For more than 30 years, research psychologists have studied the healing power of stories.
They have learned wonderful things about how profoundly we shape our identities according to the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. They’ve used sophisticated imaging equipment to investigate the possible impact of stories on the growth and development of brain neurons. They have explored the generous amounts of brain space we devote to our narratives. And they’ve gotten very excited about what it all might mean for human health and optimal functioning.
Remarkable psychiatrists such as Lewis Mehl-Madrona are saying, “Stories can heal.” In his 2010 book “Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story” he writes that story “defines our meaning and purpose, our identity, our goals and values—everything that makes life worth while.” Stories, he writes, hold the “richness of the interconnectedness and complexity of the world in a way we could never articulate otherwise.”
Narrative healing, he suggests, is a royal road to health.
Scientific research into the power of story is also affecting the corporate coaching profession through the work of a handful of pioneers, including Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons, who studies the books and papers published by research psychologists, masters the concepts, and brings narrative intelligence to some of America’s leading companies.
Chris specializes in applying narrative coaching to Diversity and Inclusion. At the center of her work is “re-authoring,” also known as “creating a counter-narrative” – i.e., examining the supposedly “negative” events of one’s life and re-interpreting them along lines that are energizing and empowering.
Re-authoring is based on one of the most interesting premises in the history of psychology: we are all “multi-storied.” Internet authors Maggie Carey and Shona Russell offer a definition of what this means:
No one story can possibly encapsulate the totality of a person’s experience.... There will always be other story lines that can be created.... For instance, if you believe you were subject to a particular trauma because it was ‘your fault,’ because you have always been ‘a loser’ and that these sorts of events are going to continue to happen for the rest of your life, then this has a very different effect than if you believe what occurred was a singular, horrific, unjustifiable act of abuse or injustice.
Multi-storied! What a concept! Here’s another example. Chris had a client several years ago named Katherine (not her real name) who got passed over for a vice-presidency at a big tech company in Silicon Valley. Katherine was confident, smart, and empathetic, but was convinced she was “not tough enough” to advance, was “too tender-hearted when someone has a problem and isn’t performing.”
This question of toughness was interfering with Katherine’s success, getting in her way. It was her “problem story,” also known as the “problem-saturated story” and the “dominant narrative.”
Chris told Katherine, “No matter how deeply rooted the problem-saturated story, no matter how profound, there’s always some alternative that wants to crack through, some other narrative.” They set out to find it.
In their meetings, Chris asked questions with exquisite gentleness, subtlety, and sometimes playfulness. She listened carefully, deeply, as Katherine talked about her life and explored what toughness meant to her. The two women gave a name to Katherine’s story: “Not Tough Enough.”
Questions came forth. Were there times in her life when Katherine showed toughness and got slapped down for it? Was she using a definition of toughness appropriate for today’s workplace? How did she feel, physically, when she heard the word “TOUGH!” Were there women in the world—perhaps in the movies, or on the political stage—who had a toughness that Katherine admired? Envied? Disliked? Hated?
Were there times when Katherine combined toughness with smarts and empathy and arrived at a new kind of toughness, a better kind, worthy of being honored, talked-up, celebrated?
Yes, in fact—just a couple of years ago when she spearheaded a major project. Here, then, was a “sparkling moment,” a “preferred story” that could be probed, dug into at considerable length—“thickened,” to use a word from coaching parlance—and brought to the forefront of Katherine’s awareness with the name “I’ve Got My Own Style of Toughness!” Katherine knew she did a great job on the big project, but she hadn’t really found the links between that work and her evolving definition of toughness. Chris helped her connect the dots.
Katherine saw that her current company wasn’t inclined to celebrate her particular style of toughness. Maybe she would be able to change some minds there. Maybe she would look elsewhere. “Whatever your decision,” Chris said, “you’ll need courage.” Chris explained that Katherine would be going out into the world with a new story, a “culturally-counter” story that some people might not like because it runs counter to the culture’s “master narrative” around female toughness. “That,” Chris said, “can be really scary.”
Katherine developed the courage she needed to live her new story. She ended up getting recruited for a vice-presidency at another major firm.
Chris has done re-authoring work on herself, working through several of her own problem-saturated stories. For example, she grew up putting an extremely high value on hard work. This connected to stories she heard from her father about working on a ranch. Chris would always choose labor over recreation and self-care, and so, of course, she would burn herself out, putting herself into jobs that were more than two people could handle. She literally would not take a vacation. This tactic helped her succeed in the world but it was terribly depleting.
She gave a name to this story: “Work Over Life.” She recalls, “Every time I said those words, I felt like I had an elephant on my chest.”
Then she remembered a sparkling moment—a time in her life, back in the ’90s, when she had total balance and a lot of joy, when she was doing exactly what she wanted. She used that period as the basis for a counter-narrative. She thickened this new narrative, looking at it from every angle, asking herself a lot of questions, journaling about how she felt on those lovely days, and speaking to family and friends about what sort of vibe she gave off. She found a new story: “Aliveness Over Work.”
“I still have a full calendar,” she reports. “Oh, do I! But now I take eight weeks of vacation a year. The old narrative was going to kill me. I’m living into the new narrative.”
And helping a lot of other people toward the same goal.
Chris trained under the supervision of David Epston, who is co-author, with Michael White, of the seminal book on the healing power of story, “Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends” (1990). She was introduced to this work by Chene Swart, a narrative practitioner from South Africa.
Other good books on the topic include Chris’s book “Three Stories Leaders Tell: The WHAT and WAY of Using Stories to Lead” (2013), “What is Narrative Therapy?” by Alice Morgan (2000), and “Maps of Narrative Practice” by Michael White (2007).