Guidelines For Using Personal Life Stories

A question that is occasionally asked in training workshops on metaphor therapy is, "Is self-disclosure in storytelling a good thing?" In thinking about and answering this question, it seems to me that the therapeutic relationship has two elements. First, the relationship (the noun that defines what happens or exists between therapist and client) is, perhaps, one of the primary factors contributing to successful therapeutic outcome (Miller, Duncan, & Hubble, 1997), and communicating about shared personal experiences is one way we have of relating meaningfully. This is evidenced in Chelf, Deschler, Hill-man, and Durazo-Arvizu's study (2000) of cancer patients, which showed that 85% of subjects who attended a therapeutic storytelling workshop reported gaining hope from hearing the personal life experiences of others who had faced, and coped with, the same illness.

Second, that relationship is therapeutic (the adjective that describes it), existing for the benefit of the client. Self-disclosure was a concept that originated from psychodynamic theory with the intent of keeping the therapist's issues from interfering with the client's progress—but the therapist's stories of progress and outcome, equally, can be a beneficial element in the therapeutic process. In other words, I do not see it so much as a question of whether you use personal life experiences but rather how you do so. If it is to discuss your unresolved issues in the therapy session (e.g., by telling a matching story of how you can identify with the client's problem, but not having a resolution), it may not be helpful. If, on the other hand, the intent and function of telling an outcome-oriented tale is to facilitate the client's goal attainment, it may well make the relationship therapeutic. Such use of personal life-experience stories should not be an act of disclosure so much as a process of sharing something relevant to the client's outcome process. These outcome-relevant therapist experiences can be woven into a metaphor in much the same way as a client case, a cultural story, or evidence-based data about a certain condition.

There may be times when you have an appropriate outcome-oriented story from your own experience but choose not to tell it as your story, as it may distract from the story's message or it may not be relevant to speak of your foibles, grief, pain, or whatever. It is easy to shift such personal stories from the first person into the third, as I have done in Story 14, "Let Joe Do It." This is a story from my own childhood that I could tell as my story, if appropriate, or shift into the third person ("Joe" was a pet name my father had for me when I was a child) to distance myself from the story while still communicating the metaphoric outcome.

To ensure the effectiveness of using personal life experiences as therapeutic teaching tales, several steps may be helpful to bear in mind:

1. Be mindful of the story's purpose. Its function is not to disclose something about the therapist but rather to create a beneficial learning experience for the client.

2. Remember for whom the story is intended. It is not your story that matters so much as how children will hear it, adopt it, and employ it for themselves.

3. Keep the goal of the story in mind. A story from your own experience, or indeed from any source, works best if it closely matches the child's issues and desired outcome.

4. Ensure the story is relevant to the context. Stories of personal experience are more likely to be accepted when they are part of the context of a conversation.

5. Follow the PRO-Approach (see Chap. 16). This will help keep the story on track, addressing the Problems relevant to the child, accessing the Resources appropriate for their resolution, and providing an appropriate Outcome.

6. Observe the child's responses, carefully. They will tell you if the child is disinterested, distracted, bored, angry, or finding the story irrelevant.

7. Discontinue using personal metaphors (or any others) if not helpful. If your stories do not hold the child's attention, change your stories, or your whole therapeutic approach. Good therapy is about finding what works, and what works best.

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