Healing the Past through Story

By Mullet, Judy H.; Akerson, Nels M. K. et al. | Adult Learning, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Healing the Past through Story


Mullet, Judy H., Akerson, Nels M. K., Turman, Allison, Adult Learning


Abstract: Stories matter, and the stories we tell ourselves matter most. Truth has many layers and narrative helps us makes senses of our multilayered reality. We live a personal narrative that is grounded in our past experience, but embodied in our present. As such, it filters what we see and how we interpret events. Attachment theorists tell us our early experiences with caregivers flavor interactions with others; we engage, avoid, become overanxious, or behave inconsistently based on the story formed in childhood interactions. In other words, we can become stuck in a childhood story that no longer serves a survival purpose. Narrative psychologists report we can grow into a secure adult attachment mode by bringing new meaning to the old story. Thus, how we interpret those stories through retelling can help to heal the past. Adult learners bring their life stories into the classroom and the nature of those stories either enhance or impede learning. The purpose of this article is to share current research and practice in narrative psychology and critical theory, as applied to adult learners, and to suggest ways to bring healing through story retelling and story-editing processes within personal narrative papers. Adult learners bring new meaning to their life stories by (a) recognizing other stories as alternatives to the stuck story, (b) addressing the magic question, and (c) practicing multiple perspective taking. The facts do not change, but how learners view the facts makes a difference in how they embrace new learning challenges.

Keywords: narratives, healing, adult education, autobiographies, adult learning

Everything changes when you tell about life.

Sartre, 1959, p. 57

**********

Everyone comes to the learning community with baggage. Sometimes the baggage impedes academic, social, and vocational growth. How can mentors and teachers facilitate the healing process through the age-old process of storytelling and story framing? The purpose of this article is to share current research and practice in narrative psychology and critical theory, as applied to adult learners, and to suggest ways to bring healing through story retelling and story-editing processes within personal narrative papers. Let's begin with three stories.

I (lead author) chose my favorite jacket for the final interview. After flying in for one last round of questions with board representatives, I immediately sensed something was wrong. Formerly friendly search committee interviewers would not look me in the eye at breakfast. The board's questions to me seemed perfunctory. Then, in a small group meeting, the director announced, "I'm sorry, but we've decided to extend our search ... "I was out. I never wore that jacket again. When I look at it, I feel a flash of pain.

Recently a friend shared the story of how she wrote poetry during her journey through an emergency hospitalization episode. She noted she cannot bring herself to write poetry again. To her, poetry equals pain.

Justin's wife of 10 years died suddenly from a heart attack. Six months later, Justin died in a motorcycle accident. Known as the widowhood effect, losing a spouse increases mortality risk in the months and years following a spouse's death (Martikainen & Valkonen, 1996). Memories of shared experiences and thoughts of people we have lost cue pain, too.

In these three stories, a jacket, poetry, and a spouse are innocuous victims of what happened around them. However, they symbolize and can cue deep underlying pain that continues to shape lives. The events of our lives--the facts--do not change, but the interpretation of the events will hinder or help future growth. Viewpoint must change and viewpoint is housed within the stories we tell ourselves. When we become stuck in a personal harm-filled story, it rules our lives, predicts our actions, and keeps us from living our potential.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Harm Happens

The facts do not change as we remember the harm, but the way we interpret the facts can change over time (Siegel, 2012). …

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