Everybody has a story: the role of storytelling in therapy
By Johanna Slivinske
When was the last time you told or heard a good story? Was it happy, sad, or funny? Was it meaningful? What message did the story convey? People have been telling stories throughout history. They tell stories to teach lessons, to share messages, and to motivate others. Some stories are happy, while some stories are sad.
I come from a long line of imaginative storytellers who inherited family lore and legend through the art of storytelling. Because of stories, I know of family misfortune and secrets, and have learned from elders’ indiscretions. Because of stories I have learned of my mother’s joy and despair when hearing of her childhood memories, at age nine frolicking in Wick Park with her younger brother, while simultaneously coping with her mother dying from terminal cancer. Perhaps most importantly, I learned the importance of the resilience of the human spirit. Storytelling can be helpful, even therapeutic, for those experiencing difficult experiences or transitions in their lives.
Currently, I counsel children, adolescents, and adults about social and personal issues confronting them. I also teach about human behavior, disability, and family issues at the university level. An important aspect of both positions is lending voice to peoples’ stories. I hear and process life stories – some joyous and some tragic. I listen to peoples’ stories about adjusting to disabling conditions, living with memories of abuse or assault, grieving for the loss of loved ones, and learning how to cope with what hand life has dealt them. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone deserves a chance to tell his or her story.
Storytelling is a vital component of the assessment and intervention process. Strengths-based storytelling can be used in a therapeutic way. Adolescents, young adults, and children can engage with thought provoking vignettes. In turn, many identify with the characters, which often leads to increased self-disclosure in the therapeutic process, especially for those individuals who have difficulty directly expressing themselves verbally.
Through storytelling, many people gain insight that leads to behavioral change, and improvements in the quality of their lives. Stories may be told through writing, through art, through photos, or verbally. There is more than one way to tell a story.
I hope you will reflect on stories you have heard, stories you have told, and how these stories have influenced your life, your work, and the lives of those you touch. Consider the stories you tell, and think about how applying storytelling in your life communicates knowledge, messages, beliefs, and values. If it feels right, share a story with your friends, your family, your students, or your clients today.
Johanna Slivinske is co-author of, Therapeutic Storytelling for Adolescents and Young Adults (2014). She currently works at PsyCare and also teaches in the Department of Social Work at Youngstown State University, where she is also affiliated faculty for the Department of Women’s Studies.