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Review of "101 Healing Stories"

By George W. Burns
John Wiley & Sons, 2001
Review by Eduardo Keegan on Jan 28th 2003
101 Healing Stories

George W. Burns, an experienced Eriksonian psychotherapist, is indeed a master in the art of using stories for healing purposes. As Michael Yapko puts it in his foreword to the book: “Burns is a keen observer of people, and his sensitivity and perceptiveness are immediately evident in the gentle way he talks to us through the stories he tells”.

The art of using metaphors is one of those aspects of psychotherapy that cause both fascination and anxiety among trainees. Experienced and skillful psychotherapists such as Burns fascinate their audiences with their elegance and effectiveness at using healing stories. But this also causes anxiety because trainees may not know how to attain this level of skill. Burns says this book is a result of a frequent demand of professionals attending his seminars and lectures, eager to learn the secrets of effective therapeutic storytelling. Interestingly, Burns does not take the stance of a hermetic Zen master, but comes up with a generous book revealing all the mysteries, rules and tricks of professional storytelling.

Hence, the book is structured in a way that allows a systematic use of stories, by providing 101 model stories, explaining how to make them metaphoric and tell them effectively and, finally, by indicating sources for therapeutic tales. These goals are reflected in the three parts in which the book is divided.

The first part is devoted to metaphor therapy. This section deals with the theoretical, clinical and practical aspects of stories in psychotherapy.

The second part, divided into ten chapters, presents 100 stories. Each chapter deals with a specific therapeutic outcome (covering the themes suggested by Burns’ trainees). Each chapter begins with a description of the therapeutic outcome and concludes with an exercise relevant to that particular outcome goal.

The third and final part offers guidelines and sources for the reader to create his/her own outcome-oriented stories. These are described in an uncomplicated manner, addressing issues of technique and of structure.

The section on metaphor therapy analyzes the power of stories to discipline, invoke emotions, inspire, change and create mind/body feats. According to Burns, “metaphors in therapy are designed to be a form of indirect, imaginative, and implied communication with clients about experiences, processes or outcome that may help them solve their literal problems. Therapeutic metaphors may include stories, tales, anecdotes, jokes, proverbs, analogies or other communications. What distinguishes them from other tales, stories or anecdotes is the combination of a) their purposefully designed, symbolic communication and b) their specific healing or therapeutic intention” (page 29).

The author also highlights the fact that many different psychotherapeutic traditions have endorsed the use of metaphors in therapy. I remember, for instance, a recent article by Arthur Freeman about the use of metaphors in standard cognitive therapy, which presents similar arguments to those offered by Burns from a very different theoretical background.

The ten therapeutic themes covered in the second part of the book are: enhancing empowerment, acquiring acceptance, reframing negative attitudes, changing patterns of behavior, learning from experience, attaining goals, cultivating compassion, developing wisdom, caring for yourself and enhancing happiness. These topics were, according to the author, suggested by trainees in Eriksonian psychotherapy. What I like about these topics and the stories, is that they are relevant for treatments dealing with mental disorders or just personal growth, however artificial this categorization may be.

I must admit that the stories about wise Oriental masters evoke in me John Lennon’s acid remarks about the Maharishi rather than New Age feelings of intellectual depth. But Burns is quite aware of this possibility and suggests in a passage of the book that Zen masters are probably not good role models for every patient.

The design of the book is very much in line with its inspiration as a practical tool for therapists. Topics are easy to find and the whole presentation is very systematic. Exercises are highlighted by a gray background, and there is a generous use of blank space that makes the book readable, even if the print is relatively small.

In sum, I would highly recommend the book to psychotherapists of all backgrounds and levels of training interested in using therapeutic metaphors in a competent and systematic manner.

© 2003 Eduardo Keegan

Eduardo Keegan, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapies, School of Psychology, University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina