- Tim Mathis
The Hero’s Journey: Narrative therapy to write yourself out of a dark black hole.
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
This is not about me, it’s about you, but I will start with a bit of a personal history.
I’m someone who writes compulsively, even when I don’t have a conscious reason. Why? I don’t know. I just do.
But I’ve known for a while that writing does help me think, in particular when life is hard or complicated or miserable. When I went through a period of struggle with the religion I was raised with, writing a memoir was the path that eventually showed me the way out. After my father’s death, months of journaling was how I sorted out what life would look like after he’d passed. Then after the 2016 election when the US stopped making sense to me, I spent months putting thoughts and emotions into a blog until I had a new understanding of what my country was about.
Putting the world into a coherent order - into a story, I guess you could say - is a compulsive need for me. It makes things seem like they're under control. It makes you feel like you have a plan.
In short, it’s therapeutic.
What does writing your story do? Writing as self-therapy.
When I trained as a psychiatric nurse, and started working with people in crisis, I learned that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. I’m not the only one who does best when I’m able to organize my life into a story that makes sense to me. It’s a pretty darn universal need, actually.
In fact, storytelling is the way that humans think. Being able to organize your experience into a coherent story is exactly the same thing as being able to find sense and meaning in it.
Writing your story helps you decide what steps that you need to take next, allows you to share your experience in a way that others will intuitively understand, and gives you a concise, powerful tool to connect and affect change in your community. It allows you to integrate difficult events into your larger experience, and it allows you to parse out the meaning and significance of the things you go through. It’s a simple kind of magic.
And as I more or less sorted out on my own, it turns out that writing is particularly useful for people who are learning to cope with difficult, complicated or traumatic experiences. There’s a whole area of counseling called Narrative Therapy devoted to this dynamic. It’s been used to support soldiers returning from war, victims of family violence, and people who’ve experienced childhood trauma, but you don’t have to have gone through ‘Nam to benefit from the process. Writing your story is useful for anyone who’s processing troubling experiences.
We’ll get into a bit of why this is shortly, but first let’s quickly talk about a story structure called The Hero’s Journey.
The optimal way to write your story: The Hero’s Journey
There are a lot of different ways that you could shape your story, but there is a particular, simple, familiar type of story structure that it helps to use as a template when you’re processing something hard, according to a good number of Narrative Therapists and researchers.
It’s called The Hero’s Journey.
It goes something like this, in my own gross simplification:
A person is living their normal life.
An event occurs that pulls them into a challenge. That is, something bad or hard happens.
They face down the difficult task, and identify internal and external resources to overcome it. Friends and mentors help.
Eventually they make it through.
Afterwards, they “go back home” - they go back to reality changed by this experience and its aftermath.
You may have heard of it. You definitely know of examples that follow the structure. Harry Potter. Star Wars. Finding Nemo. The Little Mermaid. Black Panther. Thousands more.
Joseph Campbell, who originally came up with the structure in his book The Hero With 1000 Faces, identified it in a variety of classic myths and stories, and called it “a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millennia of his residence on the planet."
It’s bold to suggest that you’ve identified a Universal Truth but it’s hard to deny that Campbell was on to something.
In any case, the great news is that this structure is simple, familiar, and easy to learn. Anyone can use it to shape their own story, which means that anyone can use it to process life's challenges. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, a bit more background.
What’s going on here? The Hero’s Journey narrative as a self-therapy hack.
I think that the Hero’s Journey is such a common and useful structure because, stated simply, it is a model that describes each step in the universal human process of overcoming challenges. You’re just living your life. Something unusual and difficult happens forcing you to deal with a problem. You figure out how to deal with it, usually with some help from your friends and mentors, using some of your own skills and building new ones along the way. You make it through - whatever that means. Then you cope with life afterwards and integrate what you learned from the experience, a changed person.
Simple right? A familiar template for human experience. I’m almost sure that you can immediately identify a dozen personal examples of problems you’ve dealt with that you could fit into this model. Even getting out of bed and confronting the problem of a boring day with nothing to do requires you to move through the process above. Also having your leg blown off by a landmine. Or losing a loved one in a car accident. Or being falsely imprisoned. Or figuring out how to cope after you lose the big game.
If the Hero's Journey is simple and familiar, why do you need to think about it?
The thing is, when you’re trying to manage a real problem, or dealing with the aftermath of some kind of trauma - a car crash, the death of someone you love, a major public humiliation - it’s not guaranteed at all that you will move through all of the steps of the Hero’s Journey naturally. Or at least you won’t necessarily immediately recognize that you have.
In other words, just because you have a problem, it doesn’t mean that you will actually solve it.
A key driver of mental distress is that people get stuck on the bit where something bad happens. They continuously ruminate on it. They worry that it’s going to happen again. They feel like their life is ruined as a result. They contemplate suicide because they can’t imagine living with the aftermath of the bad thing. The wallow in the shame of it all. Sometimes they get stuck in coping patterns to deal with their stuck-ness that cause more bad things to happen, compounding their issues.
Those kinds of unresolved experiences can suck you into a black hole.
Or more accurately, not knowing how to think about those types of experiences can suck you into a black hole. Failed coping can turn one problem into a lifetime of other problems.
The bad news? Those kinds of experiences will come up eventually for everyone. While some
people are definitely presented with more than their fair share of life’s struggles, all of us at some point will deal with something terrible.
The good news? These are the kinds of situations where being intentional about writing your story through the Hero’s Journey structure helps. Wiring your brain to put your problems through the grinder of the Hero’s Journey helps you to get your shit straight in the short term, and to build resilience across the long term.
The other good news? Anyone can do this, with any problem.
You may want to know how to do this at this point, but first this:
Why Has Narrative Therapy landed on the Hero’s Journey?
A lot of reasons, but I’ll list a few simple ones.
The Hero’s Journey structure externalizes the problem. It recognizes that any problem to deal with - while you may well contribute to it - is not an essential part of who you are. Or, at least, it’s a problem that you have internal and external resources to manage.
It forces you to identify your own coping skills and the people who can help you. Those are essential parts of the story - right? How you make it through, and who and what helps?
It has a “make it through” step which identifies that a problem - or at least a problem in its current iteration - is not forever. Or your way of coping with the problem or thinking about the problem is not forever. Transformation is possible - both personal and situational.
It forces you to think about what it means to “come back home.” How do you get back to life reckoning with this difficult experience? What does it look like to get back to normal? Where does this problem fit in your life now? How are you changed, and how have you grown?
Finally, the Hero’s Journey is perhaps the most common structure that humans use - normally unintentionally - to tell stories. Having your own experience in this form gives you a way to share it with other people in a way that they’ll understand. Sharing with other people in a way that they’ll understand is, itself, crucial for healing.
When you go through a bad experience - even a very bad experience - and shape it in to the Hero’s Journey on paper, and in your mind, it naturally helps you deal with it more healthily. It doesn’t erase the problem, but it naturally shapes it into something productive.
How can you do this? How can you write your own Hero’s Journey?
Okay, so, after all of that, here’s Hero’s Journey 101.
If you have gone through an experience that is still troubling you, or are trying to figure out how to manage a situation and its aftermath, you can plug your challenge into the Hero’s Journey template as a way to begin to process it and make sure that it’s something you manage and grow from rather than something that gets you stuck.
How? It’s not easy, but it is simple.
Here it is: the exercise:
Step 1: Identify your problem.
Step 2: Go somewhere that you can focus.
Step 3: Write out the answers to the following questions, as thoroughly as you can.
What were you doing before the event occurred?
How did you get drawn in to the experience?
What were the key challenges that you faced: Physical, emotional, personal, spiritual?
How did you overcome them? What internal tools did you use? Who helped? What else helped?
Describe the moment when you knew the challenge had passed.
What has life looked like after the experience? How is it impacting you now? How have you grown?
That’s the whole process.
After you’ve answered those questions, you’ve essentially written your story. If you want to share it with other people, you might take some time cleaning it up, connecting the dots, and inserting some flowery language, but if you can answer all of those questions and put the information in a coherent order, you have the structure and material of your Hero’s Journey. It’s a struggle you’ve faced, and the path you found (or are finding) through it.
The good thing is that you can potentially complete a first draft of your story in thirty minutes. The more complicated thing is that if you really want to dig in, you could spend years turning all of this into a memoir. This process is, in fact, how a lot of people write memoirs. Don't let that turn you off though. Memoirs are great.
Some pro tips:
Writing your story can be painful and infuriating if your emotions are still raw from the experience that you’re writing about. Remember that you don’t have to do this now if you don’t want. More insight is likely to come later when things don’t feel so fresh anyway.
Also, if you’re dealing with a situation that’s still active, those last two questions might not seem answerable. In this case, it’s valuable to allow your imagination to guide you. If it feels like the problem is still active, ask yourself what it would mean for the challenge to pass, and how it will look and feel when it does. It’s good to examine different possibilities.
(“Getting through,” by the way, might not mean that the problem has gone away. It might just mean that you’ve learned how to live with it or grow from it.)
Then, ask yourself what your life will look like afterwards. How do you want your life to look afterwards and how can you make sure you get there? Again, consider different possibilities and paths.
If you’re someone who gets down on yourself easily, resist the temptation towards negative spins. It’s important to identify the problem, the role that you played in it, and the significant impact that it has had on your life, but it’s also important to recognize the points of strength which will get you through. All humans have them, including you.
You’re a hero. It’s fine. Accept it.
By moving through this process, you’ve just turned your problem into a story. You’ve just proven that it is just one part of who you are, and that it’s a part of your experience that you’ve managed (maybe well, maybe not) and that you will grow from and move through in some way in the future. You’ve identified your own strengths and your own agency in the face of difficult circumstances, and you’ve identified the people who are important to you. You still have crap to deal with, but you’ve leveled up. You’ve asserted a degree of control over your experience.
If you have written before, you’ll know that no story is ever finished. This is particularly true with very bad experiences. If you write the story of this same event again tomorrow, you will almost definitely write it differently. This is a good thing and a good exercise to repeat. You may look at the same event dozens of times, or the same problem from dozens of angles. We all go through bad experiences that shape us. Writing their story doesn’t make them not bad, but it does help you to chart a path through and to identify the variety of ways that you can grow as a result.
It’s also, by the way, a great exercise to share with other people. Publicly, anonymously on Reddit, with the people you’re closest to, or with your cat. Sharing isn’t essential but it can be a big part of the impact and can make a story seem more real, somehow.
And yeah, whatever, that is the advice that I’ll conclude this tutorial with.
Write your story and go tell your cat about how you’re a hero.
If you do this exercise, and want to do something with your story, or talk to someone about it, let me know. I’m happy to talk to you about it - wearing either my mental health nurse hat or my writer hat.
Also, if you have questions or feedback about this process, I’d also love to talk about that. I’m learning still myself, and I’d love to hear how these things are landing. Does it help? Does it make sense? Is it crap? Let me know. Shoot me a message on the About page.
This is another very helpful article about Narrative Therapy and The Hero's Journey, written by a trauma counselor.
Or, if you're keen for a funny, painful book-length example of what processing through a Hero's Journey looks like in practice, I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation was the product of my own narrative therapy process, even if I didn't realize it when I was writing.