Exploring the Power of the Personal Narrative
Posted on March 18, 2016
Over the next several weeks, I want to explore the power of personal narratives. Many trauma-specific treatments understand that the personal narrative has the power to trap people in a dark place, and that reconstructing that person’s narrative can be a powerful part of the healing process. In my travels and studies, I have seen the transformative power of the narrative in forms ranging from creative writing and storytelling to poetry and song. When I get a chance to experience someone speaking their truth and telling their story, I can almost hear them taking back control of their lives and experiences.
Trauma is a thief. It often robs someone of a positive view of self, relationships, and the world. Everyone has a story of themselves where they are the main character – this story is called a personal narrative. Trauma steals a person’s ability to write their own understory, and often results in difficulty finding the power to heal or make positive change for themselves.
In these first few posts, we’ll explore the impact of trauma on the narrative. This impact will be examined at a personal, relational, and global level, as trauma impacts views of self, relationships, and the world. The work of Phil Cousineau will give us a framework for this discussion. I have mentioned his work when I was discussing the Hero’s Journey several months ago. (You can find the Hero’s Journey Series starting with this post. Cousineau was a student of Joseph Campbell’s. In his book, Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Cousineau adds two key insights: overstory and understory.
The ‘overstory,’ is the visible plot that is obvious to those that come in contact with the person. For traumatized people, the overstory can become devastating and filled with suffering and pain. As can be seen in the symptoms of trauma, the psychological, biological, and social symptoms can dominate the overstory. While the overstory is visible to most who come in contact with the client, the ‘understory’ is hidden to everyone – except the traumatized person and to those with whom they share their stories.
Cousineau states that the understory is the “invisible movement of the soul” through the overstory. As trauma thrusts the person into darkness and suffering, they often experience trauma after trauma. The pain and suffering associated with the trauma makes it difficult to succeed in society. The person struggles in school, in relationships, and in employment situations. These failures start to add up, and the combination of trauma and failure furthers the journey into the darkness and the abyss.
Next week, we’ll examine the impact of trauma on how one views one’s self. This week, my question is a general one. Whether we think about ourselves or our clients, how have you seen or experienced the impact of trauma on overstories and understories?