“Read them,” said the King. The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” – Alice in Wonderland
For just one moment try to imagine a world without stories – no beloved childhood story books or favourite adult fictions. What would afternoon tea with grandma be like without wisdom being imparted or familial memories passed to the next generation; a camp fire without ghost stories; and where would Australia’s cultural history be without the Aboriginal dreamtime paintings, and stories of the Rainbow Serpent or Wayamba the Turtle. Living in such a world may well be unimaginable, as this would likely mean living a life lacking in the ability to reflect on personal or cultural history.
As humans we seek to understand the world around us, but often in life there are times when it becomes increasingly complicated. When a substantial event occurs, such as the death of a loved one, our lives may be considerably impacted. Often in trying to cope with lifes’ events people may ask themselves (and others) questions, contemplate, ruminate, have dreams and even nightmares regarding on a troubling event. Doing so serves to weave a self-story or narrative which may enhance their depth of knowledge about themselves and their lives. This narrative may stay with someone for weeks, years or until it has been resolved.
A person’s self-story is a first person narrative which may define a person’s character based on memories of their past and their present. Parts of these stories are often told to friends and family, and they are frequently told to themselves. Time-after-time with each telling of a story, the precise details may change but the same themes remain. In weaving a narrative together it allows the storyteller to establish one cohesive and comprehensive story. The storyteller may well be able to find both cause, effect, implications, and then draw the narrative to an end by finding a path forward.
Narrative Therapy and A Storyteller’s search for Meaning
When a person engages in Narrative Therapy with a Psychologist, they are encouraged to explore their narrative from many perspectives to achieve a more complete picture. During Narrative Therapy, an individual is encouraged to focus on the “untypical” because it is through the “untypical” that people are able to move past their dominant story, that is the story they have been telling (and re-telling) themselves; the story that may define them.
In any given situation each person will interpret and find a different meaning that will have ongoing affects. For instance, following the death of a loved one, some may find comfort in religion, “This was God’s plan”, others turn to common sense, “She smoked, so of course she would die of cancer”, while others explore how this may affect them, “Maybe I should stop smoking too?”
While individuals may identify with a range of explanations for a traumatic event, it’s the following implications that need to be processed. When a loved one passes what does this mean for the family, finances, and daily routines? The use of a narrative seamlessly allows all aspects to be explored and framed into one cohesive and comprehensive story. Through this story people may be able to find peace from their past, hope for the future, and comfort within a holistic truth.
Similar to all therapies, Narrative Therapy has a number of elements to assist an individual in creating a richer story for themselves, but the main priority is to respond with sensitivity. When engaging in Narrative Therapy there are no set conventions – whether that is for how a session is conducted, the length of the session or how regularly an individual attends therapy. Narrative therapy is not a brief therapy, but it has been found that some of the narrative practices can make the overall length of counselling much shorter than when compared with other therapeutic interventions.
Researchers exploring the various dimensions of narratives have found the process of storytelling provides a number of benefits in a range of different ways. Firstly, it was found that a significant amount of life learning is achieved through the narrative, specifically through the act of narration and the process of constructing a life story. These processes may assist in providing a new perspective or a deeper / thickened story which may aid the learning process. Secondly, storying is also a tool for reflection – life stories allow people to “objectify” their lives for reflection which assists in understanding events differently. Others have found that the benefits lie in the ability to integrate the life events, allowing people to synthesis their life learning over time and through the process of making and sharing their story.
Research has also shown that it doesn’t matter your age, gender or mental health conditions, all people benefited from putting pen to paper. The true benefits occurred through the process of exploring emotions and thoughts despite the nature of the content. In a sense, it is the ability to create a coherent story which may help people move beyond their dominant story. Progressively people find they are no longer able to recall significant details, as they may no longer need to relive or re-experience what was previously distressing.
When traumatic life experiences are turned into stories that are shared with friends and loved ones. The storying process may help people to understand our life experiences and to also alert others to their emotional and psychological state. Sharing stories such as this helps maintain a secure and supportive social and emotional life. Often however, we keep important personal experience to ourselves. Doing so may be biologically taxing and may cause distance between friends and loved ones. Through the process of turning an upsetting experience into stories may achieve improved physical and mental wellbeing and closer relationships with loved ones.
If you feel that sharing your story may help you gain perspective, then making an appointment with a psychologist could be therapeutically beneficial for you.
Authors: Vision Psychology and Vivian Jarrett
- Goodson, I.F., Biesta, G., Tedder, M & Adair, N. (2010). Narrative Learning. Routledge: NY.
- Horsdal, M. (2012). Telling Lives: Exploring the dimensions of narratives. Routledge, NY. Pennebaker, J.Q. (2000). Telling Stories: The Health Benefits of Narrative. Literature and Medicine, 19 (1): pp. 3-18.
- Carroll, L. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865, pg. 109, as in Horsdal, (2012)