The healing power of storytelling
Storytelling plays an essential role in helping you understand your life and define your personality. The power and place of storytelling in human culture is ancient and is thought to have emerged, along with language, as a way to express your skills and capabilities to others.
Every day you tell stories — to yourself, in the privacy of your own mind, and to those around you, in the ways you describe both your and their actions and personality. Story is powerful and can help reinforce strengths or remind you of a weakness. Taking charge of your story, or rewriting its central themes, can help you tap into unexpressed parts of yourself, discover new strength and start to believe in your talents.
While storytelling is ancient and innate, narrative therapy is relatively recent. Narrative therapy was popularised in the 1990s by Michael White and David Epston. As described in Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy by Gerard Corey, narrative therapy is one of a variety of postmodern approaches to counselling. It centres on a handful of key assumptions, two of which include taking “a critical stance toward taken-for-granted knowledge” and “there is not a single or ‘right’ way to live one’s life”.
Taking charge of your story, or rewriting its central themes, can help you tap into unexpressed parts of yourself, discover new strength and start to believe in your talents.
Drawing on these two simple points can help you unlock a world of potential. Some of what you take for granted as truth — especially about yourself and your talents — may simply be story hardened into belief and thus may not be as “true” as you have thought. Challenging yourself on these so-called truths can be liberating.
You may have unconscious expectations — or limits — on how to live, based in part on stories you have told yourself over an extended period. But, if what you believe to be the “right” way to live was only an assumption, how might your potential expand?
The focus on story in narrative therapy shows how you can draw on the healing power of storytelling in your own life. You may not be aware that the nature, theme and content of your stories influence your innermost self. By bringing awareness to the stories you tell yourself, or those you have heard others tell about you, you can change your thoughts, your story and your potential.
Corey writes, “We live our lives by stories we tell about ourselves and that others tell about us. These stories actually shape reality in that they construct and constitute what we see, feel and do.” You can get to know your stories through conversation, like with a therapist or trusted friend, or through reflective writing.
Story & structure
Story can help you organise your memories of a major event, experience or turning point into a clear record. Once you have a coherent way of describing what happened and your response to it, you can explore any feelings or memories it may trigger. You may notice that the act of organising seemingly disconnected memories into a structured story can help reduce the tendency to ruminate on the past.
James Pennebaker writes in his book Opening Up: “Just as we are drawn to good stories in literature or the movies, we need to construct coherent and meaningful stories for ourselves. Good narratives or stories, then, organise seemingly infinite facets of overwhelming events. Once organised, the events are often smaller and easier to deal with.”
This may be part of the reason why, when something sad or stressful happens, you may tell the difficult story over and over to a variety of people. Each time you retell the story, you have the chance to revise and reorganise your thoughts and feelings about the experience. Pennebaker also notes an approach in therapy that argues that “the key to understanding an event is through constructing a story about it”.
Stories are especially powerful in families. Think of any family “myths” you may have heard repeatedly throughout your life. What, if any, story have you been told about your birth? What, if any, story have you been told about your childhood, adolescence or the ways in which you transitioned into adulthood?
What qualities do you believe about yourself as a result of these powerful family stories? If your parents said you were disorganised or lacked focus, do you then label yourself as someone who is flaky? Do you avoid roles or situations in which being flaky might be considered a weakness? Or perhaps from a young age you were described as responsible and organised. Do you then feel you have to always be this way as an adult? Can you challenge yourself to acknowledge times in your life when you have been the opposite, ie either focused or perhaps disorganised?
Separating self from the problem
One important feature of narrative therapy involves a process known as externalisation. Using language, an important component of postmodern healing, you can shift the focus of the role you play in a key story. For instance, if you have a story in which you describe yourself as “being bad with money”, the totality of the words used can feel overwhelming and impossible to change. By its nature the phrase “being bad with money” is absolute and can feel defeatist. If, instead, you say you “have trouble managing money”, the implication is there’s more to you than your challenges with money, and that those challenges are somehow separate — external — from the essence or core of you.
By bringing awareness to the stories you tell yourself, or those you have heard others tell about you, you can change your thoughts, your story and your potential.
This separation, part of a technique known as “deconstruction”, will help you distance yourself from a problem or pain. This shift in language changes your thinking and creates therapeutic distance, a safe space in which healing can occur. According to Corey, “Externalisation is one process for deconstructing the power of a narrative and separating the person from identifying with the problem and sometimes giving it a name.”
Creating separation between self and problem gives you space to try to manage or better relate to it. Corey notes, “Separating the problem from the individual facilitates hope and enables clients to take a stand against specific story lines, such as self-blame.” Thus, the ability to externalise a problem or personify it, so the problem is the problem (and not you), can lead to hopeful feelings about managing or resolving the issue.
Questions & possibilities
After externalising the problem or concern, you can then use probing questions to better understand the influence the problem may be having on you. These questions help you learn about the origins, influence and triggers of the issue itself. The therapeutic use of such questions is another feature of narrative therapy.
Questions may include:
- When did this problem first appear?
- Have there been times when you have managed this problem (in this instance, money) well?
- Is there a purpose or gain to finding it difficult to manage money?
Reflective questions are ideally open-ended and help you consider new possibilities for the future. A question can be a doorway into the creation of new ideas or perspectives. Questions can help take you out of the problem, the place of being stuck, and provide clues as to alternate possibilities. For an introductory approach to using questions, you might like author Byron Katie’s Four Questions, which include:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?
- How do you react — what happens? — when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
If you like, replace the word “thought” with “story”.
Writing to right life
In The Vein of Gold, the follow-up to her bestselling The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron includes a detailed section on the “The Kingdom of Story”. Cameron says, “You will write your life and ‘right’ it. The power of writing a narrative of your life is to make the narrative truly your life. Writing down the facts and your reaction to them will help you begin clarifying your version of you.”
If you want to explore your story on your own, through writing, prompt yourself with questions about how you feel or react in response to what has happened, rather than just focus on facts. Doing so will add depth and invite reflection, as well as provide space for perspective. As you write, your storytelling may prompt memories of other times when you felt the same way, or remind you of a different story that is an exception to what you believe based on the current story. Cameron writes, “Don’t judge what you are noting down; if a memory comes back to you, trust that memory and jot it down.”
This is also why it can be useful to revisit older events. Your storytelling skills and perspective evolve as you do. In turn, the way you perceive your life and past events, and tell your story, will change as you do.
Reflective questions are ideally open-ended and help you consider new possibilities for the future. A question can be a doorway into the creation of new ideas or perspectives.
Healing through storytelling lies in exploring the message in the story. Go beyond the words and notice how the story makes you feel. If a friend was telling you your story as if it were about her, how would you feel for her? Happy? Sad? Motivated? Defeated? What qualities or characteristics does it appear you have, based on the story? Do your stories truly describe who you are, or do they only capture one part of your wholeness? Often the more traumatic or problem-filled stories dominate your thinking but, by taking the time to talk or write them through, you can uncover lesser-known stories that speak to brighter memories or evoke confidence in your talent, skill and potential.
A poignant moment occurred in a client session a few months ago. I was working with an older woman, the mother of one of my clients. Her story was full of sadness, loss and perceived failure. I summarised her experiences by saying, “It sounds like you have worked hard to do what you needed to do to survive. In spite of extreme difficulties, you raised your children and managed to hold on to your Home.”
She was so touched she couldn’t speak. It had never occurred to her that her story showed anything other than pain or loss. Quietly, tears formed in her eyes. The idea of her as a survivor, strong and capable in the face of difficulty, was new and touched her deeply. In this new story, she could see herself as a heroine rather than a failure.
As you explore your stories, you may see moments where you have overcome the issue or acted in a way that’s different from the role you normally play. Ask yourself, what helped you act differently? These breakthroughs or exceptions to the story are known as “sparkling moments”. Exploring what circumstances supported this positive change can help trigger it again.
As you start to see your ability to at least temporarily overcome a difficult story or limiting mindset, you will realise the power to make a change lies within you. Your pace of change may be slow, and you may need to remind yourself of your abilities or mini breakthroughs, but each “sparkling moment” will form the bricks with which you build a new story and a new sense of self.
Exploring your story — through writing or talking — can help you know and listen to yourself. American mythologist Joseph Campbell notes in The Power of Myth, “The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbours to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave and what the values are that they should be living for.”
Through becoming aware of your story, and where necessary re-telling or updating it, you can discover what it is you say to yourself. Bringing mindfulness to this inner conversation means that, if you don’t like the story, you can change it and, in turn, rewrite your life.
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