(photo from flickr.com/photos/lukas_photo)
“Identity is a narrative of the self – it’s a story we tell about the self in order to know who we are.” (Stuart Hall)
In our day-to-day lives, we are always telling stories. We tell these stories to one another and in our own minds. A story is anything that we communicate to ourselves. Stories are how we create and communicate content, understanding and relevance between random events and details. I engage with stories through my therapeutic practice, Threads Education and Counselling, by way of narrative therapy.
When you sit down and reflect upon the story that you have been living lately, or what I like to call your “story of the moment,” you begin to shed a mindful light on how you are feeling and experience an embodied sense of knowing.
Ask yourself: what is the story that you have been living lately? The lived stories are often multifaceted; can be contradictory and not linear. Is it a story, to name some possibilities, that includes struggle, hope, perseverance, love, anger, disappointment, grief, overcoming, expansion, growth, steadiness, survival or rapid change? How would you describe your “story of the moment”? What is sitting heavy inside? What are you preoccupied with and why?
It is important to explore your “story of the moment” and start in this place in order to gain insights. We gain insights relationally, through getting inside the stories where they are living and contemplating them. Describe your story in five to seven sentences. Some people like to narrate their stories aloud, others like to write or type them out in a contemplative writing practice through which I guide them.
Once the story is expressed, ask yourself if this is the story you want to be living right now. Explore the reasons why and the reasons why not. This allows a jumping off point into expanding on the “story of the moment” and looking at outside and institutional influences (family, school, work, relationships, location, age, gender, race, class, religion, health) that impact the stories we live. As a trained witness and narrative therapist, it is my job to ask questions of how circumstances, events and your particular social locations are colouring the stories that you are living and breathing inside and alongside.
In my practice, we would then explore if you need to make some significant changes in your life in order to change the story; if there is a way you can shift perspectives to understand your current story in another way; or if there is a new story that you can tell and inhabit in place of the story you have been living inside of and are speaking about.
Mindfulness grounding techniques, thematic prompts and the possibility of expressive art techniques help round out and fully access the complexities of the stories inside.
Here is an exercise I do to explore the narratives of our lives. I ask my clients to create a self-portrait. Many choose to draw themselves, while others stick with words and create rich descriptors based on self-reflection of who and how they are today. This prompt allows the “story of the moment” to appear from the corner of the heart of mind, untangle from the mess in a drawer and reveal itself so that it can be expressed and understood.
Therapeutic letter writing
A letter is a form of written communication addressed to someone that expresses meaningful messages. In the context of counseling, letter writing has a long history and, in the 2007 book Stories as Equipment for Living: Last Talks and Tales of Barbara Myerhoff, Myerhoff writes about how we can be “nourished by the stories being fed back to ourselves” in the genre of a therapeutic letter. Specifically, in the narrative context, therapeutic letters are used with the purpose of creating double story development, where the listener provides an acknowledgement of the problem as well as rich descriptions of alternative stories that were hidden within the dominant “problem” story.
The therapeutic letter, and the practice and process of writing, offers a tangible and layered documented expression of the complex, beautiful, layered and innovative ways in which the people I work with are responding to the problems in their lives. The letters serve to connect them with the many stories that are circulating around them and permeating inside their mind, as well as embodied within them. Simply, therapeutic letters work in tandem with the therapeutic session to connect them with the stories of their lives. Some people I work with actively respond to the letters I send them, with a response in the form of a returned letter, or a poem, drawing or conversation.
Crafting a therapeutic letter demands that the health practitioner carefully and mindfully reflects on the therapeutic conversational sessions that just concluded. For me, letter writing provides me the crucial opportunity and space to critically reflect on my practices and facilitates further growth and insight on how I can craft more expansive questions, as well as opportunities for the people I work with to engage with their stories with me alongside as an active, trained witness.
Letter writing within narrative therapeutic practice enables a deepening of the work of revising an individual’s relationships with the central issues, preoccupations and problems that inform, colour and get entangled up and inside their selves, bodies and lives. Letters are a tangible product that both allows for and demonstrates active listening and validation. It is an evolving and emergent practice, grounded in the contradictory, the complex, the fluid. It has the ability to hold and express multiple stories of the moment that we all hold, carry and live out in our lives.
Dr. Abby Wener Herlin is a feminist narrative therapist who works with tweens and adults, and a social emotional learning/social justice educator. Her website is threadseducation.com. These discussions of narrative therapy were originally posted at health-local.com/author/dr-abby-herlin.