Stories We Tell, Stories We Hear — Valuable Therapeutic Tools
“Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in the story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves” (White & Epston, 1990).
Throughout time, people have told stories. Perhaps from the beginning of language—the original “once upon a time”—storytelling has been a way of passing down knowledge and information. Stories tell us who we are, how the world works, and what values we should live by. They tell us what is possible, what is not, and what, if anything, may lay beyond the ordinary world of our senses.
Telling and listening to stories is wired into our psyches and nervous systems. Although stories have, at times, been used to exclude and harm, when used in a therapeutic context they have the power to heal and transform. A good story can foster connection and insight, convey healing or empowering metaphors, and activate a client’s resilience, imagination, and creativity. When a story strikes the right chord, it can shift a client’s perspective and open new ways of thinking and seeing.
It’s no wonder that the ancient art of storytelling has been incorporated into everything from violence prevention and trauma reduction programs to medical care and psychotherapy (Zerla, 2017; Hammel, 2018). Dan Yashinsky, a professional storyteller, has used his craft in medical settings and found that “for people with dementia, storytelling sparks rich and imaginative responses, even from those who have forgotten the names of their loved ones. For psychiatry patients, being treated for severe depression, wondertales full of breathtaking suspense can help them regain their desire to discover what happens next—in the story, and in their own lives. In the palliative unit, we listen to life-stories, share tales of wisdom from around the world, and we laugh, too, despite the solemn setting” (Yashinsky, 2017).
When social workers think about storytelling in the context of counseling, many think about the stories clients bring—conscious and unconscious—about their history, relationships, and struggles. Or they may think about how, during the course of therapeutic exploration and processing, new narratives that better support a client’s hopes and psychological growth are created.
But in some cases, counseling professionals are the ones doing the storytelling. Whether sharing tales of the Trojan War with combat veterans (Shay, 2003), reading children’s stories intended to foster psychological growth to terminally ill patients (Grey, 1998), using fairy tales to enhance a sense of meaning and purpose (Bettelheim, 2010), or telling “healing stories” aimed at altering self-limiting beliefs and reactive patterns (Burns, 2001), social workers can use this timeworn craft to strengthen the therapeutic bond and catalyze change.
• Stories often contain profound wisdom as well as metaphorical and archetypal truths that can be conveyed in familiar images and simple language.
• Stories help us see and assimilate things about our life and circumstances from a comfortable distance, at a safe pace, in a context of safety and support.
• A story can create warmth and connection between the one telling the story and the one listening, enhancing the therapeutic alliance.
• For those feeling stuck or with little energy as they struggle with depression, illness, or overwhelming stress, hearing a story can be a pleasant respite during which they can simply relax and listen.
• Stories can engage our sense of humor, uncover strengths and novel solutions, and normalize experiences in ways that reduce feelings of shame or isolation. They can enhance our perspective, loosen the weight of troubling thoughts and emotions, evoke positive memories, and inspire hope.
• Stories can be multidimensional and multisensory, honing in on not just what a character did but also what they thought and felt, what was happening inside their bodies, and what they intended by their behavior vs. how those behaviors were interpreted by others.
• Many stories contain a therapeutically useful archetype that Joseph Campbell (1988) called the “hero’s journey” in which a person is compelled or pushed, often by some kind of crisis, onto a difficult journey during which trials and doubts are faced, and perspective and wisdom acquired.
• Reflecting on the ways Milton Erickson, MD, used stories in psychotherapy, Rosen (1991) points out that counseling professionals can chose stories that contain specific “therapeutic suggestions” that engage a client’s unconscious mind to create new expectations and visions of what is possible.
Incorporating Into Practice
Each social worker brings a unique treasure of experiences, knowledge, and interests sure to provide ample material from which to draw. For example, before becoming a social worker I was immersed in the study of history and this has proven an invaluable source of stories, anecdotes, and tales, as the following cases illustrate.
To her surprise, Rose found that letting go of household tasks and responsibilities associated with her illness left more time and energy for family and friends. She began appreciating little things that had previously gone unnoticed, such as the sound birds made in early morning and the way the love she felt for her infant grandson made a tingling sensation in her chest.
On one visit she was reflecting on the paradox of how her body had become weak and unreliable but her spirit, her inner self, was growing stronger and becoming more sensitive to what was important.
She searched unsuccessfully for words to describe this paradox. On her wall there was a photograph of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought of an anecdote from the bus boycott in Montgomery, AL, in the 1950s, during which African American citizens protesting the racial segregation of public transportation refused to ride the city’s buses. I wondered if a story would be useful to Rose.
I told her about an older woman weary from months of walking rather than taking the bus. Fatigue showed in her bent frame and slow gait. At a community meeting after a long day, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to her. Acknowledging her commitment to their cause, he told her there would be no reproach if she started riding the buses again. When she told him she would keep walking, he asked whether she was tired. She responded, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.”
Rose smiled, repeating the phrase as though it had sacred power. We talked about the woman’s fatigue and how difficult it must have been. But beneath the exhaustion was a core of strength and peace. The story underscored some of the emerging truths of Rose’s experience: her life had innate value regardless of her ability to maintain roles and physical function, and inner strength was more substantive than physical strength.
In the weeks that followed, as Rose became confined to bed and struggled to cope with the loss of privacy and independence, she often repeated the phrase during my visits: “My feet are tired, but my soul is rested.” It had become an access point for connecting with her deeper self and for reinforcing that, even though her body was weakening, her inner self was becoming wiser, stronger.
Experimenting With Storytelling
Though much could be said about how to choose, craft, time, and deliver a story within the context of counseling, for those interested in experimenting with storytelling, Lankton and Lankton (1989) suggest using stories and anecdotes with therapeutic metaphors that arise from a social worker’s experience, knowledge, and interests: “Stories that derive from genuine experiences and understandings of the therapist are believable, and when they are relevant to the client’s desired learning, they are fascinating, interesting, and engaging as well.”
Mindful of the need to protect confidentiality and professional boundaries, they suggest considering the goals and clinical presentation of a client and asking, “What is this like in my experience? The people and images that come to mind in answer to that question become the raw material from which a therapeutic metaphor can be constructed.”
— Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, is a hospice social worker in Durham, NC, and member of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s trauma informed care work group. Some of the material for this article is adapted from his book Standing at Lemhi Pass: Archetypal Stories for the End of Life and Other Challenging Times.
Burns, G. W. (2001). 101 Healing stories: Using metaphors in therapy. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.
Grey, R. (1998, July/August). The children’s story as portal for psychological and spiritual healing. Healing Ministry.
Hammel, S. (2018). Handbook of therapeutic storytelling: Stories and metaphors in psychotherapy, child and family therapy, medical treatment, coaching and supervision. New York: Routledge.
Lankton, C., & Lankton, S. (1989). Tales of enchantment: Goal-oriented metaphors for adults and children in therapy. Bristol, PA: Bunner/Mazell Publishers.
Rosen, S. (1991). My voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Shay, J. (2003). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York: Scribner.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Yashinsky, D. (2017, June 2). ‘Storycare’ should be an essential part of health care. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/life/2017/06/02/storycare-should-be-an-essential-part-of-health-care.html.
Zerla, P. (2017, December). Lessons from using storytelling as trauma prevention and healing in Central Africa. Stress Points, 31(6). Retrieved from http://sherwood-istss.informz.net/admin31/content/template.asp?sid=58398&brandid=4463&uid=1044618441&mi
• Healing Story Alliance: healingstory.org
• National Storytelling Network: storynet.org
• Spirit of Trees: spiritoftrees.org
• National Association for Poetry Therapy: poetrytherapy.org
• Storycare: www.storycare.ca