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Final Thoughts on Personal Narratives

Posted on July 1, 2016

Over the last several months, we have taken a deep journey into the psychological impact of personal narratives and how trauma can destroy a positive sense of self, relationships, and the world. Through this exploration, two things have become very clear in my thinking. First, clients need to have the opportunity to tell their stories in a meaningful and safe way, a way that looks little like a traditional intake assessment. Second, in order to truly experience post-traumatic growth, clients must get support to strategically rewrite the story of their lives.

On the first point, this exploration is really making me rethink the intake assessment. I’ve always disliked how and when these assessments are done. Unless the helper is extremely creative, these can feel forced, overly clinical or medical, and does not allow a full or holistic story to emerge. Instead, the helper gets painful pieces of a client’s past without much context in which to understand how these pieces impact the person. This approach also increases the likelihood for retraumatization, as the client is forced to revisit the struggles and traumas of their lives, and must do so in order to receive services.

Even more potentially devastating is that the client/helper relationship has often been just established when the intake assessment is done. Disclosing honestly in response to many intake questions takes a great deal of courage, which can be hard to find before trust and safety have been established. In many settings, the client is asked to make these disclosures to someone that is only in an intake position, forcing them into a one-time intense and extremely intimate conversation with a complete stranger that they may never work with or even see again.

Clients’ experiences and stories need to start being seen in a new light. I know we need to balance requirements of funders, getting critical information, and meeting standards of care, but are these requirements worth risking the damage these assessments can do if done prematurely? For many services, why couldn’t the intake be done over, or after, several months, as the relationship builds and strengthens? We would likely get a much more complete story, and one that allows the helper to fully understand the psychological reality of the client. This understanding would then promote better psychosocial support and more effective referrals to be delivered, regardless of the goals of the helping relationship.

To the second point on helping clients rewrite their stories, we need to find opportunities for clients to do this important work in safe and strategic ways. I have seen the power of creative writing teachers, poets, and musicians (people without clinical training) help clients to change their entire outlook on themselves, the world, and their future. Many clients who might not be open or ready for talk therapy can really benefit from these types of narrative work.

While I really believe some reading or training is critical before starting this type of intervention, the power of narrative work should be an option to clients in our programing (at least, for many situations and programs). The great thing about narrative work is that it can fit into most existing group or individual work. This integration into programming should be done strategically, in order to ensure that the program, staff, and volunteers are ready for the deep reactions narrative work can provoke. Once this is done, then narrative work can be an important part of the clients’ change and healing journey.

One final note on narrative. It is also important for us to think about our own narratives as helpers. Historically, every society’s stories and mythologies include the powerful healer or mentor. This healer doesn’t just magically show up in the role, but has their own story that they draw courage and strength from in order to journey into the abyss and help the hero find hope and safety. As someone who has recently started to share his own story, I have seen the power of this in my own life and work. Helping others is the connecting of two stories. The stronger our own sense of self and place in the word, the better we can fulfill our role in the hero’s journey of our clients.

Thanks for taking another deep journey with me through this topic. I want to leave you with two questions:

  1. Is it time for us to start advocating strongly for a new trauma informed way to do intake assessments?
  2. How can the power of narrative work be integrated into your programing?

17 responses to “Final Thoughts on Personal Narratives”

  1. Sara Carrillo says:

    I always enjoy your ‘mumblings’, Matt – I don’t always understand the technical aspects, having NO background in anything neurological, but a couple of re-readings usually lets me get the gist of it! On a personal note, you have certainly earned some down time this year, enjoy your vacation!

  2. Sara Carrillo says:

    I always enjoy your ‘mumblings’, Matt – I don’t always understand the technical aspects, having NO background in anything neurological, but a couple of re-readings usually lets me get the gist of it! On a personal note, you have certainly earned some down time this year, enjoy your vacation!

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    The intake process should be sensitive to cultural differences. The efficiency that donors and administrators may require could, indeed, exacerbate one’s situation–for cultural reasons. Trust is cultivated, in some settings, by patient interactions and rituals of hospitality. Business may not be conducted until after two or three social visits, in some countries. I think of the Middle East and Arab cultures. Trade and diplomacy demand such rituals. Psycho-social service provision should, too. As for the narrative, I would urge the inclusion of such an option, given the role of writing in my experience of self-care and liberation–albeit “inner” and “personal.”

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    The intake process should be sensitive to cultural differences. The efficiency that donors and administrators may require could, indeed, exacerbate one’s situation–for cultural reasons. Trust is cultivated, in some settings, by patient interactions and rituals of hospitality. Business may not be conducted until after two or three social visits, in some countries. I think of the Middle East and Arab cultures. Trade and diplomacy demand such rituals. Psycho-social service provision should, too. As for the narrative, I would urge the inclusion of such an option, given the role of writing in my experience of self-care and liberation–albeit “inner” and “personal.”

  5. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    A writer’s vantage causes me to be wary of the word “impact.” It comes from violence and connotes force, and probably should be phased out of trauma-informed learning and services. The term “effect” may be more appropriate and precise. The insertion of “impact” into this domain of language may be pre-meditated and nefarious.

  6. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    A writer’s vantage causes me to be wary of the word “impact.” It comes from violence and connotes force, and probably should be phased out of trauma-informed learning and services. The term “effect” may be more appropriate and precise. The insertion of “impact” into this domain of language may be pre-meditated and nefarious.

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