March 22nd, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

“The chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”
-Atul Gawande from Being Mortal

“It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear.”
-David Henry Thoreau

People often come into therapy because some part of their known story needs revisiting. Something, possibly not yet visible, is no longer ringing true. Most people seek help when there is enough pain to propel them to change. They may begin this process with a description of what needs changing in someone else; but if I listen carefully, I can hear them telling the story of themselves.

I have a set of professional skills that include psychodynamic theory, mindfulness meditation, empathy, listening deeply, and an ability to create a safe environment in which a story can be told. I firmly believe that if one is to release themselves from the confines of an old pattern, one first needs to tell the story that has held them, and have it received and understood in the presence of another.

Stories develop from our earliest experiences. Infants come into the world and are quickly identified as “quiet, easy, irritable, quick to startle,” to name a few. They grow into “she was the one who always got into trouble,” or “he was the peacemaker in the family.” While all these descriptions may hold truth, none of them are terribly meaningful without understanding the surrounding context, and felt experience in which they emerged.

In therapy, we sit together as the texture of a life story unfolds. People paint the landscapes of their inner world through the telling and re-telling of their stories. I listen for the underlying themes, the moments that trigger strong affect, sensing the ongoing relational field in between myself and my patients. Together, we map out the contextual and experiential backdrop of what gives meaning to a particular person.

Studies of the brain confirm that the more we repeat something, the more tightly it lodges in the brain structure. The research on neuroplasticity informs us that the brain can re-form itself once new messages begin to take hold. As we speak these stories in the holding environment of another, they slowly begin to diminish, altering the brain. Before we had research to document this, therapists knew that deep listening within a safe connection, allows for releasing and healing of old stories, as new ones inch their way into visibility.

I believe that old stories can imprison us; but I also know that they have served a purpose; that is, they have been our constant companions. No matter how maladaptive they are in the present, they once served to comfort us, give us a sense of connection, and help us make sense of the world and those in it. For example, many people who have suffered abuse as children tell the story of the abusive parent being kind and loving. They often speak of themselves as “bad” as if they deserved such abuse. As children, these stories helped them cope with situations that were traumatic and overwhelming, and because they helped them in this way, those stories stuck like glue.

In therapy, I listen to people tell their stories over and over again until in the telling, and the attuned listening and inquiry, we together begin to push the edge of the truth. I often say, “it certainly is real, but is it true?” That is, together, we acknowledge and later befriend, even the most tenacious of stories, so that we can release them gradually, and with compassion.

We tell our stories repeatedly when we are close to something new. We need another person, to listen for the opening to the entrance of the next door.