I have a love affair with story. I can't help it, I think I've always been this way. There is something about a story that that moves me in the very depths of my being. It stirs my soul. I simply must tell stories and hear stories. Stories are powerful; they connect us to others and help us make meaning of the world around us. I'm telling you: I'm a goner, stories are IT for me.
Dr. Dan Allender says; "If we don't tell stories, our stories will tell us. Whether we revisit the past or not, who we are today is profoundly shaped by the events of our lives and our responses to those events. Our stories impact us either unconsciously or consciously. It's up to us to decide whether we'll be passive recipients or active agents in the shaping of our lives." Simply put: our past informs our present.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my time training at the Allender Center in Narrative Focused Trauma Care— we don’t heal in universalities, we heal in the particularities. We engage the past so we can face the honest realities of who we are in the present as a result of our past. This is so we can heal, redeem, restore and heal from the places where we have been harmed, our innocence stolen, our goodness taken advantage of. Engaging story helps us to find our truest selves, to name and bless our inherent goodness so that we can live our uniquely designed and purposed life.
This is story work.
On the most recent episode of the Arise Podcast, my podcast partner Danielle and I got to chat with Cyndi Mesmer, licensed mental health therapist at the Art of Living Counseling Center in Illinois. She is a teacher, trainer and facilitator of "story work" at the Allender Center in Seattle, WA where both Danielle and I met her.
Cyndi says that Story Work is an invitation to write and engage a particular story from the formative years of 5- 18 years old. It is important to look at these early years because how someone shows up today in the present is based on what happened in the past.
“The past is always showing up in the present.” - Cyndi Mesmer
There is a difference between story work and therapy. Cyndi says therapy can go all over: the present and the past where as Story Work stays in the context of the story (and usually those in the story) where there may have been harm. She says the point of this work is to identify where in the story is where is the person bond? Where do they carry the most shame or complicity?
What we’ve found, Cyndi continues, in story work is that in the context of trauma or harm is that we didn’t get as children was good attunement, containment or the offer for repair. This trauma is then embedded in the very organs and cells of our bodies and we end up shifting our style of relating to try to cope with that. Staying in the context of the story can bring better awareness of yourself as well as a better understanding of the characters in the story. There is a sense of understanding why we are the way we are, and why we respond the way we do in the present comes as a result of our experiences. The ways in which we were harmed impacts how we show up today.
Cyndi says having a group bear witness and speak into their story with kindness and care, offering attunement, containment and repair can actually shift their narrative and bring a sense of healing. This doesn’t change the past, but it helps them to see a clearer picture of what happened in the context of the story which leads to more agency and freedom to change the here and now.
When we are harmed in relationship, healing will also happen in relationship. This is why there is something so powerful about doing story work in the context of groups. It is the seeing and caring eyes of others that can bring greater levels of clarity. “There is so much power in the group dynamic that happens in story work.”
Story work is kind mystical, Cyndi says. And she’s aware that you have to experience it to really get. She things once people experience it, they’re hooked. It creates significant change and rapidly; In her practice she sees more change in a12 week story group than in a whole year on your own because you’re getting access points from all over the place as others engage your story and as you watch other people’s story receive care. It’s just beautiful she says.
“My feeling is that story groups are how church should be.” Cyndi says story groups feel like church to her because they are holy and scared. And on the flip side, to really engage a story well, it creates disruption because it invites people to name and grieve their story. Without grief there can be no healing. This is the hard work of story work.
You can also listen to the full conversation with Cyndi Mesmer at the Arise Podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.