The Power of Story

Posted by on Nov 8, 2012 in Blog, Copywriting, Marketing | 1 comment

The Power of Story

Originally published October 31, 2012 in The Garden Island newspaper (Kauai, HI), this article is specific to my other work, facilitating groups at the YWCA. Yet it illustrates how story can deliver a powerful message about most anything, and indirectly but deeply influence an audience.

Experience teaches, not words. But sometimes words remind us of what we already know — the truths that we know not just in our head, but in our body, in our soul, in our DNA. Story works on that primitive level of consciousness.

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month and it’s important to recognize those that are suffering and those who are working towards healing. When an adult is convicted and sentenced for abuse of a family or household member (spouse or former spouse) the State of Hawai‘i requires participation in a 26-week domestic violence intervention or batterer intervention program. The YWCA’s Alternatives to Violence (ATV) Program has been meeting or exceeding the state standards for treatment since 1985.

The skill-building curriculum of the ATV Program is rich with content for the mind, but it’s the stories that are the heart of the program. The group process allows participants to learn, not only from their own experiences, but from each other’s.

The program’s rolling admission policy means that people can start when they’re ready, and that newcomers fold in with group members who already have months of practice with life skills such as:

• managing their negative feelings

• communicating in assertive and respectful ways

• adjusting their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in relationship to others

• being accountable for their actions

New arrivals can benefit from the experience of these “uncles,” as someone new to substance abuse treatment can benefit from the “experience, strength and hope” of those who’ve gone before them in recovery.

Clients have typically been through a long legal process by the time they’re court-ordered to ATV, and understandably come into treatment with a defensive mindset. They may feel like victims of the system, or their partners, or both.

It’s often late in the 26-week program that “the light comes on” and a shift in attitude and behavior happens. This involves taking responsibility for their part in creating their circumstances. Only then can the real work of recovery begin.

Cutting corners on the 52 hours (26 weeks) of treatment required by the state judiciary can mean cutting offenders loose before the light even comes on. Clients may still be going through the motions when they “graduate” from a short program, paying lip service to teachings without working the program. Change takes time. And practice. And motivation.

In the case of “Kimo” (all names have been changed to protect confidentiality), motivation came from catching himself behaving like his own abusive father, something he swore he would never do. He was determined to break the cycle of abuse, and voluntarily enrolled in the ATV Program. He practiced “re-thinking instead of re-acting,” as he put it, and developed patience and understanding he never thought possible. Kimo is breaking a multi-generational “chain of pain” and sharing his new skills with his young children. When a parent acknowledges that (s)he was wrong and has learned a better way, it gives a powerful message to a child in the form of a story — with a beginning, a middle, and an end — and a moral that sticks.

Another client, “Jerry,” was resistant to talking about his arrest incident during his first months of treatment. During this period, he was filled with shame and remorse for how abusive he had been to his wife and daughter back when he was smoking ice, and he wanted to leave all that in the past.

Toward the end, though, he broke through, shared his worst nightmare with his peers, and found tremendous relief and healing in the sharing. He went home and wrote down his story, then suggested his wife and daughter do the same from their points of view. A deep healing took place within Jerry and within his family.

If he had taken the short cut of a short program, he may never have reached the state of peace and self-forgiveness that brought this family to a closeness they had never known before. Jerry is a hero in the eyes of his family because of the transformation he made by getting “real” in the last weeks of his treatment program. It’s an epic story.

In group, we encourage awareness of the stories we tell ourselves — also known as our self-talk — and challenge those patterns of thought that are dysfunctional. Attitudes and beliefs are just stories we’ve told ourselves (or others have told us) so many times that we believe them. But if those stories no longer serve us, we have the option of changing our “perspectacles” and re-writing the story, even creating a better ending.

If the first conclusion we jump to about a situation doesn’t feel good and is not helpful, we can consciously generate other interpretations and responses that feel and work better. We can learn to recognize the distortions in our thinking such as personalizing, all-or-nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, jumping to conclusions, etc.

In group discussion, a story can help people open up to an alternate way of seeing and being in relationship, where a head-on confrontation might shut them down in defensiveness or denial.

For example, someone who’s controlling in their intimate partnership might see themselves in a story about a kid on the playground saying to another kid, “You’re not the boss of me!” Someone else’s story reminds us that, from a very young age, none of us want to be controlled.

Children who grow up with violence, even verbal and emotional abuse, benefit profoundly when their parents learn to sort out their differences without blaming and attacking each other, and to value fairness and equality in the partnership.

“Kawika” told a story about his young daughter sitting at the dinner table, chin resting on her folded hands, looking back and forth from Dad to Mom to Dad to Mom, as they calmly and respectfully worked through a disagreement after dinner. She was curious. She had never witnessed this level of cooperation and mutual respect between her parents when discussing a charged issue. She liked this new vibe.

The couple’s new agreements on how to treat one another had brought a new level of safety and harmony into the household. And the children in that household are now far less likely to become abusive themselves.

A recent review of 6 years’ worth of ATV client satisfaction surveys showed widespread appreciation for classmates’ stories, as well as having a safe place to tell their own. The high value graduates placed on program tools was also striking, notably time-outs, self-talk, thinking before acting, respectfully speaking up for oneself, meditation, breathing and relaxation skills, active listening and other communication skills, awareness of the 3-part brain and other anger management skills, problem-solving skills, and greater respect for (and patience with) others. The surveys themselves were packed with inspiring little stories.

Some ATV stories live on within the walls of the group room, shared to remind others of who they really are and what they already know, and that they are not walking this path alone.

Linda Pizzitola, M.Ed. is a clinical group facilitator for the YWCA of Kaua‘i Alternatives to Violence Program.

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One response to “The Power of Story”

  1. Pohai Kirkland says:

    very well written. i like it alot! yes…i agree stories/mo`olelo in Hawaiian…are truly very healing & can be soooo inspirational. mahalo 4 sharing this!

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