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stories? in therapy?

written by Denise Hufer

denise hufer clinical psychologistWhen people seek support in therapy one of the things they may hope to find is a change of perspective so that they are open for other solutions. Even if motivation for change is strong, it can be a challenging process to become aware of where the problems lie and to embrace new pathways. Wise teachers in ancient cultures were aware of the difficulties involved in accepting new ideas. They therefore devised stories that could help people overcome their fears and remain open for new insights.

Stories are as old as mankind. In a time where the written word was not yet invented, they were commonly used to pass on valuable religious norms, cultural traditions and values, practical recommendations for day to day life from one generation to the next.

Stories stimulate our fantasy and allow us to accept conclusions and advice without feeling manipulated or pressured. They can circumvent our analytic, logical way of dealing with problems which is often accompanied by judgements and rigid, normative rules. A person will not hear what he or she is not yet ready to hear. Stories do not set a pace for change but rather enable the recipient to find their own pace and readiness.

In therapy, the utilisation of stories is not bound to a certain approach, be it CBT, psychodynamic, humanistic or systemic but can be used in any of these or other contexts. Whether or not a story has a positive and lasting impact is determined by good timing, fit of content, the storyteller’s ability to tell a story and the receptivity of the listener.

Fairy and Folk Tales

While the stories of any genre may be as estranged from reality as a nursery rhyme, they always offer a structural theme for a pathway in life. Some fairy and folk tales even contain a complete life programme. Short stories and parables often have a surprising twist at the end of the tale, a twist that sets us thinking and allows us to change fixed beliefs.

Until the 17th century, fairy tales of the western world were written for adults. They were often covert ways of addressing socio-economic and political injustices without running the risk of being persecuted. That they are now only seen as literature for children may have to do with the increasing development of a rational view of the world as well as a decrease in our adult belief in the irrational.

It is unnecessary to explain fairy or folk tales to children who seem to grasp their meaning immediately. As adults we often seem to deny ourselves the privilege of taking such stories seriously. Yet even in our modern, rational times the need for tales is still as present now as it was then, the vast variety of fantasy literature bears witness to this.

Tales as Signposts on our journey towards Inner Growth

Seen from a Jungian, archetypal perspective, the narrative succession of tales (Folk or fairy tales) is a metaphor for the constantly changing individual. If one looks at the structural composition of a tale you can usually distinguish 8-9 steps on this pathway of inner and outer growth. In stories we can identify with either gender as stories transcend our usual, rational way of processing.
  1. The first sentence. It is the key and often mirrors the condensed message of the entire tale. As it is the first introduction to the tale, the first sentence is the one that elicits the greatest curiousity and attention. Once upon a time there lived a man who was very poor and no matter what he did, he remained poor.
  2. The mythical, royal source. The characters enter the stage with a universal claim, they represent every person, be they king or pauper e.g. once upon a time there lived a king. In a way every one of us is a king but who is really aware of their kingdom? In tales the hero goes off on a quest to find fortune and happiness.
  3. The challenge/s he encounters are usually symbols for conflict. The desire and the feeling of duty that drives the hero to embark on his quest usually accompanies experiences of painful defeat, partings and losses, sickness and mortal fear. The quest for the objective, of whose existence the hero is usually sufficiently aware on a subconscious level, shapes the way towards his goal. The hero encounters hostile inner parts that are symbolised by characters, situations and states.
  4. The encounter with an animal/helper that symbolises the inner friend whom you shouldn’t ignore or despise if you want to find the path to redemption, to your higher, developed Self.
  5. The accomplishment of the task, the battle, the challenge, the test, the conquest, resolving the problem, overcoming old obstacles and evil, the solving of the puzzle.
  6. The return, the way back, after having been proven and tested, usually with the renewed support of the helper, the search for the source and one’s roots, the aftermath after having passed the tests and the adventures.
  7. Arrival back at the place of departure. The hero’s origin and his own path now come together and merge into a place of safety at the point of one’s return, the ‘mother earth’. The arrival at one’s deepest part of Self, one’s centre that has now been discovered and experienced. This is a prerequisite for the royal wedding.
  8. The royal wedding is the attainment of the connection to life, where the conscious and unconscious are now in tune with one another. This can also be described as intuitive knowledge, being in alignment with one’s self.
  9. The vision of harmony, the opening for the future “and they lived happily ever after’ is also a behaviour prescription.

Multigenerational Life Scripts

Stories have no beginning or ending. They continue with the known performers or with their children, with the results of their actions and decisions, as in real life. The so called ‘happy end’ is an illusion, it is only a transitory stage while the story spins on and on, creating new characters and events.

eric berne founder of transactional analysisThis continuation of stories has particular relevance when seen from a systemic, multigenerational perspective which is based on Eric Berne’s (pictured right) Transactional Analysis (TA) and his idea of life scripts. According to TA ‘a life script is the idea that we tend to have an unconscious life plan - like a story - that we make up as children about ourselves and our lives, which we tend to keep to and follow even when we are adults. In other words, life script is a personal life plan developed under parental, familial, social, cultural and religious pressure. It is mostly complete by the age of seven.’

bert hellinger german psychotherapistBert Hellinger, a controversial German psychotherapist with a strong interest in family dynamics and family constellation work, took the notion of life scripts one step further. He ventured that only a small percentage of our life script stories can be traced back to messages received from our parents. Rather, they seem to be connected to dramatic events that occurred in the family system itself, perhaps even going back a few generations. These events may have been suppressed so that they become a secret with far reaching implications for the respective members of a family in the here and now. Many problems may not be related to own experiences but could instead be an unconscious repetition of ‘foreign’, self- unrelated fateful happenings in the family system. With the help of tales these unconscious scripts can become apparent. Important in this respect is that the clients themselves are encouraged to find a tale that impressed them strongly during childhood, either in a positive or a negative way. The question asked here is ‘what do you find in the life history of a person whose childhood was influenced by this tale?’

Neuropsychology of Narrative

raymond mar psychologistIn a review on the neuropsychology of narrative, Raymond Mar describes that stories have the power to change our beliefs about the real world’. He further shows how we ourselves ‘use a story-like structure to communicate with others and that this structured narration of experience appears necessary for maximal health….the more coherent and organised account that one creates for a past trauma, the greater the likelihood of salutary gains as a result of such narration. In his paper he points out that… clinicians have posited that creating a coherent story of a traumatic event and incorporating it into one’s self-representation is fundamental for the successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder…some evidence exists that similar advantages exist when the content of personal narration is future-oriented and distinctly non-traumatic.

We all shape our lives into stories. They are a means of making sense of the events we experience and give meaning to our lives. It is only when we step out of our stories and look back on them, that we can recognise where we are hindered in our narrative. This then allows us not only to reframe the experiences of our past in a more helpful way, it also enables us to outline more clearly where we want to go.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: A Spiritual Classic from One of the Foremost Interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism to the WestSuch a reflection on her own life’s journey is found in the following poem, attributed to Portia Nelson, which can be found in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying from Sogyal Rinpoche.

Chapter I: I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
Chapter II: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter III:
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately
Chapter IV:
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I carefully walk around it.
Chapter V:
I walk down another street.
Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

The Role of Proverbs and Metaphors

Not only tales serve as important vehicles for insight and understanding in our lives. Families usually have fixed sayings, defining values and expectations that are can be passed on from generation to generation, often without being explicit. Every culture has proverbs or even aphorisms and while we may not necessarily be aware of it, they influence the shaping of our beliefs about ourselves and the world.

"A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor is a man perfected without trials."
Chinese Proverbs

“The best memory is that which forgets nothing, but injuries. Write kindness in marble and write injuries in the dust”.
Persian Proverb

‘Modesty is the highest form of arrogance’
German proverb

‘Aim for the highest cloud so that if you miss it, you will hit a lofty mountain’
Maori proverb

‘No one is as deaf as the man who will not listen’.
Jewish proverb

‘Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you’
African proverb

‘You can never enter the same river twice’
Indian proverb

‘Live for a century, learn for a century’
Russian proverb

The above quotes originate in different cultures, depicting the unique life conditions found in other countries. One can usually find proverbs with similar meanings in one’s own country in the same way that one can find proverbs praising exactly the opposite. They show one way of looking at life and while they may be universally understood, they do not necessarily reflect a universal truth. Such sayings offer orientation and guidance but may at times also undermine our attempts at finding solutions to problems. So while the proverb itself continues to be valid, it may not be an adequate one to adhere to in the present context. Becoming aware of these beliefs that influence our way of thinking is an important step in treatment.

In the same way, metaphors can be a valuable tool for insight and a broadened understanding of life. Metaphors "carry" meaning from one word, an image or idea to another and compare dissimilar contents on the basis of some underlying commonality. They can aid us in discovering what we need to know to be able to grow emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. A metaphor can come in many guises e.g. a short quote or a poem (as with Portia Nelson’s Autobiography), a story or a lyric. Whatever the form, it carries across a message with the goal to modify, to reinterpret or to reframe a given content. Metaphors are mirrors, allowing a person’s problem to be seen in a removed context, thus giving listeners the freedom to decide whether they want to identify with the characters featured in the story, the relationships, events, difficulties, developments and solutions offered. The listener is induced to search for a meaning behind the story against the background of his own experience.

A little story about a story:
While facilitating a group therapy session in an inpatient clinic in Germany that treated patients presenting with alcohol abuse problems, the discussion revolved around the topic of setting personal boundaries. If done in a timely context, it could avoid an accumulation of minor irritations in every day interactions that in many cases often precipitated heavy drinking. It was an interesting discussion, opinions being varied and tending more towards letting sleeping dogs lie for fear of making a mountain out of a molehill or rejection. At this point I introduced the following little story:

‘Tell me, how much does a snowflake weigh?” mused a coal tit, turning to a wild pigeon. “No more than nothing” the wild pigeon replied. “Then I need to tell you a wonderful story” the coal tit went on. “I was sitting on the branch of a spruce tree, close to the tree trunk, when it started to snow. Not heavily, just a soft, slow drifting of snowflakes, like in a dream, lightly and soundlessly. As I had nothing better to do I started counting the flakes that fell on the branch I was sitting on. I had counted exactly 3 million 741 952 flakes that had accumulated on the spruce needles and were slowly forming a little mound. When the next flake fell, the 3 millionth 741 953rd flake, weighing no more than nothing, the branch snapped and fell all the way to the ground below”.

This story was received in silence, everyone seemingly caught up in their own thoughts. It was the middle of winter with continuous snow piling up on the grounds and trees, so the background against which this session took place was quite fitting. The session ended there as the bell rang for lunch and I was not sure whether the story would have any impact at all. I need not have worried. As a group member later related to me, they had all sat down to lunch in the cafeteria, animatedly discussing this story when suddenly they heard a loud snap followed by a heavy thud. All the group members looked up just in time to watch a branch of the tree in front of their window, heavily laden with snow, snap under the weight of no more than nothing and plummet to the ground. This was one of those rare moments when perfect timing and synchronicity united to make a memorable event of an otherwise ordinary moment and unwittingly created a story about a story.

The Power of Humour in Therapy

No article on the effectiveness of stories is complete without including the healing power of humour, be it in the form of anecdotes, witty remarks and quotes, satire or even black and gallows humour. An article by the American Cancer Society remarks upon the value of humour as therapy in that it provides symptom relief. Humour reduces the natural stress of illness and distracts the patient from pain. Given that the body’s pathway’s for physical pain seem to be the same as for emotional pain, humour is useful for treating people with physical and emotional problems alike. It is believed that laughter releases endorphins or special neurotransmitter substances in the brain. While promoting relaxation and relief from worry, it reduces stress and allows clients to accept different trains of thoughts. It is almost impossible to feel afraid and laugh at the same time. And holding on to anger can become difficult in the face of humour.

But humour not only allows one to pass from an agitated state to a more relaxed frame of mind. It is also an effective vehicle for facilitating insight and a change of perspective without triggering resentment. Humorous stories and anecdotes, aphorisms, quotes, metaphors often display an uncanny wisdom which can be utilised in a therapeutic context. I have added a few examples to demonstrate the power inherent in humorous as well as wise observations, given the right timing and appropriate context:

Failing and mistakes: “If you fail, no matter, try again, fail better”
“Never make the same mistake twice there are still so many others to choose from”

On life’s challenges: “I don’t know where God is leading me, but if he continues in this direction I propose he venture on alone” Bruno von Bettelheim

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” Mark Twain

“No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you” Sholom Aleichem
Relationships: “Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much” Oscar Wilde

“If you are having too much fun in a relationship, talk about it” Yves Montand

“An elderly married couple were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Whilst breakfasting together, the wife had the following thought: ‘For the last fifty years, out of consideration for my husband, I have always taken the bottom half of the bread roll so that he could have the crunchy top. But today I will treat myself to the top half at long last”. Thus thought, she laid the top half of the bread roll on her plate and handed the bottom half to her husband. Instead of the anticipated protest however, her husband showed himself delighted and kissed her hand, saying: ‘My darling, with this gesture you have absolutely made my day. I haven’t eaten the bottom half of a bread roll for fifty years, even though it is the part I love most. I refrained from taking it, as I thought you should have it, seeing that it is the part you seem to enjoy so much”.

Amongst the vast gallery of humour, it is especially gallows humour, irony, wicked observations and satire that can be most liberating in times of great stress. The role of gallows humour in extreme environments e.g. for emergency rescue workers and people in related helping professions, can play an important part in diffusing overwhelming emotions and helping the respective person to remain in the stressful situation. Humour is often regarded as the highest form of coping with life stress. This type of coping humour is an attempt to see the funny side of things while appearing to filter out negative information. While there are also times in which the application of humour is not appropriate, gallows humour can serve to provide distance from events when exposed to very challenging and traumatic circumstances. (Treating Compassion Fatigue CF by Charles. Figley, chapter on humour in the treatment of CF by Carmen C. Moran).

Stories as bridges

In a multicultural country such as New Zealand, there is a rich diversity of stories, tales, anecdotes and metaphors. They all carry the wisdom and experience of different cultural backgrounds, from ancient to modern. Yet for all their differences, there are always common denominators and values. People today, regardless of their culture and background, are not born any wiser and more enlightened than those of ancient times. Fear, Ignorance, Egotism and other fallibilities are still as much a part of our lives now as they were then. We are, after all is said and done, still only human. Through our stories we can learn that while it is our differences that distinguish us, it is our similarities that unite us and that the one is as valid as the other. As with art, dance, and music, stories transcend our artificial inner barrier towards understanding and experiencing an innate, raw humanness, a place where contact is not only made with our own inner source of being but also with humanity as a whole. This makes the wisdom and power inherent in tales and stories, be they old or new, immortal and invaluable.

Due to the ever changing nature of stories, this topic is inexhaustible. With every aspect I have tried to highlight, so many others were passed over or had to be edited. I am sure that there are still a variety of ways in which stories can touch and influence that I am not aware of. So should readers of this article wish to share their own story- experiences with me, I would be very happy to receive them. To access my email address, please visit  my talkingworks profile or my website

- This is not the End. It is not even the Beginning of the End.
But it is, perhaps, the End of the Beginning. -

Winston Churchill

Denise Hufer is a Clinical Psychologist with a private practice in Auckland » more details

Article posted 13 July 2010