The Power of Storytelling in Therapy
The stories we tell ourselves shape how we experience the world and how we behave
Psychotherapist Laurie Castelli-Gair shows how therapists can use storytelling to help their clients
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A man is walking down a street and he falls into a hole. The sides are so steep that he can’t get out. A doctor walks by and the guy shouts up “hey you, can you help me out?!” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a priest passes by and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?!” The priest writes down a prayer, throws it in the hole and moves on.
Then a friend walks by: “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?!” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid?! Now we are both down here!” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out”.
This simple story is not only a profound metaphor for the therapeutic process, it also points to the power of storytelling as a therapeutic tool.
We are all on occasion, prone to get stuck in a psychological hole from which it can be difficult to see a way out. A good therapist is a fellow human who is able to empathise, to metaphorically climb into your situation, and has the knowledge and experience to help guide you on your own path to recovery.
This lovely little fable in fact featured in that great 90s TV series, The West Wing, in an episode dealing with PTSD. We only have to look at our love of films and TV shows to see how much we appreciate a good story.
But stories are much more than entertainment. Storytelling is central to what it means to be human. We like to think of ourselves as rational observers, weighing up evidence – but even this is just a story! Nothing can make sense unless it fits into a narrative. In a very real sense story is the way we give meaning to our existence. Our stories are our reality.
Unhelpful narratives and mental health
When we suffer from anxiety, depression and many other emotional difficulties we are often in the grip of unhelpful narratives that have become embedded in our sense of being.
The story that we are worth less; that the world is a threatening place; that we are unlovable; that we are unintelligent; that we are uninteresting; that we are a fraud; that we are powerless; that I’ll never change; that life has no point. Some version of these destructive narratives crop up in many a therapy session.
We can call these our conditioned narratives. Conditioned because we weren’t born with these stories. They evolve as patterns of meaning to help us make sense of painful life events, to cope with trauma, or often we simply learn them from our caregivers, schools, peer groups or wider society.
In this way, the stories we tell ourselves, however destructive (or apparently irrational), weave themselves into our sense of self, and can become an expression of our deeply held beliefs.
As author, Michael Martone puts it: "In the stories we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves."
The power of storytelling in therapy
Therapy can encourage us to challenge our negative narratives. Bringing some distance, and reframing our unhelpful habitual explanations can be the first domino to fall on a path to a more positive outlook. But it’s rarely the end of the story!
Our stories and beliefs are often emotionally charged and can be hard to let go of. We didn’t think our way into our negative stories, so it’s going to take a bit more than thinking to uncouple them from our world view.
Sometimes it can take a good story to help dislodge an unhelpful one. The right story, told under the right conditions, can have the power to reframe events into an emotionally more positive light, in a way that no amount of rational facts could.
Our emotional selves are not interested in facts, we are interested in meaning. Facts are the domain of the left brain, while meaning and stories are a right brain activity. A good story, like the one at the top of this article, smuggles its meaning directly into our consciousness without us actively having to process it at a rational level.
If we read bedtime stories to our children, or were lucky enough to have had them read to us, we have witnessed at first-hand the hypnotic quality of a story well told. Similarly, as a therapist, we can hypnotherapeutically induce a state of deep relaxation, in which the listener can be receptive to a relevant story whose metaphorical meaning can shift perspectives and unlock new ways of thinking.
As the influential psychotherapist and great pioneer of this approach, Milton H Erickson said: “You use hypnosis not as a cure but as a means of establishing a favourable climate in which to learn.”
Milton Erickson once told a story about a horse that wandered into his family’s yard when he was a young man.
Even though the horse had no identifying marks, Erickson decided to return it to its owner.
In order to accomplish this, he took a risk, mounted the horse, led it to the road, and let the horse decide which way it wanted to go. He intervened only when the horse left the road to graze or wander into a field.
When the horse finally arrived at the yard of a neighbour several miles down the road, the neighbour was astonished and asked Erickson, “How did you know that that horse came from here and was our horse?”
Erickson said, “I didn’t know—but the horse knew. He knew the way home. All I did was to keep him on the road.”