Rewriting the Personal Narrative: Rediscovery Strengths

Posted on June 24, 2016

Over the last several months, we have examined the impact of trauma on the person’s story of self, relationships, and the world. We have looked to ways of helping clients regain their voices, and how the helping relationship can be key in challenging old and painful relational templates. This week, we’ll talk about how to help clients start taking control of their stories and how they can work to reclaim the role of protagonist of that story.

There are some very concrete things the helper can do to help clients see themselves in a new light. Affirmations play a critical role in the healing and change process. When I train on Motivational Interviewing, I challenge the helpers to think of themselves as miners, helping the client to discover both change talk and anything positive in the client’s situation. When done genuinely, reflecting back positive progress or accomplishments can help the client see that there are opportunities available, and that paths out of the abyss do exist. It is also important to celebrate wildly the progress that clients do make throughout their journey. There will always be another issue or problem but taking time to celebrate even small wins builds confidence.

The helper can also reflect back worth they see in the client. As mentioned in a previous post, trauma can steal the client’s sense of worthiness as a person which destroys motivation. When focusing on the strengths and skills that the client has relied on to survive, I always find a gold mine of attributes that can be utilized to take the next step on the journey. I have also found that many clients struggle to find these attributes within themselves without me helping them see it. This can be uncomfortable for some clients, but the more I gently point out the strengths I see, the more they start to see themselves as someone of value and worth.

Another way a helper can help clients shift out of fixed or negative mindsets is through reframing, which can change the client’s perspective of themselves and the world. Reframing is when a helper assists the client in finding the good in a particular situation. There are opportunities even in setbacks, but these might be difficult for the client to see without assistance from the helper. Finding the positive helps elicit a sense of hope, while focusing on strength provides the confidence. Together, hope and confidence provide the energy and direction for change.

In a previous post, we discussed the loss of autonomy or power in the personal narrative. The helper can help offset this by helping the client see where choices do exist. The reality of poverty, imprisonment, and other struggles is that there seems to be little or no choice or power to change the situation. However, when one looks closer, one can find many small choices that might be hidden to the client. These choices can be about concrete opportunities, like which shelter to go to tonight, or choices around how the client thinks about a certain situation.

The goal of these approaches is to help the client see they are a person of worth, value, and strength. As this starts to take hold, it is important that the client has the ability to reflect on how this new view of themselves impacts their narrative. As a client progresses in care, the story told at intake will evolve, and a transforming protagonist can emerge.

Space to work on narratives might be hard to find, but it is a critical part of the healing and change process. Reflecting on the changes in key aspects of the story shows clients how far they have come, and they can sit with that new person who is emerging out of the abyss. There are many strategies to help clients tell their stories. One recent book that really helped my thinking around this was, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy D. Wilson. Wilson’s work is great on many levels, and really helps show how to position narrative work into the helper’s practice.

My question this week is: how have you seen the power of narrative work with clients or for yourself? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

2 responses to “Rewriting the Personal Narrative: Rediscovery Strengths”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 sparked the idea of a book; no: it sparked action on that idea. I believed that my tribulations were linked to the attack, which took place in the neighborhood of my employment, at that time. I was working as an AmeriCorpsVista volunteer in Lower Manhattan, in an organization serving persons with psychiatric disabilities. I surmised that my hardships were linked to current events. My insight helped bolster my response; it gave me strength. Having an idea of what was going on helped me maneuver in relation to the opposition. The misconceptions of others about me, a person experiencing homelessness,led to pain but were not enough to derail me completely. Becoming a writer in the process granted me a new-found sense of power. Creating something that appears to be of a certain quality and worth to others, has been fulfilling. Amid difficulty, I feel comfortable, relatively, and strong. The bruises from the battle have been insufficient to halt me. As a storyteller, choices and decisions are mine, in the telling. To borrow from Sade’s song title, that’s in the passive tense, when she sings “Love is Found,” I say “agency is found.” There are shards of it laying around, if we look around.

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