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What do you do when clients’ “life story” narratives interfere with healthy action?

By Robyn Walser, PhD

Our clients have rich and meaningful life stories. Some are painful and are directly related to why they are seeking therapy. Life stories may involve a current crisis or a core narrative about a client’s life, such as being a victim or helpless. It is important to acknowledge these stories with compassion.

However, these same stories can also serve to keep clients stuck.

This process involves a stated or unstated desire to have the story be different. The client may wish that it didn’t happen or want the memories and pain of the stories to go away. Sometimes this very focus—hoping the story will change—can keep the client waiting in ways that stop vitality.

Here, you can be present to the story, but also focus on the workability of trying to change what can’t be changed—history will not be undone. You can work with clients to see how the story is working in their lives. Is holding on to the narrative functioning to keep them stuck or helping them move forward in valued directions? You can ask, “If your story is 100 percent correct given all of its pain and difficulty and there is no argument to its validity, what will come next in your life? More of this story, or something else?”

This must be done from an equal and vulnerable position, as these kinds of questions are designed to loosen the grip that the client has on the story so that new and more vital action is possible. Finding the function of the story will be far more useful in treatment than exploring its content. 

Robyn D. Walser, PhD, is the assistant director at the National Center for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. She also works as a consultant, workshop presenter, and therapist in her private business, TLConsultation Services. She has been doing ACT workshop trainings, both nationally and internationally, since 1998, training in multiple formats and for multiple client problems. Walser has co-authored 3 books including Learning ACT, The Mindful Couple and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma-Related Problems.

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