Storytelling in Counseling Is Often the Key to Successful Outcomes By Dan Bates, LMHC on 12/6/22 - 2:11 PM

Clients come in all shapes and sizes, seeking services for a wide range of reasons. No two clients are alike. But I have noticed something that many of my clients seem to share when they first come to counseling: they all want to tell their story.

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I mean, it makes sense. When I visit my medical doctor about my aching lower back and they want to know about physical symptoms, I, on the other hand, want to tell them the story of how my aching lower back came to be. When a client comes to counseling and I want to hear about mental health symptoms, they, on the other hand, want to tell the story of their mental health. People think in terms of stories. People live their lives in terms of stories. Memories are organized around stories, and hopes and dreams travel along narrative lines too. It’s no wonder why a client would want to tell their story when starting out therapy.

My Early Experiences

I didn’t always hold stories in high regard. When I first started out in counseling, I became rather annoyed with clients when they launched into what felt like a long-winded story. “Just answer my question” or “Just tell me the facts” I would think to myself. Stories, in my mind, were just ways for clients to frustrate me and drag out the process. I didn’t realize or capitalize on the therapeutic power contained within stories until I realized that stories are more than straightforward vehicles for communicating information.

Stories are a way for clients to share who they are. They are doorways for connecting with a client. They contain feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, fears, worries and more, all wrapped up in a narrative about the client’s major life experiences. I’ve come to realize that listening to a client’s story is incredibly important. As a counselor, I have slowly learned that I should not allow myself to feel rushed, or hurried by the demands of billing insurance, scheduling, lunch breaks, consultations, supervision, records requests, and the mounting unwritten therapy notes that await completion of the client’s story. Slowing down and listening to the client's story is the key to exploring their intricacies.

The Therapeutic Power of Storytelling

There’s another dimension to storytelling, though, that I’ve haven’t mentioned. Storytelling is a two-way street. The client tells me their story, but I also tell the client their story back. Telling a client’s story to them allows them to reflect, to take perspective on aspects of their experience they may not have considered. Furthermore, I may highlight certain aspects of a story that the client often neglects or avoids. By listening with intent and curiosity, I can shine the spotlight on a client’s resilience and fortitude, even in the face of tremendous suffering and challenging circumstances.

But telling a client’s story doesn’t always have to be a matter of sunshine and roses, and may instead reflect the dark parts of a client’s narrative and life. It can be deeply affirming and validating for a client to hear their pain acknowledged, to know that what they went through mattered, and that it played a crucial role in shaping them. Storytelling is life-affirming. It coheres disparate elements of a client’s life into a continuous narrative that imbues them with a sense of purpose and meaning.

Storytelling in Practice

My perspective on the importance of storytelling’s role in counseling isn’t just theoretical. I’ve come to this view by working through the trenches of clients' heartbreaking, tragic, bitter stories. One case in particular stands out. I remember working with a single mother of an especially challenging child. For his age, this child was very angry, aggressive, and prone to violent outbursts.

The mother attributed much of the behavior she saw in her child to the abuse and violence he witnessed from his father who was no longer in the picture. I worked with the family for some time, but it always seemed as though little progress was made. The mother, however, possessed an indomitable and unwavering belief in her son. Despite the family’s difficult past and her son’s concerning behavior, she saw strength and potential in him. She viewed their past as an opportunity to grow and develop in new patterns that would not resemble the abusive father.

“Defender of the Weak”

At particularly difficult moments with her son the mother would say, “This is not who you are. You are a kind, strong, caring young man, who will grow up to be a defender of the weak.” This was a powerful narrative the mother was giving her son, one that allowed him to conceptualize his behavior in such a way that he knew it was wrong, but not representative of who he was. Instead, it gave him a sense of who he could be.

After an especially bad week marked by multiple setbacks, I took a moment with the mother to share with her the story she had told me. “I see a strong mother, who despite her circumstances, is relentlessly committed to her son. I see a mother who believes the best in her son; whose every action slowly pours goodness and kindness into him. And one day, all that hard work will pay off. With each investment of time and love, your son will grow to be a kind and caring man before your very eyes.” As I shared this story with her, I could see her eyes well up. She said, “Thank you.”

After our professional relationship ended and several years had passed, I bumped into her at a coffee shop. Doing my best to protect her confidentiality, I proceeded to order my coffee and not disturb her. Having apparently seen me, she stopped me and shared that her son was an entirely different person than the young boy I knew. He was doing better in school, no longer violent, and treated her with respect and kindness. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. This case was one that always stood out in my memory. When working with them, I had very little hope that the young man would come around.


Many factors played an important role in the young man’s journey. But from my perspective, a great deal of importance should be attributed to his mother’s strength-based, life-giving, love-fueled narrative that she willed into existence. I also believe that the affirming and hopeful narrative sustained her just as much as it did him. The kinds of stories clients construct and tell about themselves shape the kinds of lives they live. The journey of the mother, her son, and myself are living proof of that.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections