Systems, Stories and Trauma
Dr Leonie White
Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Co-Director Queensland Institute of Family Therapy
When I first started working in a child and youth mental health setting three things happened that had a huge impact on my work and direction in life:
1. I was invited to join the Family Therapy team.
2. A mentor introduced me to Michael White’s work.
3. I was allocated a caseload including young people who had experienced trauma.
The young people I worked with who had been affected by trauma generally presented with a number of concerns including ‘trauma symptoms’ (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance), low mood and anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and a very negative sense of self that often resulted in relational conflict, substance use, the use of self-harm to cope, and at times thoughts of suicide. They attracted the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (and sometimes other diagnoses too) and in the mental health setting I thought about them from the perspective of Complex or Relational Trauma.
In the course of getting to know the young people and being allowed into their world I started to understand that within the mental health setting we could diagnose and work on ‘symptom relief’, we could develop strategies to manage the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, learn coping skills and increase distress tolerance, and we could use psychoeducation to learn about what was happening. For some this was helpful and empowering…..and for some the legacy of the trauma was persistent and problematic and refused to budge from these approaches alone.
The legacy of the trauma seemed at times more powerful and problematic than the ‘trauma symptoms’ (things like flashbacks and hypervigilance) for some young people and their families/carers. The legacy of the trauma invited them into negative conclusions about themselves, their identity and capacities, the nature of relationships, their place in the world and the possibility of hope. It would also invite the people I worked with to think of themselves in insolation struggling alone, rather than being a part of a ‘system’ of some sort – a family or group of people who cared about them, or as part of a community.
Noticing the importance of the legacy of the trauma I started to investigate why and how it was so powerful, drawing from my growing understanding of Family Therapy and connection to Narrative Practice.
I realised a couple of key things:
The stories we pay attention to really matter.
Of all the things that happen in life and all the stories, we only seem to pay attention to some.
Our relationships and context shape which stories we pay attention to.
Context is more than family and community, it is broader considerations like transgenerational history and patterns, culture, era in time, and socioeconomic factors.
Relationships and families are meaning making systems that shape not just the selection of stories we pay attention to, but the meaning we make in those stories.
We make meaning through language, in conversation, in relationships.
Some relationships and conversations contribute to negative identity conclusions like… “It was my fault” or “I’m damaged”.
Other relationships and conversations contribute to a different type of identity conclusion like… “That was awful, but I have come out the other side. I am a survivor”.
Some cultural values invite an ‘individualistic’ perspective that contributes to a sense of isolation and a loss of connection and community.
And this gave me great hope.
I realised that if it was through conversation in relationships that people make meanings that are unhelpful and erode and undermine their sense of identity, then it is within conversation and relationship that we as helping professionals have the opportunity to:
Deconstruct unhelpful problem saturated stories, including societal myths that perpetuate some unhelpful stories.
Support people to realise that they are not the problem - the trauma is - and that they can decrease the problem’s influence.
Help families unite against ‘the Trauma’, to view the trauma as a shared and conquerable event.
Help people see themselves as part of something bigger, and not isolated and alone in their experiences and healing.
Build a stronger sense of self – a more solid ‘territory of identity’.
Pay attention to what people give value to, their goals, hopes, wishes, knowledge and skills, dreams, and personal principles.
Help people see that they are the author of their lives and develop alternative, preferred stories – using conversations to shape a new reality based on aspects of life they had not been noticing or valuing.
Support people to reengage with life in preferred ways.
Support the development of meaning and personal agency.
Thinking about identity as a ‘territory’ that had been eroded by the trauma and paying attention to stories that stand outside the problem does not mean that stories of trauma and pain are invalidated or displaced. It means that we find another place for people to stand to give expression to their experiences of trauma without being defined by these experiences.
This type of listening is a ‘deep listening’ and involves in the words of Michael White “[Listening] for signs of what the person has continued to give value to in life despite all that they have been through, and for any expressions that might provide some hint of the person’s response to trauma” (White, 2004: 47). And then, “Atolls in the midst of stormy seas become islands on which safety and sustenance can be found…then archipelagos, and eventually continents of security that open other worlds of life” (White, 2004: 59).
Put simply our lives are composed of stories, and finding ways to tell our stories, connect to the stories of our lives, make meaning of our stories, and re-story experiences in ways that fit a preferred or alternate storyline is healing and a pathway to growth and wellbeing.
It was almost 17 years ago when I first began my journey with family systems, stories, and trauma. I am incredibly grateful for the introduction to Family Therapy and Narrative Practice at that time and privileged to be a part of the journey of the young people and their families I supported then and now.
I am innately a lover of stories for their power and potential to help, and I believe in the words of Mary Catherine Bateson “The human being thinks in metaphors and learns through stories”. I wonder what you will make of this story and what stories you will pay attention to in your work.
Photo attribution - Vecteezy Pro
Smith, E. (2017). The Power of Meaning: The True Route to Happiness. Rider: London.
White, M. (2004). Working with people who are suffering the consequences of multiple trauma: A narrative perspective. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1, 44 – 73.
White, M. (2005). Children, trauma and subordinate storyline development. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 3 & 4, 10 – 22.
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute professional advice.