Telling Painful Memories: Recommendations for Counselors


[What is below was shared with Rwandan caregivers and counselors. It is written in simpler English and has no footnotes. Academically oriented readers will recognize the interventions come from narrative exposure therapy models for children].

Counselors invite others to tell their stories of pain, heartache, fears, and traumas so that they can find relief from their troubles. However, not every way of talking about past problems is helpful and some ways of talking can actually harm the person. So, it is important that all caregivers and counselors understand how to help others tell their difficult stories in ways that invite recovery and do not harm.

Good Storytelling Practices

Counselors who do the following can encourage healthy and safe storytelling of difficult events:

  1. Allow the client to tell their story at their own pace without pressure
  2. Allow the client not to tell a part of their story
  3. Use silence and body language to show interest
  4. Encourages the use of storytelling without words (art, dance, etc.) or with symbols
  5. Ensures the difficult stories start and end at safe points
  6. Encourages good coping skills before story telling
  7. Points out resiliency and strength in the midst of trauma
  8. Encourages the story to be told from the present rather than reliving the story

Unhelpful Practices

Here are some things that we should avoid doing when helping another tell a difficult story

  1. Frequent interruptions
  2. Forcing the person to tell their story
  3. Asking the person to relive the story
  4. Avoiding painful emotions
  5. Exhorting the person to get over the feelings; telling them how to feel
  6. Only talking about the trauma, ignoring strengths and other history
  7. Ending a session without talking about the present or a safe place

**Trigger Warning: rape, threatened violence

A Case Study With 2 Storytelling Interventions

Patience, a 13 year old girl, suffered a rape on her way to school last month. The rapist’s family paid a visit to the girl’s family and offered money as a token of penance. The girl’s father accepted the money because, “nothing can make the rape go away so we will take the money for now.” Patience was told by some family members to not tell anyone about the rape and to just act as if it never happened. However, Patience is suffering from nightmares, refuses to go to school, and sometimes falls down when she catches a glimpse of the rapist in town. Her father has threatened to beat her if she doesn’t return to school or help out with the chores at home. Her favorite aunt, a counselor/caregiver, learns about the rape and asks her to come for a visit in a nearby city.

[Warning: these two interventions are not designed to rid a person immediately of all trauma symptoms. In addition, these interventions must be used only after a counselor has formed a trusting relationship with the client.]

  1. Symbolic story telling. The aunt tells Patience that keeping a story bottled up inside can cause problems, like shaking a bottle of soda until it bursts out. Using a long piece of rope (representing her entire life) and flowers (representing positive experiences) and rocks (representing difficult experiences), the aunt directs Patience to tell her life story. They start with her first memories of her mother, father and two brothers. She tells of her going to school, the time when her mother got really sick but then got better again, the time when her cousins moved away, and the time when a boy told her he liked her. Patience noticed how she had many flowers along the rope and only a few rocks. Then, they put a large stone down on the rope representing the rape. Patience had difficulty saying much at all. She remembered being afraid, the weight of the man, the pain, and worry that her family would reject her. She remembered getting up and going to school and acting as if nothing happened. Her aunt noted that Patience was a strong girl—she had gone to school for a week before telling her mother. So, Patience placed a tiny flower next to the rock to represent that strength. After stopping for a cup of tea and some bread, the aunt asked Patience to notice how much more rope was left. This represented her future. Patience was surprised to see the rope and said that she didn’t think she would have a future now that she was spoiled. Her aunt encourages her to consider what she would like to be in her future. They continued to discuss this over the next day. By the time Patience returned home, she was able to see that she still had a future. Seeing the rapist still bothered her. However, she was able to go to school with two friends along a new path so that she would feel safe. Patience kept a drawing of the rope with the flowers and rocks and extra rope to remind her that she had a good future.
  2. Accelerated Storytelling. About six months later, Patience visited her aunt again. She was still going to school and able to do more chores (getting firewood and buying food in the market). However, she still suffered from nightmares and sometimes fell down when she heard footsteps behind her. This time, her aunt asked her to help create a “movie” of event. Before Patience was to narrate the rape, they first recounted the safety she felt at home before the rape and the safety she felt when she told her mother about the rape and was comforted. Next, her aunt asked her to identify all of the “actors” in the play: her mother, father, herself, brothers who went to school without her, classmates, teacher, and rapist. Patience then made a figurine out of paper for each actor and drew a small map of her village including the path from home to school. Then, the aunt asked her to tell her story as fast as she could from safe place to safe place and to only look at the figurines (and to move them along the map). Her aunt noted those places where Patience slowed down in the story. When she paused, the aunt asked her to try to keep moving. Once the story was complete (when she told her mother about the rape), she asked Patience to tell the story backwards as quickly as possible. Then, she instructed Patience to tell the story forwards again twice as fast. However, this time, Patience stopped part way through the story. She added one detail she had not disclosed before. She recalled that a young boy of about 5 was peering at them from behind some bushes. Her aunt encouraged her to finish the story and thanked her for her courage. Patience indicated that she was so ashamed of being seen in such a position. Again, her aunt thanked her for working so hard but asked her to tell her story forwards and backwards one more time. Patience noticed that she was less upset by the presence of the 5 year old than she had been the first time through the story.
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1 Comment

Filed under Abuse, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills

One response to “Telling Painful Memories: Recommendations for Counselors

  1. Thanks for posting this. It is always helpful to be reminded about how to help others tell their stories.

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