"Notes on Using Storytelling for Therapy"
by Dr. Eric Miller (PhD in Folklore)
  June 2011

The time has come for Storytelling Therapy to take its place alongside Drama Therapy, Dance Therapy, Music Therapy, Visual Art Therapy, etc.

What is Storytelling Therapy?  It is, simply, using storytelling for therapy.  This can be done in many ways, as the below begins to describe.

Talk Therapy itself largely consists of Storytelling.  A major part of Talk Therapy is that the client tells about what happened in the past.  Client and therapist together review and discuss how things happened, why they happened, and perhaps how similar experiences (if negative) could be avoided in the future.  Thus, alternate possible ways that things could go are explored.

There is a difference between one’s life, and one’s life story.  One is at the centre of one’s life.  Thus, one may not have very much perspective regarding it.  Sometimes in one’s life, many things may be “up in the air”.  It may at times be difficult to detach oneself from one’s situation and view one’s situations in a cool and objective manner.  One may not always have a clear sense of where one is going.

On the other hand, when one constructs one’s life story, one is constructing an object, a story, that is distinct from one’s self, and that can be viewed as a whole.  One’s life story -- like any story -- has a beginning, middle, and end.  Thus, one’s life story may seem more manageable, and at times may be more inspirational and less anxiety-provoking, than one’s actual life.

If a client’s life -- and life story -- is not going according to plan, the client may wish to engage in “Life-Story Repair”.  Such repair work takes the difficulties into account, makes the best of the situation, and charts a new course towards an as happily-ever-after ending as possible.

When using storytelling for therapy, the stories may be supplied (recalled, composed, etc) by the therapist or by the client.  The client discussing a story, and perhaps telling a story to others, may help the client to grapple with and work through challenges that she or he may be facing in real life.

Whether a story's characters are humans, animals, divinities, aliens, etc -- all stories are composed of situations.  Storytellers and listeners can imagine themselves in a story’s situations, and can consider if they might do things the similarly or differently from how the characters are doing things.  This provides the tellers and listeners with opportunities to re-live past events, and to practice what they might do in future events.

Projection, Identification, Empathy, Imitation, and Imagination are key processes when it comes to people and storytelling.  People project themselves into story characters.  They tend to identify, and feel empathy, with the characters.  This occurs through the use of people’s powers of imagination.  People may then imitate the characters of their favourite stories.

In the course of Storytelling Therapy sessions, therapists and clients could make lists of challenging situations that clients may face in a wide range of contexts, including those in relation to:
1) Family members,
2) Colleagues and others in the workplace, and
3) Health, economic, sexual-orientation issues.

Then they could consider these challenging situations, and -- using their imaginations, their abilities to weave fantasy -- they could compose and tell stories based on these situations.  These stories could be called, healing stories.  Various possible endings to these healing stories could be explored.

It may be that the client's healing may occur most powerfully when the client creates or finds his/her own healing stories, and when the client tells such stories to others and leads discussions about these stories.  It is good for the client to be in an active role -- as much as possible -- in relation to the Storytelling Therapy process.

Three types of stories one could work with in the Storytelling Therapy process are:
1) True-Life (Autobiographical) Stories, and other Documentary Stories.
2) Traditional Stories (Epics, Fables, Fairy Tales, etc).
3) Made-up Stories.

Therapists and clients might also consider ways in which the imaginative, oral verbal, physical, and social processes of storytelling could be therapeutic.


The above material provides some background thoughts in relation to Chennai Storytelling Festival 2014, scheduled for 7 Fri, 8 Sat, and 9 Sun Feb 2014.  This is a teaching-and-learning festival, featuring three days of free storytelling-related workshops (a number of which people could participate in via videoconference).


The above material is also providing guidelines for the Storytelling Therapy component in the year-long Diploma Course on Expressive Arts Therapy being offered in Chennai by the East-West Center for Counselling, and Women’s Christian College (annually, from Dec to Nov).

This Storytelling Therapy component would be led by Dr Eric Miller (Storytelling resource person) and Ms Magdalene Jeyarathnam (Counselling resource person).

In this course of study, participants would engage in numerous activities in which they would later be able to lead their clients.

Expressive Arts Therapy utilises various modalities for therapeutic purposes, including forms of Storytelling, Drama, Dance, and Visual Arts.

Dr Eric Miller (Director, World Storytelling Institute) is a Scholar and Trainer in regard to Storytelling.  He is not a Therapist, and thus does not use storytelling for therapy with clients (his PhD is in Folklore). 

However, Chennai's Center for Counselling does have Counsellors on staff who are trained in the therapeutic uses of stories and storytelling (as well as in the other Expressive Arts Therapy modalities).

Even those who might not be enrolled in the year-long Expressive Arts Therapy Course may apply to attend the Course's three-day training component in Using Storytelling for Therapy.  This training will also be available independently of the year-long Course, with customisable duration and content. 

For further info, please contact Ms Magdalene Jeyarathnam, 98841 00135, info@centerforcounselling.org ; and Dr Eric Miller, 98403 94282, info@storytellinginstitute.org .