No man is an island – it’s true. But more than that, no man is a floating island – we are anchored in our relationships, from the very beginning. We aren’t isolated islands. As children, our parents are the stronger and wiser ones we expect to rescue us, and provide refuge to soothing shores when waters become stormy. The first line of each of our stories reads the same: “once upon a time there was a relationship”; it is from that point, we set sail.
My client told me a story about an island and his dad. It was in every way a sweet story. As a child, every bedtime my client’s dad would tell him stories about going to Chocolate Island. It was their magical fantasy place, but even more magical were the relationship ingredients involved in those adventures – closeness, togetherness and playfulness. I could not imagine a sweeter setting to build and strengthen a relationship. Or a more safe setting to learn about life. After all, where better to deal with hopes and fears and dreams than dreamy Chocolate Island?
And stories do build relationships. Stories are universal, and it’s something that comes naturally to us. We tell stories without even thinking that we are, every day – we tell others about what’s going on in our lives. Whether it’s small talk or big talk, at its heart, it’s a story – it’s about making sense of what’s happened and finding meaning. After all, stories are always about something. With a story, there is a teller and a listener. There is eye-contact and emotional attunement and engagement – all of these things help us to feel that we are not, emotionally, stranded on an island.
Recipes are just like stories – we reproduce them. We hear them, we read them, and we revise them. My client’s story of Chocolate Island would have been different from his dad’s, it would have been his version. But no less meaningful. Or enchanting. There was a warmth and a glow to his tale, and as he told it to me I was taken somewhere where I was curled up on a plush armchair with a mug of milky hot chocolate – this time however, I was the listener warm under the blanket and he was the storyteller. When we reproduce a recipe, we get a dish at the end. But when we reproduce a story, there is no literal result. Instead, it’s a feeling or a sense that we’re left with, and often it’s one of connection. And in therapy, those are the sweetest moments.
Stories are what therapy is all about. And just like any other kind of storytelling, it’s natural and spontaneous. And this is what makes the therapeutic process creative and interesting. Therapy is a set of stories, built up over time. It involves recounting, re-telling, re-describing, and to a certain extent, re-living, those stories. The key part of this ‘re’ process in therapy is moving the story on, or opening the story out. Together, my client and I opened his story out. And by doing so, he let me in, and shared something about what matters to him in his life.
Perhaps the most important part of the storytelling process in therapy is that it’s not one-way – somebody is listening. There is reciprocity and interaction. This helps to create a safe and secure setting to tell your story, and to deal with some of the more difficult feelings. Stories can help us reflect on and make sense of our lives – what we know and what we don’t know, what we understand and what we feel, what’s possible and what matters. It’s like holding up a mirror to all of this – we are able to see ourselves. But if we tell that story to another person, they can see us. And there’s nothing more powerful than being seen. Remember, you’ll never be seen if you don’t show. Show and tell your story.
My recipe for Crunchie caramel île flottante with orange blossom crème anglaise was inspired by this story.