The Use of Narrative Therapy in the Transformative Work of Healing Painful Life Transitions

Helen Keller has said that “the only way to get to the other side is to go through the door.”  This is certainly true in the work of transforming painful emotions, such as those we experience after a divorce, into healing and growth. This process involves allowing ourselves to feel the intense emotions of grief – sadness, anger, despair and other difficult emotions, as well as tapping into our internal strengths and external sources of support.

Narrative therapy and has been used with a wide variety of difficulties and issues, including reactions to a major life transition.  The role of the narrative therapist is as collaborator or co-author with the client.  As such, the narrative therapist partners with the client to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life (White, 1995). The The

Narrative therapy is thus an empowering vehicle for “re-authoring lives” (Carr, 1998, p. 468; White, 1995), in which the therapist takes the role of a partner or collaborator with the client, rather than an authority figure (Angell, Dennis & Dumain, 1999).. The narrative therapist partners with the client to create a safe place to feel the emotions of loss and change, and to explore the stories that give meaning to the client’s life. The use of narrative or story is a useful vehicle for making meaning and sense of difficult experiences in our lives, by allowing us to access alternative cognitions and gain self-knowledge.

A narrative therapy tool that is often used in this work is the use of written expression, such as journaling and letter writing.  This can be a powerful vehicle for expressing the emotions of loss and change and accessing the individual’s unique internal strengths and resources.

The collaborative approach of the narrative therapist can be useful for accessing the client’s spiritual strengths by respectful inquiry into the client’s worldviews, including his or her beliefs before the loss, and how they may have changed since the loss, and discussing spiritual and existential issues that arise in this context. (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2000, p. 167).

As one gets in touch on a deep level with his or her own suffering and resiliency in the face of that suffering, he or she can begin to get a panoramic view of the human condition and tap into his or her spiritual strength. Religious and spiritual beliefs have been observed to be one way in which individuals create meaning and a sense of order and purpose to the human condition and its difficult transitions (Golsworthy & Coyne, 1999; Calhoun & Tedeschi 2000).

Narrative therapy can be an effective tool for working painful emotions and finding new meaning in one’s life.  The process of expression literally takes deep feelings out of the body, externalizing them so that they become workable. Through this process, my clients are able to see that they have some control over their lives, and can tap into their strengths and their inherent wisdom.  With my guidance as a partner on the path of healing painful life transitions, my clients can discover their unique strengths, resources and resiliency, deepen their spiritual beliefs, and enhance the meaning of their lives in the context of the human condition.

The Heroine’s Journey: The Modern Woman’s Quest for Professional and Personal Fulfillment

According to Carl Jung’s theory of human development, the first half of life is devoted to differentiation and development of one’s individual ego, and the goal of the second half of life is integration and a movement toward wholeness, also known as individuation.  Individuation is accomplished by developing the undeveloped side of one’s life.  Traditionally, for men, this entails developing the anima, the feminine capacities for nurturance, feeling and intuition. For women, this entails developing the animus, the masculine capacities for logical thinking, action and assertiveness.

However, my journey as a woman in the second half of life has taken a different path.  As a product of the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, I spent the first half of my life differentiating in a way that developed my male energy at the expense of my feminine nature.  I became an attorney in the male-oriented entertainment industry, and had to “act like a man” to succeed and survive.  I felt unfulfilled and incomplete as I moved into the second half of my life.  Being a high-powered attorney in New York City was no longer congruent with my changing identity.  As a result, when I turned 50, I become a psychotherapist in order to develop my nurturing, feminine and intuitive side, while also working as an attorney for musicians, and letting go of some of the trappings of my career as a New York corporate attorney.

The Process of Individuation

Carl Jung and Erik Erikson both emphasized adult development in their theories (Crain, 1992, p. 287).  For Erikson, the developmental task in mid-life is a choice between “generativity” and “stagnation.”  Staying on the outward-oriented path of ego development and differentiation without self-reflection can lead to stagnation and spiritual aridity. In contrast, turning inward with introspection in order to attain wholeness and balance in one’s life can lead to ego transcendence, and the ability to give back to younger generations, i.e., generativity.  Jung describes the journey toward integration as “our unconscious striving for centeredness, wholeness and meaning, …and inner urge to balance and reconcile the opposing aspects of our personalities,”  (Crain, 1992, p. 290).

Traditionally, the path to individuation is said to be achieved by developing “those unconscious parts of ourselves that carry the mystery of the sex that is not ours” (Singer, 1992, p. 134).  This model is not relevant for many modern women.  During the differentiation stage of the first half of life, high-achieving women by necessity developed the energy of the male sex, neglecting their feminine energy.  For such women, the path to individuation is a process of reuniting with the feminine qualities of their anima.

The Heroine’s Journey

Maureen Murdock’s book The Heroine’s Journey (1990) describes  the process of individuation for women like me as the “heroine’s journey.”   This journey entails (1) separation from the feminine (generally, the mother); (2) identification with the masculine and gathering of allies; (3) road of trials:  meeting ogres and dragons; (4) finding the boon of success; (4) awakening to feelings of spiritual aridity; (5) initiation and descent to the Goddess; (6) urgent yearning to reconnect with the feminine; (7) healing the mother/daughter split; (8) healing the wounded masculine; and (9) integration of masculine and feminine (Murdock, 1990, p. 5).

Murdock’s description aptly parallels my journey.  I separated from my mother to go to college to find a self-sufficient career.   I identified with my father as a successful professional, and gathered male allies during law school and as professional colleagues.  My road of trials entailed meeting ogres and dragons in the form of male bosses, competitors and back-stabbers.  I nonetheless prevailed and was highly successful.   However, this success became increasingly arid for me, and I descended into depression, yearning to reconnect with my nurturing, feminine spirit. In the process, the mother/daughter split was healed as I found my second half of life calling.


Therapists working with modern women can no longer rely on the traditional Jungian theories about the balancing of anima and animus to help those clients on their path to achieving personal and professional fulfillment.  For myself, I have known for some time that my anima and animus were out of balance, but the literature on the second half of life, emphasizing the development of the animus in women, did not fit my experience, and did not help me.  The heroine’s journey as described by Murdock is the first description I have found that validates my experience.  It is a valuable lesson for those working to assist women today in their search for wholeness and spiritual maturity.


Cooper, J.C. (2004).  An illustrated encyclopaieda of traditional symbols. New York:  Thames & Hudson

Crain, W. (1992).  Theories of development:  Concepts and applications (3rd ed.). New York:  Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Murdock, M. (1990). The heroine’s journey:  Woman’s quest for wholeness. Boston:  Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Singer, J. (1994).  Boundaries of the soul:  The practice of Jung’s psychology. New York:  Anchor Books.

Top Ten Communication Tips for Successful Relationships

A common reason that people see a psychotherapist or couples counselor is difficulties in communicating.  The key to good communication is being a good listener.  Here is  my top ten list for being a good listener:

1.  Stop what you are doing and be present.

2.  Allow the other person to finish his or her thought without finishing it for him or her.

3.  Avoid giving advice, unless it is specifically requested.

4. Let the other person know you have heard him or her by reflecting back what you have heard.

5.  Do not interrupt.

6.  Listen with your heart, not just your head.

7.  Listen for your triggers and take a deep breath.

8. Look directly at the person speaking.

9.  Keep your body language positive – avoid rolling your eyes, crossing your arms across your chest, etc.

10.  Slow down and breathe!

Today’s Top Ten on Healing Grief

Grief and loss are stressful — physically, emotionally and spiritually. Remember to take care of yourself.  Here are my top ten ways to transform loss into healing and growth:

1.  Eat nourishing foods.

2. Get plenty of rest.

3. Exercise — especially walking.

4.  Allow yourself to cry — and drink lots of water (crying is dehydrating).

5.  Surround yourself with loving people.

6. Journal — don’t worry about grammar or spelling!

7. Meditate.

8. Take a warm bath.

9.  Appreciate nature.

10. If your feelings are overwhelming, see a trained grief counselor or psychotherapist.