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Home  >  Narrative and Healing  >  Perspectives
Using Stories for Growing and Healing
By Christiane Brems, Ph.D., ABPP

Stories have been used throughout the history of humankind to help people express themselves in ways that create a sense of belonging, promote personal growth, and enhance physical well-being. Stories emerge from many contexts, including the larger cultural group, the family, and the individual. Stories of the Cultural Group are an important means of making sense of the environment and of transmitting information, knowledge, and wisdom from generation to generation. Stories of the Family allow families to transmit family lore and values from parents or grandparents to children, to help children mature, make sense of their world, learn about their ancestry, and facilitate parent-child relationships. Stories of the Individual are used to reveal information about a person to family members, friends, teachers and other significant individuals in his or her life; to express feelings and needs indirectly; and to engage in problem-solving. All of these types of stories are actively used in psychotherapy to help clients grow and heal. They are also easily used for the same purposes outside of a therapy context, at home, alone or in a group.

Dr. Christiane Brems

What follows are some hints about how to use stories, both in a group (including family) and individual context, for their healing and growth-promoting powers. Years of psychotherapy research have shown that the power of the story is immense; new research has supported the notion that the power of the story is retained even outside of the therapeutic context. In fact, the traditional use of the story was in day-to-day context and was transmitted into the therapy room because it worked. Being able to write a personal narrative is healing in and of itself; being able to share this personal narrative serves to make it yet more powerful.

Hints on How to Use Stories

Stories are powerful tools. When parents tell stories to their children, they can promote bonding and positive relationships with open channels of communication. When teachers encourage their students to write and tell their own stories they communicate acceptance and encouragement of these children, as well as stimulating their intellectual growth. When people listen to or read others' stories, they create an environment that allows the other person to feel heard, grow, and deal successfully with problems of daily living. There are numerous ways to integrate the written and oral story into daily life. Stories can be shared or used in a group context (including a family or classroom); stories can be used by an individual alone. Regardless of group or individual context, stories have advantages for the teller and the listener alike. Often, even when a story is shared for the benefit of others, the act of sharing the story is beneficial for the storyteller as well. Similarly, even when a story is written in private, it may end up helping not only the individual, but any others who may at a later time gain access to it. Thus, what may start out as an individual endeavor may turn into a shared experience.

What follows is a list of suggestions of how stories can be used in group settings and how individuals can use stories in solitary settings. This differentiation is somewhat arbitrary, but useful for clarity in presentation.

Ways to Use Stories in Individual Contexts

  • Journaling about events
  • Journaling about personal feelings and reactions
  • Journaling about relationships
  • Turning personal experiences into stories
  • Using events as incentives to write stories
  • Writing fictional stories as self-expression
  • Writing letters to others to mail to them
  • Writing letters to others without intention of actually mailing them
  • Writing letter to loved ones who have died
  • Writing letters to oneself to read during difficult times in the future

Ways to Use Stories in Group Contexts

  • Writing or telling fictional stories with a "moral"
  • Writing or telling fictional stories to teach about problem-solving
  • Writing or telling a personal story to share feelings and emotions with others
  • Writing or telling about a personal experience to share it with others who encountered the same
  • Writing or telling about a personal mastery or solution to share with others
  • Retelling a story told by another with a new ending or healthier solution to a problem
  • Co-creating oral stories
  • Co-creating a drawing and writing about the drawing
  • Co-creating a sculpting and writing about the sculpture
  • Writing letters to young children for them to read when they are older

The key to using stories for growth and healing is to tell, write, and listen to them. Stories provide a powerful forum for human connection, bonding, and communication. Use them and use them often!

Works Cited in This Group of Articles

  • Brems, C. (1993). Comprehensive Guide to Child Psychotherapy. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Pellowski, A. (1977). The World of Storytelling. New York: Bowker Co.
  • McLeod, J. (1997). Narrative and Psychotherapy. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.
  • Pearce, S. S. (1996). Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Sherman, M.H. (1990). "Family Narratives: Internal Representations of Family Relationships and Affective Themes." Infant Mental Health Journal, 11, 253-258.
  • Godbole, A.Y. (1982). "Dyad as a Technique of Behavioral Change." Psycho Lingua, 12, 95-110.
  • White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: Norton.
  • Schwartz, E.K. (1964). "A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fairy Tale." In M.R. Haworth (Ed.), Child Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Smith, C.A. (1989). From Wonder to Wisdom: Using Stories to Help Children Grow. New York: New American Library.

Photo by Randy Lissey

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Related Articles
Stories of the Family (Part 2)
Stories of the Cultural Group (Part 1)
Stories of the Individual (Part 3)

About the Author: Christiane Brems, Ph.D., ABPP, is a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She came to UAA in 1989 from a faculty position at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1987 from Oklahoma State University. She is a licensed and board-certified psychologist and a certified interactive imagery guide. She has been in private practice as a clinician and consultant in Oklahoma and Alaska (including in the Anchorage and Bethel areas). Dr. Brems is the author of several books, including the Comprehensive Guide to Child Psychotherapy; Between Two People: Exercises Toward Intimacy; Psychotherapy: Processes and Techniques; Basic Skills in Psychotherapy and Counseling; and Dealing with Challenges in Psychotherapy and Counseling. She is an active researcher, author of more than 60 journal publications, and co-director of the Alaska Comprehensive and Specialized Evaluation Services at UAA.

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