opening up with someone close to you and asking them what they notice in your story choices and what they might think it reveals about your emotional needs and worldview. It can be scary, but it can also be incredibly life-giving and enriching for your own self-awareness and for your relationships. Right off the bat, what are some patterns you detect in your movie viewing and book reading habits? Share below and let's chat more.

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