Tag Archives: Storytelling

Telling Painful Memories: Recommendations for Counselors

[What is below was shared with Rwandan caregivers and counselors. It is written in simpler English and has no footnotes. Academically oriented readers will recognize the interventions come from narrative exposure therapy models for children].

Counselors invite others to tell their stories of pain, heartache, fears, and traumas so that they can find relief from their troubles. However, not every way of talking about past problems is helpful and some ways of talking can actually harm the person. So, it is important that all caregivers and counselors understand how to help others tell their difficult stories in ways that invite recovery and do not harm.

Good Storytelling Practices

Counselors who do the following can encourage healthy and safe storytelling of difficult events:

  1. Allow the client to tell their story at their own pace without pressure
  2. Allow the client not to tell a part of their story
  3. Use silence and body language to show interest
  4. Encourages the use of storytelling without words (art, dance, etc.) or with symbols
  5. Ensures the difficult stories start and end at safe points
  6. Encourages good coping skills before story telling
  7. Points out resiliency and strength in the midst of trauma
  8. Encourages the story to be told from the present rather than reliving the story

Unhelpful Practices

Here are some things that we should avoid doing when helping another tell a difficult story

  1. Frequent interruptions
  2. Forcing the person to tell their story
  3. Asking the person to relive the story
  4. Avoiding painful emotions
  5. Exhorting the person to get over the feelings; telling them how to feel
  6. Only talking about the trauma, ignoring strengths and other history
  7. Ending a session without talking about the present or a safe place

**Trigger Warning: rape, threatened violence

A Case Study With 2 Storytelling Interventions

Patience, a 13 year old girl, suffered a rape on her way to school last month. The rapist’s family paid a visit to the girl’s family and offered money as a token of penance. The girl’s father accepted the money because, “nothing can make the rape go away so we will take the money for now.” Patience was told by some family members to not tell anyone about the rape and to just act as if it never happened. However, Patience is suffering from nightmares, refuses to go to school, and sometimes falls down when she catches a glimpse of the rapist in town. Her father has threatened to beat her if she doesn’t return to school or help out with the chores at home. Her favorite aunt, a counselor/caregiver, learns about the rape and asks her to come for a visit in a nearby city.

[Warning: these two interventions are not designed to rid a person immediately of all trauma symptoms. In addition, these interventions must be used only after a counselor has formed a trusting relationship with the client.]

  1. Symbolic story telling. The aunt tells Patience that keeping a story bottled up inside can cause problems, like shaking a bottle of soda until it bursts out. Using a long piece of rope (representing her entire life) and flowers (representing positive experiences) and rocks (representing difficult experiences), the aunt directs Patience to tell her life story. They start with her first memories of her mother, father and two brothers. She tells of her going to school, the time when her mother got really sick but then got better again, the time when her cousins moved away, and the time when a boy told her he liked her. Patience noticed how she had many flowers along the rope and only a few rocks. Then, they put a large stone down on the rope representing the rape. Patience had difficulty saying much at all. She remembered being afraid, the weight of the man, the pain, and worry that her family would reject her. She remembered getting up and going to school and acting as if nothing happened. Her aunt noted that Patience was a strong girl—she had gone to school for a week before telling her mother. So, Patience placed a tiny flower next to the rock to represent that strength. After stopping for a cup of tea and some bread, the aunt asked Patience to notice how much more rope was left. This represented her future. Patience was surprised to see the rope and said that she didn’t think she would have a future now that she was spoiled. Her aunt encourages her to consider what she would like to be in her future. They continued to discuss this over the next day. By the time Patience returned home, she was able to see that she still had a future. Seeing the rapist still bothered her. However, she was able to go to school with two friends along a new path so that she would feel safe. Patience kept a drawing of the rope with the flowers and rocks and extra rope to remind her that she had a good future.
  2. Accelerated Storytelling. About six months later, Patience visited her aunt again. She was still going to school and able to do more chores (getting firewood and buying food in the market). However, she still suffered from nightmares and sometimes fell down when she heard footsteps behind her. This time, her aunt asked her to help create a “movie” of event. Before Patience was to narrate the rape, they first recounted the safety she felt at home before the rape and the safety she felt when she told her mother about the rape and was comforted. Next, her aunt asked her to identify all of the “actors” in the play: her mother, father, herself, brothers who went to school without her, classmates, teacher, and rapist. Patience then made a figurine out of paper for each actor and drew a small map of her village including the path from home to school. Then, the aunt asked her to tell her story as fast as she could from safe place to safe place and to only look at the figurines (and to move them along the map). Her aunt noted those places where Patience slowed down in the story. When she paused, the aunt asked her to try to keep moving. Once the story was complete (when she told her mother about the rape), she asked Patience to tell the story backwards as quickly as possible. Then, she instructed Patience to tell the story forwards again twice as fast. However, this time, Patience stopped part way through the story. She added one detail she had not disclosed before. She recalled that a young boy of about 5 was peering at them from behind some bushes. Her aunt encouraged her to finish the story and thanked her for her courage. Patience indicated that she was so ashamed of being seen in such a position. Again, her aunt thanked her for working so hard but asked her to tell her story forwards and backwards one more time. Patience noticed that she was less upset by the presence of the 5 year old than she had been the first time through the story.

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Narrative Therapy and Emotion: Meaning Making

Continuing with our summary of Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy (by Angus and Greenberg) we come to chapter 2. Here the authors attempt to lay out how we make meaning. But before we try to describe their model, consider how you make events and feelings mean something to you.

What data do you use to make something mean something? You use your body, your culture, your emotion, your reason, your previous meaning making (and the messages you receive from others). Consider this example. You pull up to a light and you glance over and see a person in the car waiting in the next lane. They wave a finger towards you. What does it mean? Well, it depends on your culture and your previous experience with that finger way. Is it a curse or a point to something else? The answer depends on where you live and what your lived experience of that finger wave.

The authors slow this process of meaning making (and meaning changing) down by considering facets:

1.   Bodily sensations. These do not exist by themselves but are connected to a sequencing of events. So, you have a feeling and then you immediately put it into a sequence. “I feel this way because…” The goal of therapy is to work to accept, tolerate, and “explain” or narrative emotions in a healthier way.

2. Words. Putting feelings into words tends to “[diminish] the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.” (p. 21). Thus, as they say, “…the person is having the emotion rather than the emotions having the person.” (ibid). “…naming an emotion integrates action, emotion, and meaning and provides access to the story in which it is embedded.” (ibid).

3. Naming is construction. “Conscious experience is not simply ‘in’ us and fully formed but instead emerges from a dialectical dance” (p. 22). Thus clients can learn how their own construal of emotions (the words, the meanings) shapes ongoing feelings

…understanding how a condemning self-critical voice leads to feelings of shame and helplessness helps clients to recognize the role they themselves play in maintaining their feelings of depression. (p. 22)

Thus, the goal is to encourage reflection of one’s common interpretative themes to see how they tend to organize and categorize their lived experiences.

4. Change the story. How does a person go about changing narrative themes (e.g., challenge and re-write feelings of shame)? How does one re-interpret shame feelings as sadness? Note the that goal is not to deny the feeling or reject it in any way. Rather, the goal is to interpret the feeling in a more constructive way. Consider this example:

I offer my son some advice. He does not take it but goes on to do the opposite. I might feel rejected? Further, I might go on to remind myself that no one ever respects me and listens to my ideas. I might feel insignificant and unloved. With the help of a counselor, I might re-name the feelings as sadness rather than rejection (e.g., I feel sad that he didn’t take my advice and recognize he might face certain consequences that he might have avoided if he had listened to me). Part of the transformation requires that I live with limitations. I am not capable of making my son choose what I want. I suspect that part of what leads us away from sadness and towards anger and feelings of rejection is our unwillingness to live with feelings such as sadness and grief. These things shouldn’t be this way if  others would just treat us right!

5. Reconstruct identity. Its one thing to re-write a narrative of a single event. It is yet another to write a new narrative about our self or about others. The authors say this, “Constructing a sense of self involves an ongoing process both of identifying with and symbolizing emotions and actions as one’s own and constructing an embodied narrative that offers temporal stability and coherence.” (p. 25)

What might a counselor do to facilitate reconstruction? The authors go on to give a brief overview of 4 phases of “narrative-informed EFT.” I will cover them in the next post.

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Heal thyself? Do we have the capacity?

Those who follow the Christian faith wholeheartedly believe that God is the “great physician” and eschew the belief that humans heal themselves. As a result of this belief, Christians sometimes react rather strongly to humanistic language of “self-healing.”

But before you do, consider this: if we assume that God is indeed the creator of all things, then we must also assume he puts into place the many corrective features found in the body. The liver and kidneys remove toxins from the body; blood clots when we cut ourselves; we sneeze to get rid of irritants; we sleep to rejuvenate what has become run down. In better words, Richard Mollica says,

This force, called self-healing, is one of the human organism’s natural responses to psychological illness and injury. The elaborate process of self-repair is clearly seen in the way physical wounds heal. At the moment of injury, blood vessels contract to staunch bleeding. Chemical messengers pour into the tissue, signalling a multitude of specialized cells to begin the inflammation process. White blood cells migrate into the wound within twenty-four hours, killing bacteria and triggering a process of cleansing and tissue repair. A matrix of connective tissue collagen is then laid down, knitting together the ragged edges of the wound in a repair that may not be perfect but is highly functional. (p. 94)

He goes on to say,

The healing of the emotional wounds inflicted on mind and spirit by severe violence is also a natural process.

I find his writing on this subject rather helpful. Sometimes we look passively to God to resolve our traumas, as if it were entirely up to Him. Other times we either resist what we can do or attempt what is not healthy for us. Dr. Mollica (an MD) provides many examples in his book of how the body naturally tries to heal/respond to trauma (e.g., DHEA counteracts toxicity of too much cortisol), where the system goes wrong, and what we can do about it from a therapeutic standpoint.

Dr. Mollica is right in that our bodies are designed to respond well to traumatic experiences. However, I’m pretty sure he also agrees that we are not designed to do this unassisted. The community must participate in the process. We are social beings and thus our healing must be socially situated.

Two Toxins: Emotional Memory and Poor Storytelling

Part of the problem, says Dr. Mollica, is the emotional memory system. When we experience a trauma, our cortex forms declarative memories of the event. These are where we store the “facts” (where we were, what we felt, and how these events connect to previous experiences). But there is another memory system, one he calls “emotional memory” (p. 96). Declarative memory involves the cortex and hippocampus while emotional memory involves the amygdala.

The amygdala is the fear-response command center of the brain, and it does not wait around for the conscious mind, located in the cortex, to decide if a threat is real or not. The amygdala can activate an emergency response throughout the body within milliseconds by calling the stress-response system into play.  (p. 96)

Unfortunately, traumatic events can create emotional memories in the amygdala that keep on replaying and are difficult to extinguish over time. (p. 97)

Another toxin is the re-telling of the trauma story in a way that retraumatizes the victim. Dr. Mollica, in chapter 5, describes the problem of poor storytelling. Poor storytelling evokes only the trauma, the shame, the degradation experienced. Storytelling should cause us to form images in the teller and listener’s minds. These images need to symbolize the whole person/story and not only the most damaging details. The problem is we tend to tell stories that fixate on the intense emotions and thus elicit toxic emotions and maintain the experience that the trauma is still ongoing.

Many traumatized persons are plagued by the two poles of humiliation–sadness and despair on one side, and anger and revenge on the other. (p. 122)

Assisted Self-healing?

Mollica says, “A proper clinical approach to emotional memory avoids triggering the emotions stored in the amygdala and enables the cortex to assert conscious control over the recollection of traumatic events. (p. 97)

How do you do this? With the help of a storytelling coach, a person tells their story in a factual, direct, but not grotesque way that would cause the listener to turn away. Why does this matter? Because part of the healing process is to be heard, seen, and empathized with. Fixating on the most grotesque details only enhances the emotional memory system and pushes others away. Good storytelling still tells the truth but does so in a way that reconnects people with the world, enables them to feel sadness but in community with others, and helps them see that their lives are not solely defined by the traumatic events. Further, good storytelling points to larger values that are still held and not lost due to the evil done by others. Surely trauma does shape and change us. Recovery and healing to the point of living as if the event did not happen would be to live in a world of denial and self-deception. But good storytelling reminds us that we are not ONLY defined by and/or limited to being victims. And good storytelling reminds us of God’s sustaining power that is greater than those who can only destroy bodies.

Dr. Mollica summarizes this chapter this way,

Strong emotions comprise the traumatic memories that are imprinted in the survivor’s brain. One of the mind’s key tasks after trauma is to take these strong emotions and gradually reduce them over time through good storytelling. A poor storyteller tells a toxic trauma story, unhealthy to mind and body with its focus on facts and high expressed emotions. In our society situations that demonstrate this type of storytelling are common, including superficial, sensational media reporting of tragedies and debriefing therapy by misguided mental health workers. In contrast a good storyteller is able to express tragic emotions with the artfulness of a musician playing an instrument, engaging the listener’s interest and involvement. (p. 133)

I commend to you the book. He discusses both good and bad dreams, the role of “social instruments” of healing and a call to health. Very helpful book if you are interested in international trauma recovery.


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