The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

Double Listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily; for example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels.  This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them.
However, people have many story lines running through their lives.  Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to?  In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people can fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid.  Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that ‘the problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

 

Eunice and Elaine share their 'strong story' of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because it challenges their values and who they are.  What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way?  What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened?  By exploring and thickening the strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience.  In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities.  I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”.
When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times.  In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare.  A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities.  Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers.  These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories.  The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.