Dear Doodle Heroes and Friends,
Welcome to the second edition of Doodle your Future’s think-pieces, we hope it finds you well. In this article I’d like to start exploring one of the central pillars of Doodle Your Future’s vision – storytelling – in a little more depth. Since our last letter, we’ve found ourselves moving through a difficult and unprecedented period in our national, and indeed world, history. With this in mind, perhaps it can be an especially useful moment to spend some time exploring how storytelling can help us to grow and to heal as individuals, as groups, as communities, as a nation, and maybe as a planet.
Narratives allow us to make sense of experiences by integrating a sequence of events with our understanding of the significance of these events.[i] At the level of the individual, using storytelling for healing is often referred to as narrative therapy and it can be a particularly powerful tool to help individuals process traumatic experiences.[ii] Memories of trauma are often fragmented, especially when the trauma occurs in childhood – and can lead to a child experiencing a fragmented sense of the world and of themselves. Helping a child to build a narrative around these experiences can enable the construction of a more integrated sense of self. However, this usually takes place very gradually, and in order to avoid re-traumatisation it is crucial to first build a safe space in which this narration can occur.[iii] Once a cohesive picture of the experience begins to form, new possibilities emerge – for understanding the consequences of what has happened and recognising ways of dealing with these implications.[iv] An empathic and non-judgemental witness, or community of witnesses, can help the trauma survivor to re-establish trust in others, and provide validation by acknowledging the realness and injustice of their experience.[v]
When something traumatic, violent or contentious takes place, it often leads not only to fragmented memories, but also to multiple, potentially contradictory, narratives around the event or experience. This is true both intrapersonally and interpersonally. From an interpersonal point of view this is quite easy to grasp – there are always different sides to any story, as different people experience things from different perspectives. But even from an intrapersonal perspective, an individual who has experienced something traumatic is also likely to encounter multiple internal narratives and conflicting feelings around that event. Reconciling these conflicting feelings and stories (between and within individuals) can be painful work, but it can assist in processing the trauma and finding a way to move forward.[vi]
This process can become especially tricky when considering a society which has experienced trauma. At the level of society, we encounter whole communities who may express conflicting narratives. However, it is not enough to simply state that multiple narratives exist. In order to move on, it’s important to try to negotiate these intersecting narratives in such a way as to form a narrative that everyone can accept. Indeed, through being confronted with conflicting beliefs and experiences, our own narratives are able to evolve and grow.[vii] Nevertheless, the multiple narratives existing around a traumatic event may remain irreconcilable, and may not fit neatly into a simple story. As Pasupathi and colleagues put it in a recent commentary, “the need for complex stories requires people – individuals, groups and communities – to work hard to avoid losing complexity and over simplifying” (p. 50).[viii] The inter-generational sharing of stories (including, but of course not limited to, stories of traumatic experiences and resilience) can also play a critical role in allowing youth to access various aspects of their family and community history and culture, thereby contributing to the formation of their identity.[ix]
Narrative ‘therapy’ as it is used in the West is however poorly suited to the needs of vulnerable children and youth in the South African context. It is crucial that any narrative approach to supporting a community draws on the cultural stories, knowledge and skills inherent to that community itself.[x] Furthermore – as Ncazelo Ncube, a local narrative practitioner, has put forward very convincingly – the western emphasis on using therapy as a platform to express pain and grief can “trap practitioners and people seeking counselling services into problem-saturated accounts of life.” The result, “has been clearly overwhelming for both the individuals that seek our help and the counsellors providing support services” (p. 4).[xi] In response, Ncube has developed the ‘Tree of Life’ tool, which is now used internationally in work with child refugees and other groups of traumatised children and youth from non-western backgrounds.[xii],[xiii] This approach uses the metaphor of a tree to assist children in constructing a ‘second-story’ of their life; this is the story of their skills, abilities, hopes and dreams, and it is rooted in their culture and community. The ‘Tree of Life’ seems to be a highly effective method for creating a safe space for children to speak about the difficulties in their lives in a manner that is not re-traumatising.
At Doodle Your Future we similarly aim to use storytelling to empower our Doodlers. When they have the space and the tools to tell and actively shape their own life stories, their confidence blossoms. And when we are faced with difficulties, stories about how others have faced similar challenges can give us strength and help us to identify new ways of coping.[xiv] With this in mind, and to return to the unprecedented global health crisis we are currently facing, I’d like to end by sharing an online collection of narrative responses to the pandemic. Perhaps it can provide some food for thought, advice, support or even healing during this time. This lovely resource has been put together by the Dulwich Centre, an organisation which facilitates narrative approaches to therapy and community work world-wide, and can be accessed at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/narrative-responses-to-covid-19/.
Although this has been a very brief overview of narrative approaches as a path to healing, I hope that I have been able to give you some insight into why stories form a crucial part of Doodle Your Future’s work with our little Doodlers. After all, they are the ones who have the power to shape the narrative of the future.
Wishing you all the very best,
The Doodle team
[i] McClean, K. C., Pasupathi, M., & Pals., J. L. (2007). Selves creating stories creating selves: a process model of self-development. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 262-278, https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868307301034.
[ii] Schauer, M., Neuner, F., & Elbert, T. (2017). Narrative exposure therapy for children and adolescents. In M. Landolt, M. Cloitre & U. Schnyder (Eds.) Evidence-based treatments for trauma related disorders in children and adolescents. Springer International Publishing, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-46138-0_11.
[iii] Fredericks, M., Mcoyi, N., Shabalala, G., Paulsen, N., & Low-Shang, C. (2016). Political violence, children and trauma response. Matatu, 38, 75-102, https://doi.org/10.1163/9789042031036_007.
[iv] Macy, R. D., Macy, D. J., Gross, S. I., & Brighton, P. (2003). Healing in familiar settings: support for children and youth in the classroom and community. New Directions for Youth Development, 98, 51-79.
[v] Kaminer, D. (2006). Healing processes in trauma narratives: a review. South African Journal of Psychology, 36(3), 481-499, https://doi.org/10.1177/008124630603600304.
[vi] Gobodo-Madikizela, P., & Van der Merwe, C. (2016). A better past. Matatu (38), 173-185,https://doi.org/10.1163/9789042031036_012.
[vii] Wielinga, C. (2013). Shattered stories: healing and reconciliation in the South African context. Verbum et Ecclesia, 34, 1-8, https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v34i1.747.
[viii] Pasupathi, M., Fivush, R., & Hernandez-Martinez, M. (2016). Talking about it: stories as paths to healing after violence. Psychology of Violence, 6, 49-56, https://doi.org/10.1037/vio0000017.
[ix] Wallace, D. A., Pasick, P., Berman, Z., & Weber, E. (2014). Stories for hope – Rwanda: a psychological- archival collaboration to promote healing and cultural continuity through intergenerational dialogue. Archival Science, 14, 275-306, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-014-9232-2.
[x] Denborough, D. (2012). A storyline of collective narrative: a history of ideas, social projects and partnerships. International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 1, 40 -65.
[xi] Ncube, N. (2006). The tree of life project: using narrative ideas in work with vulnerable children in Southern Africa. International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 1, 3-16.
[xii] Jacobs, S. F. M. (2018). Collective narrative practice with unaccompanied refugee minors: “The Tree of Life” as a response to hardship. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 23, 279-293, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359104517744246.
[xiii] Stiles, D. A., Alaraudanjoki, E., Wilkinson, L. R., Ritchie, K. L., & Brown, K. A. (2019). Researching the effectiveness of Tree of Life: an Imbeleko approach to counselling refugee youth. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40653-019-00286-w.
[xiv] Murphy, K. (2020). You’re not listening: what you’re missing and why it matters. Celadon Books.