In therapy, it’s not uncommon for clients to show up to session expressing concern that they haven’t come “prepared” for our meeting. They didn’t have time to think about what they wanted to talk about--no notes planned, or pre-determined structure for what’s decidedly most important to be addressed in today’s appointment, or how to make the most of our time.
I love these sessions. They may be the richest ones.
In these sessions, I invite clients to take a moment to settle into themselves, realize that they are here now: in a space reserved just for them. And then I encourage them to begin with whatever comes up, “let's go with that.”
I let them know that we can trust whatever comes up as meaningful and important to their overall therapy goals, even if it’s not clear yet how. Even if your thinking mind first judges what’s coming up as frivolous, unimportant, or random. I encourage you to go with it anyway.
I explain that from a depth psychological point of view (an animated worldview), following the thread of whatever is coming into awareness in the moment, and the moment next, is the story to listen to–it is deeply connected to whatever wants or needs our attention right now, & holds crucial wisdom toward actualizing your therapeutic goals.
We cannot think our way into gleaning the wisdom of the story held in your body, instead, we can follow the thread of feeling that will guide us toward the answers we're seeking. Both of us, therapist & client, listen to the story that unfolds, both of us experiencing these words in this way for the first time, revealing patterns, insights, and guidance through felt, metaphoric, and symbolic lessons.
These sessions are like magic. At the end of the hour, the client often expresses surprise about how much they had to say, how insightful or impactful their realizations were today, especially surprised because they at first thought that they had “nothing to say.”
These sessions are so incredibly powerful in part because the client forgot to prioritize thinking first. This meaningful “error” facilitated their therapeutic growth, by cornering them into a situation where they had to look for another way to approach themselves; this time through embodied storytelling.
“Tell me whatever is coming up for you; let’s go from there”
It might sound like a vague and strange cue of encouragement when we think about it, though clients easily get what I mean. Something inevitably comes up, and off we go: on a journey together as we both listen with curiosity to the story unfolding, neither of us knowing where exactly it will lead us, or what it will show us along the way.
The whole time, we’re not thinking about what we should talk about next, or what strategies we should explore today. The client’s own material, bubbling up on its own–alive–from inside, guides us where we need to go.
The process of following the felt sense of what needs to be expressed next shapes the session in ways more powerful than a pre-designed session plan ever could. This is because, no matter how much training or education I go through, there is no way for me as a therapist to know exactly what each client needs in this precise moment or the next. The client may not consciously know this either, which is often why they're in the session in the first place. Though some part of them does know–and this is the thread that we are following in these beautifully unplanned sessions.
We follow the meandering storyline, uniquely authored as it comes up authentically, both therapist and client surprised and impressed with where the story goes, the threads it weaves together, and the life lessons it imparts as we trust the process and follow the tale through to where the story wants us to go.
While storytelling is an integral part of some therapeutic approaches within psychology: like depth psychology, psychoanalysis, psychodynamic psychotherapy, narrative therapy & expressive arts therapy, storytelling has been and continues to be one of the most natural, human, & universal methods of healing (Huston, 2021). For example, in "Indigenous traditions around the world, storytellers are sacred knowledge keepers, they are the elders and medicine people." Stories bond people together through a common understanding, effect change and generate knowledge in ways that cannot be accessed from detached, unembodied rational discussions (Sium, & Ritskes, 2013).
In an animated worldview, such as within Indigenous epistemologies, and depth psychology, stories are alive and knowledge-producing in themselves. The very act of storytelling creates change, reveals wisdom, and represents a valid way of knowing that logical reasoning alone cannot access. The archetypal storyteller within each of us is a knowledge-bearing healer, a living energetic wellspring that holds wisdom and wants to share that wisdom into consciousness for our own personal and collective growth and wellbeing.
The process of embodied storytelling not only reveals knowledge that can help us through our immediate individual struggles, though it also builds resiliency, self trust, and a stable and secure sense of self. For example, Dr. Jacqueline Ottman, an Associate Professor, at the University of Calgary reminds us that stories in educational settings are not only a bridge to literacy development, though stories also "help develop confidence and self esteem, and most importantly they help develop identity” (Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium, 2019).
This reality is a challenge for much of mainstream western psychology, as its own identity (i.e. the cultural norm of psychology) is centered around a worldview that values stark “objectivity” as the only source of truth or valid knowledge. Mainstream psychology and academia is based on Eurocentric research models that exist in a worldview that excludes the reality of stories as living, autonomous, and inherently knowledge-producing. For example, scientific journal articles typically focus on quantifiable therapeutic effects of narrative based approaches, attempting to operationalize, and standardize narrative processes, relating theories of therapeutic change to structural and chemical neurological mechanisms (e.g. Beaudoin, & Zimmerman, 2011). Ironically, this worldview assumes we can only know something to be true if we can “objectively” observe or measure it (i.e. apply the scientific method), meanwhile, stories reflect ways of knowing that are subjective, personal, and communal. Indigenous scholars emphasize that storytelling subverts "claims to 'objectivity,' or the emptying of our bodies and experiences"--it is a healing and change-making practice that is "disruptive of Eurocentric, colonial norms of ‘objectivity’ and knowledge," affirming and accessing our multiple and inherent ways of knowing (Sium, & Ritskes, 2013).
From a colonized (mainstream) perspective, embodied storytelling is bound to be uncomfortable, and unfamiliar, threatening to a worldview that insists on "objectivity" and rational thought as the sole valid way of knowing. Storytelling is inherently healing, knowledge-bearing and generative, despite, and in part because of, its subjectivity. The story that wells up from within, is a living thing that shows us and reminds us who we are--and teaches us how to be humans, well. For our individual and collective health, “we need to tell more uncomfortable stories” (Kaomea, 2003).
Now, I’m not rooting for you to forget to plan ahead for your next session, if that’s a helpful practice for you. And, if you do forget (or chose not) to plan, you might explore what it’s like to de-prioritize thinking, lean into embodied storytelling—and open yourself up to the wisdom that generously reveals when you go with whatever is coming up right now.
Silvia Eleftheriou, MEd, RPsych (CPBC 2571, CAP 5044) is a registered psychologist in Alberta & BC.
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