Reaching the ‘Hard To Reach’ Through Stories

November 4, 2017

The therapeutic use of stories is not new. Stories have been used across cultures and over centuries to address fears, anxieties and existential issues and to teach cultural mores (Bettelheim, 1976). In ancient Greece the door of the library at Thebes bore the inscription: “depositories for healing of the soul” (Harper, 2010; p.2) and similar words can be seen in Alexandria, Egypt where “medicine for the mind” can be found (Heath et al, 2005; p.563). Stories help us to understand our world and ourselves through the unconscious processing of metaphor and by promoting reflective thinking. “Stories are a transformative force in people’s lives, provoking self-reflection and change, and are profoundly human” (Crawford et al, 2004 p.10). We can recognize ourselves in a story…and celebrate “what we human beings are capable of…what it is to be human and to reveal to us our shared strengths and weaknesses and dreams and passions and terrors and absurdities: isn’t the very point of story, the value, the heart of story, to do just this?” (Crossley-Holland, 2006; p.1).

Stories have been used therapeutically for more than a century. It is believed that the symbolic content of stories allows for the processing of difficult material at a safe distance, allowing the client to indirectly process sensitive and painful material that they may otherwise defend against and avoid processing directly (Corr, 2003–2004). A story offers a medium to engage with complex and abstract issues of our very existence, presenting them to us in symbolic form connecting to our unconscious processing and providing an opportunity to engage with issues which are multi-faceted. Symbolic communication such as metaphor, simile, poetry, song, dreams, myth and fable are all described as the languages of the heart, the hearts voice, or the language of emotion. Based upon associative language and processes, they offer a symbolic communication of our unconscious processes, and deepest fears and wishes.


Metaphor can only be understood by the right hemisphere. Metaphor literally translated from the Greek means to carry across and carries us across to the experiential world of the right brain and captures unconscious and implicit processing (McGilchrist, 2009). McGilchrist (ibid) describes the processing of metaphor in terms of hemispheric dominance whereby the right hemisphere attunes to the context and symbolism of the metaphor and then ‘carries it across’ to the left hemisphere where it is understood in more literal and concrete terms. McGilchrist supports Freud in suggesting that our emotional and implicit experience of the world has primacy. “We make an intuitive assessment of the whole before any cognitive processes come into play” (McGilchrist, 2009; p.184) much of the initial processing is done in the form of metaphor with implicit content which is then carried across to be made explicit and verbalised in the left hemisphere, but this process is always reductionist and loses some of the tacit knowledge held and processed by the right hemisphere. As Nietzsche wrote “thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, simpler” (Nietzsche, 1888 p.137). If stories are made too explicit in the telling or the interpretation much is lost of the experience.

To bring things to the logic of the left brain requires verbalisation which necessitates the reduction of complex ideas into a form that can be expressed through language (Stern, 2004) by necessity this process is reductive and loses a lot of meaning that cannot be expressed verbally and indeed maybe tacit or implicit knowledge. Language is a process of reason, an aid to a particular kind of cognition, it is abstracted, a means to map and manipulate the world, and is an I-it form of communication and does not incorporate the I-thou element of communication which is an empathic force at the intuitive level (McGilchrist, 2009). We know that stories create a world beyond words and provide meaningful forms of communication which are pre-verbal and pre-literacy. Engaging with stories offers the potential for complex and holistic mental processing.


Stories potentially provide a safe medium for projection and experimentation where beliefs and feelings can be explored and played with creatively (Silverman, 2004; Smith and Celano, 2000). By facing challenges through the story process individuals can become more aware of their feelings and behaviours offering them a sense of mastery over their lives and a feeling of well-being. Neurobiology research suggests that imagining something activates the same neural pathways as actually doing the thing, this implies that through identification and projection the listener or reader has the opportunity to engage in the same psychological processes of the story characters. Through our imagination we can live out events and achieve mental states, happy endings, resolutions along with our story characters, with the associated hormonal regulation and neural integration. This could be an intrapersonal process as a reader, but may be enhanced within the relational context of oral storytelling which facilitates communal emotional and possibly neural “mirror neuron” resonance.

As a psychologist and community storyteller I am aware of the therapeutic effect of stories. It appears that the metaphorical content of stories facilitates right-hemisphere processing of traumatic material within a safe environment. In addition the storytelling process fosters an interpersonal relationship which has the potential to be nurturing. Storytelling provides a relationship at a safe distance which is particularly useful with young people who have insecure attachment styles. Attuned engagement between a storyteller, the audience and a story appears to offer reparative neurological ‘re-wiring.’ Pupils from Pupil Referral Units attended a storytelling programme. The participants highlighted that stories and the storyteller’s style of engagement were key ingredients in their change process.


Nici Long. Prof. Doc. Counselling Psychology (candidate), University of Manchester
Psychologist & Narrative Consultant, CTC Psychological Services


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