The Keys to Narrative Reconstruction: Relationships

Posted on June 10, 2016


This blog is littered with posts about the power of relationships, and their critical role in the change and healing process. In this post, I want to discuss the role of the helping relationship in supporting clients in reclaiming their personal narratives, and share a very real experience I had last week with this topic. Up to this point in this series of posts, trauma and the resulting pain, suffering, and addiction have been writing the story; here is where the client starts to take back the pen, and the hero starts to emerge out of this suffering.

Trauma, especially trauma inflicted by other people, has the power to disconnect and isolate us from ourselves, others, and our community. When a client is able to establish trust and safety with an empathetic and compassionate helper, they start to set up the biological and psychological foundations of healing and growth. This foundation, in and of itself, is enough to increase health, promote hope, and increase the likelihood for positive change.

This foundation also sets the stage for the transformative power of the personal narrative. If the helper provides the safety and structure, the client’s story can be expressed and, often for the first time in years, the client can hear their own voice. This is much different than the story told in intake interviews, which too often re-traumatize clients by focusing on past struggles and failures, with little attention paid to their strengths and accomplishments.

There is something inherently powerful about telling your story to someone you trust and who cares about you as a person. My good friend, Dr. Deborah Borne, challenged me at a recent training to share my own story of trauma, transformation, and the role it played in me becoming a healer. In the past, I have often turned the stage over to clients or former clients who found the courage to share the lessons of their own suffering and pain. I have never thought my story was worth the time it would take to share it with an audience. Because of this, I would always talk generally about my experience, without ever getting into details or making myself vulnerable in front of my audience.

The best way I can describe sharing my experience was that it was like being naked in front of 60 people, the vulnerability so intense that it was nearly overwhelming. I stumbled, failed to mention any of the key points I wanted to make, but ended up right where I needed to be. The love and attention the audience gave me was something I could only describe as a big hug of compassion and connection…Thanks Deb!

I feel great sympathy for clients who are often asked to share their traumatic stories in intakes, where support and trust are not yet established. Stories should not be forced, and by our standards and regulations requiring clients and helpers to do so, we can steal away the power of telling one’s story once a relationship is built. Without the relationship, there is little or no understanding of the client that is established in order to put the story into a personal context, where support can be effective and more meaningful.

Even in this reality, we need to find meaningful ways to help clients tell their stories when they are ready to do so. In order to rewrite our narratives, we need to be able to express the struggles and hardships that led to this point in the book of our lives. When we can put suffering into words, we gain some control over it. While this might be small at first, it is often the first time control is felt in a meaningful way, and can be the beginning of the transformational process.

I have had the privilege to hear many stories over the years that have moved me to tears and inspired me in my work. Looking back, I believe one of the main reasons I chose this work was the raw realness of these stories. There is something about true struggles that can’t be replicated on TV or in the movies. Reality does not need special effects or plot points – it comes from the very soul of the person and opens up pathways to future growth and healing.

I want to open up the comment section this week for you to share the power of telling one’s story that you have seen, either in others or yourself.

3 responses to “The Keys to Narrative Reconstruction: Relationships”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    With some time to spare at the conference of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, in Portland, OR, last week, I left the hotel, one evening, to see the neighboring streets. One block away, and around the corner, I spotted something that evoked emotion. It was a building with a name that I recognized. I approached the Antoinette Hatfield Hall, dropped my bag, stood there to pay respects to Mrs. Hatfield and her husband, and quietly wept. I’d forgotten that I was in the home state of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield. As a student, I was required to read one of his books, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was very important to me. Hatfield was an Evangelical Christian who struggled with the idea of power while serving in the senate. As a moderate Republican, he was courageous in standing alone for an end to the Vietnam War before anyone else did. His sole vote against the War invited the ire of the Nixon administration; but he led by his convictions and the faith that accompanied him to Washington. His ilk of Evangelicalism is that which American right-wing politicians have been trying to erase in the last three decades. I wept because Hatfield’s legacy is what still inspires me: I was reminded of those youthful days of inspiration and the brief meeting I had with him in 1980 or 1981 in Georgetown, in Washington. Hatfield’s intellectual perspective about the Faith was endearing and enduring. I come from this strain of Evangelicalism, which has no fear of hard thinking. And one phrase that I retain from Hatfield’s discussion is, “self-giving love.” He wrote of the difference between worldly power and power as conceived in God’s kingdom. Service to others is a preferable form of power. This walk, for me, was a re-connection to Hatfield’s influence in my education. Such a brand of politician is part of the legacy of the National Council, I would say. I view him as a presence among us.

  2. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Likewise, Matt; Hatfield, as he describes in his writing, was marked by the personal encounter with the victims of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. As a naval officer at the scene soon after the nuclear bombing of those cities in Japan, he saw first-hand the destruction it caused. That experience is ours through him, and the effect on him reaches us through his storytelling (and that of others). It is our duty to respond to that experience of trauma that he leaves us, and set ourselves to “healing the world,” or “repairing the world,” as you do. “Repair the world” is the language often used by Rabbi Michael Lerner.

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