Tell Me A Story: The importance of saying YES! to your gifts…
Most nights, my daughter’s bedtime routine involves me telling her a story. Lauren has very specific rules: the characters have to be “make believe” (no one you could meet in real life); the story can’t be a re-iteration of one she has heard before (no re-telling of Snow White cast in modern day times, for example); all the characters have to have actual names; and the story has to have a crisis or conflict that then is resolved. Story time with her is a true test of my creativity! I cherish these times of closeness, where she is tuned in and focused on my voice. We lie side by side in her bed with the lights already out, and she is caressing her soft stuffed cat that’s been her “lovie” since birth. My daughter’s responses to the stories always amuse me. She will point out what she believes to be a character’s bad decision or a good choice. She will correct me if I get the names wrong. She gets most upset if the story doesn’t have any real dilemma, drama, or conflict. If that is the case, she will demand that I start over and re-tell the story to include a problem. She is vocal in telling me that a story without a problem is “boring” and to her, it just doesn’t make sense.
The construct of a story speaks to us and moves us in ways that other forms of communication do not. Because stories told to us aloud engage all of our senses, memory and emotions, they have power like no other means to affect not just our intellect, but our hearts as well. Narrative Therapy helps capture that same power of story telling in order to create lasting change within us. Over the years of working with families in therapy, I have become so encouraged by hearing each family’s unique story of strength, growth and resiliency. When reflecting on how the family’s story has developed, I find that the crisis that has encouraged the family to seek treatment is similar to the crisis or conflict that Lauren longs for me to include in the stories that I tell her. Over the years, I began to see a pattern of how families endure stressful times, and even grow closer together through them by being able to “make up” the story as they go…to improvise. In fact, flexibility is one of the most important attributes of families who are resilient.
Improvising, however, is not just haphazardly and frantically trying different things to see what works. Beneficial improvising actually has a structure that facilitates its effectiveness. I have learned more about the principles of effective improvising as I’ve participated in a local Improv Comedy class. “Saying yes to the gifts” is one of the features of effective improvising. Seeing obstacles, difficulties, and problems as gifts to be received and understood is an empowering perspective. The alternative is to view distressing events either negatively or with apathy, both of which are draining to our energy and ineffective in helping us cope. Negativity or apathy keeps the story “stuck”; nothing different happens. Worse yet, it can add to the distress already being experienced. So through principles of improve therapy, we want to help families understand the “bigger picture” of their story and how the current crisis can be used as a gift to help direct the next chapter of the story to a place of growth, deeper involvement in life, greater engagement with one another, and more meaningful discoveries about themselves as individuals and about their purpose as a family. This is no easy task as it means respecting and deeply empathize with the pain and distress they are feeling, while at the same time, opening their eyes to the possibility of a crisis as a gift. The pain deserves respect, yet it doesn’t have to be in charge of what happens next.
Going through this process with one family I worked with led them to a deeper commitment to change. The family had been struggling with multiple addictions, trauma, conflict, and poor boundaries. A series of events resulted in their 14 year old son violating probation, which resulted in him being court ordered to Residential Treatment. As the mother struggled through her sadness, guilt, pain and thoughts of “I must be a horrible mother for this to have happened”, we explored how her son being away from home might be a gift. I will never forget her enthusiasm as she experienced the shift in perspective right in front of me. She suddenly sat up straight, raised her voice, and exclaimed, “Actually, him going away has been a gift because it helped me see how unhealthy our relationship was! So in a weird way, even his getting into trouble was a gift for us as parents!” Because she was able to view the story in this way, she became more committed to working through relationship and parenting issues with her husband while her son was away, and continued to be committed to healthier relationship boundaries and coping mechanisms when he returned home.
To respectfully identify the “gift” of struggle and pain, the following questions can be helpful:
1) How could this experience bring our family closer together? How has it already?
2) How could this experience help us learn more about ourselves? How has it already?
3) What is our family’s identity and what values do we find important? How do those values shape how we want to respond to this struggle?
4) What strengths have we used in the past that have helped us face struggles?
5) What unique strengths does our family possess that are required to face this struggle?
6) How could this struggle help us in areas that we may need to grow?
7) What is the gift our family brings to others (our extended family, neighborhood, community and the larger world)? And how can this struggle help us extend the gift to others?
8) How do we want to define the meaning of this struggle for us?
When families decide together how they want to define the pain and how they want the next chapter of the story to go, the motivation and energy they can then generate is astounding!! And just as Lauren finds it satisfying when the crisis is resolved in the story, I am so encouraged when families begin to generate their own solutions and begin to see themselves as struggling towards growth, rather than just struggling. Being able to use creative interventions to help families see the story more clearly, even working with families in their home, where they are most comfortable, has been an exciting new frontier for me. I am honored and encouraged as I see families face amazing challenges and rise above them, as they write new stories of healing, hope and strength.
Written by Stephanie Coker, LCSW