Storytelling is a significant part of our daily lives, from the books we read, to the films we watch, to the stories we tell each other each day. Often it is thought of as simply a form of entertainment, but the narratives we surround ourselves with inform how we interpret what is going on around us and how we react to it. As children, we are told stories to educate us about the world we live in and once we are able to speak we begin to form our own stories about our own lives. There are many ways therapists can utilize the natural human love of narrative to inform a therapy session and while this is by no means a new approach, it is becoming increasingly popular and being taught in training centres across the globe.
Storytelling is a key method of teaching children from a very young age. Even before they are old enough to fully understand the complexities of a story or even the language used, they can discern narrative patterns from the illustrations and even the tone of voice used to narrate the story. In therapy it is used in a similar way, to engage with the child in an indirect but very meaningful way. When a child has been through a traumatic experience, such as the loss of a parent, it can be very difficult for them to understand what has happened and the impact it will have on their life. Narrative therapy is less invasive than talking to them directly and can tap into their subconscious, giving meaning to their experience. Some therapists, for example, One Education, will go one step further, creating a story specifically for the individual child to help them deal with the trauma they are facing. The child then identifies with the characters in the story and the problem they are facing, without ever having to discuss the issue directly. As they hear the story repeatedly, they learn to approach their own trauma in a similar way and develop a more positive outlook moving forward.
The Client’s Story
Telling a client a story that is relevant to them can help, regardless of their age, but allowing them to rewrite their own story is a particularly helpful method for adults. We all have our own narratives going on inside our heads. They are influenced by everything we see and experience, but also by our emotions and our outlook on life. In order to change a client’s story for the better, you need to establish a strong and supportive basis. Often people who have faced trauma, depression or anxiety will consider themselves to be broken or deficient in some way. You need to help them to separate the person from the problem so that there is a possibility of creating new behaviour patterns and changing their life for the better. If a client can reimagine their own story and separate their past from the person they are now and their potential future, they can gain a little perspective and objectivity. This is an essential step to being able to re-imagine a more positive and hopeful story for themselves.
Metaphor is an essential tool for a therapist. With careful use of language specific to the client, you can give them the opportunity to gain perspective and see their emotions with clarity and thereby understand them a little better. This is part of storytelling but does not need the clear structure of defining a beginning, middle and end. It is more about giving them the tools to create their own narrative in a sincere way. Whether you suggest a metaphor during the session that might help them to understand what they are trying to explain to you, or they create the metaphor themselves, it can allow both the therapist and client to see the problem objectively and allow them to move forward. For example, if the client is discussing their feelings and the therapist asks whether they feel like a specific animal, they can then take a step back from their emotions and compare their perception of themselves with that of the animal, such as the fearlessness of a lion. This will prompt them to remember a time when they were fearless, for example, showing them how things have changed and making them question why. By adding this kind of subtle imagery to the conversation the therapist can help to lead the discussion in a more positive or meaningful direction, without directly confronting the client.
The art of using storytelling as a therapeutic tool is complicated and can only be successful if it is not only tailored to the individual, but also to the moment. It is not a question of finding stories that mimic the trauma the individual has experienced, but about pattern recognition within the story. For example, telling a child who has just lost a parent a story about a little boy who loses his mother is too literal. Instead, the therapist must find or create a story that deals with the problem the child faces as a result of losing a parent, such as loss of control over his life or feelings of abandonment. It is the subtle patterns within the story, including characters, that the child will subconsciously connect with. There is also no need to discuss the meaning of the story after reading it. They will naturally find the relevance to their own situation and learn from it, without any direct discussion or exploration of the story. This is an effective method for building their self-esteem, as they take control of their own healing.