In my last post I shared a book that has made a profound impact on me. It’s called Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience by David Denborough.
As I read this book so many things about the nature of stories and their role in human life came into sharp focus. Things that I have been working out for years on my own but could only vaguely express in comparison to the clarity I found in this book.
Just having the idea of using story to work through trauma or a crisis of identity validated was a big deal for me. I knew it was possible (because I had done it in my own life) but I was completely unaware that there was a whole subset of psychologists and therapists dedicated to using stories (in a non-religious context) to heal and empower people all over the world.
To discover this has filled me with a new wellspring of passion for learning all that I can about the power, utility, and essential nature of stories. And of course, sharing those lessons with anyone who cares to read this blog.
That’s why I’m excited to share an exercise from Denborough’s book called The Tree of Life. It’s something literally anyone can do in under an hour and yet the results can positively shape the rest of your life.
The Tree of Life Concept
The tree of life concept is pretty simple and straightforward. It is a visual metaphor in which a tree represents your life and the various elements that make it up–past, present, and future.
By labeling these parts, you not only begin to discover (or perhaps rediscover) aspects of yourself shaped by the past, but you can then begin to actively cultivate your tree to reflect the kind of person you want to be moving forward.
Just as we learned in my last post that the stories of our lives are the events we choose to highlight and contextualize, in this post we will learn how to discover and highlight alternate paths through our past–which in turn create new horizons in our future.
Follow the instructions below to give it a try for yourself.
The Tree of Life Exercise
The image below is an example of what the tree of life exercise will look like once complete. I was able to complete this rough draft in about an hour. The instructions below will describe how you can create your own.
The first step of course is to draw a tree. I’ve included a video below that should help if you feel lost. However, I should note that–at least for your first draft–it might be helpful to keep it rough. You can always go back later and redraw or touch-up your existing drawing for aesthetics. This round is all about getting the information down.
Next, follow the labeling instructions below. If you can only think of one or two things per section at a time, don’t worry about it. The nature of this exercise is that as you complete each step, it unlocks more memories and ideas for other parts. You can skip around and fill things in at any time. The most helpful thing in the beginning is to just write stuff down and see where it takes you. You might be surprised!
The Compost Heap (Optional–But Highly Recommended!)
Write down anything in your compost heap that would normally go in the other sections described below but which are now things you no longer want to be defined by.
These are often sources of trauma, abuse, cultural standards of normality/beauty/etc. or anything else that shapes negative thoughts about yourself in your mind. You can write down places, people, problems, experiences. Whatever you need to.
I blurred mine out above, but you can see it has several items. Generally they all have to do with past trauma and damaging relationships I’m trying to let go of. I’ve found that the idea of a compost heap is an extremely helpful way to think about these things. Especially since many of them are not neatly categorized as “all bad”.
There are in fact quite a few life defining lessons I learned through the things that ended up in my compost heap. And like a compost heap is supposed to do, I will eventually break those things down and re-sow the rich parts back into my life.
You can do the same with yours.
Write down where you come from on the roots. This can be your home town, state, country, etc. You could also write down the culture you grew up in, a club or organization that shaped your youth, or a parent/guardian.
Write down the things you choose to do on a weekly basis on the ground. These should not be things you are forced to do, but rather things you have chosen to do for yourself.
Write your skills and values on the trunk. I chose to write my values starting at the base of the trunk going up. I then transitioned into listing my skills. For me this felt like a natural progression from roots to values to skills.
Write down your hopes, dreams, and wishes on the branches. These can be personal, communal, or general to all of mankind. Think both long and short term. Spread them around the various branches.
Write down the names of those who are significant to you in a positive way. Your friends, family, pets, heroes, etc.
Write down the legacies that have been passed on to you. You can begin by looking at the names you just wrote on leaves and thinking about the impact they’ve had on you and what they’ve given to you over the years. This can be material, such as an inheritance, but most often this will be attributes such as courage, generosity, kindness, etc.
(Tip: if your tree is pretty crowded by this point, perhaps try drawing some baskets of fruit at the base of your tree and label them accordingly there.)
The Flowers & Seeds
Write down the legacies you wish to leave to others on the flowers and seeds.
(Tip: again, you may wish to de-clutter your drawing by visualizing saplings, baskets of flowers, etc. on which to write these items down.)
After completing this exercise you are no doubt swimming with ideas and possibilities. My best advice is that if an idea has occurred to you that will help you process the things you have uncovered in a positive way, do it!
Here are three things that I have chosen to do as a follow up to my initial experience.
I’ve decided to journal about the various elements on my tree. I want to explore the connections between my roots, values, skills, people, etc. in a safe way before sharing it with others in any organized manner. But I do intend to share it with others. And I already know two of the ways in which I plan to.
Some of the connections are pretty easy for me to determine. I know that I wrote certain values or lessons on my tree and immediately followed them up with the name of a person or group of people. These are the people who have instilled something special in me and I intend to tell them how much that means to me by writing some letters.
Meditation Through Art
I found that the drawing part of this exercise was particularly satisfying and therapeutic in and of itself. I’ve decided to follow this initial exercise up with some more study sketches of trees followed by a series of paintings and collages that express more than mere labels can. I hope to be able to share these with my friends, family, and community in the future too.
Even though I’ve spent this whole post talking about how great of an exercise this can be, I know how scary it can feel to take the first steps in claiming the storytelling rights over your life. It usually means confronting aspects of our past that we might feel are better left unchallenged. And that’s a valid concern.
If you are worried that an exercise like this might stir up a lot of raw emotion or trigger traumatic flashbacks, I would encourage you to complete this exercise with a therapist. Or, at the very least, with a friend or family member who will be there to talk to you and support you through the process.
Regardless of how you choose to complete this exercise, or what personal spins you put on it (which is half the fun!), I’d love to hear how it goes. Feel free to reach out to me about it via any of my social channels, my contact page, or the comments section below.
Featured Image via Faye Cornish / unsplash.com
I’m a trauma psychologist who is redoing her website and want to included referrals to sites I think might be helpful to people recovering from childhood trauma.
I really like your site and would like to recommend it to my readers. Would you be interested that? If so, I’ll send you the site when it’s presentable.
My license and ethics do not allow me to ask for an affiliate kickback, so I expect nothing from you in return.
All the best,
Victoria Bentley, PsyD
Sure I think that would be great. Reference away :)
Greetings Nathan. I’m about to draw my tree of life! At 58, soon to be 59, I moved from West Africa to work in Bahraini. I’m excited and anxious and on my own. I really want to write a book of my life journey and get it published. Would be good to talk to you about help with getting started….
Hey Donna, so happy for you! I’m a big believer in understanding and recording one’s personal story. Whether that takes the form of a journal, vlog, or something more formal like a book. I wish you the best of luck on that journey. If you would like my help I do do story consulting. I can help you walk through this exercise and several more that will help you structure your life story and plot the events of your life into a coherent narrative. To be clear up-front though, most of my consulting is with big brands and my rates reflect that. I charge between $500 and $1500 per session depending on session length and the amount of prep work that needs to take place beforehand. If that still sounds like something you’re interested in please feel free to get in touch via my contact page :)
If you’re more interested in a DIY approach then I would recommend the following resources:
Watch The Power of Myth on Netflix. It’s an extended interview of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers.
Joseph Campbell is THE pioneer of mythic story structure. I’d also recommend his most popular and influential book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but for many it’s a bit too academic.
Another great read is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This book is a much more accessible take on Joseph Campbell’s work written specifically for writers.
Finally, if you’re really serious, I’d recommend you read The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. I found that the hero’s journey tends to focus on the “quest” plot in most case studies. However, this book is excellent in helping you recognize and create your own variations represented by the other six basic plots.
At the end of my dream this morning an Asian woman I was staring at (bc I thought she was someone else) caught my glance, became excited, and whispered to her companions, “maybe she’s the identity tree”and proceeded to move toward me. I woke up with those words ringing in my ears, and, bc I’ve had enough dreams with final messages that proved to be meaningful, I jumped on google and typed the words “identity tree. Above article was the first (and last) thing I read, and everything about it rings true and right for doing right now. And I’m also beginning work with a new therapist in two hours. 🙏
I just came across this today after painting my tree of life. I love the idea & am going to do the exercise. I come from a past of negativity & dysfunction & the l lengthy traumatic (abusive!) marriage.
When I looked at my finished tree of life (painted), it spoke to mr about my life. My first thought was, your not completely healed yet. It was as if I were looking at a tangled web. I would love to share it with you. It too was a great exercise. I believe we use colour, like words as a form of expression. My tree, though quite bright, is just not bright enough yet…
Hey Diane, I’m glad that you’ve found some level of healing with this exercise. It’s totally an ongoing process. I’ve done this exercise several times over the years and each time things change a bit, some things come into clearer focus, while others fade further into my past. Hope your self work continues with great results!
What a lovely idea! I’m excited to use this activity in a women’s retreat I’m hosting this weekend. Many thanks for sharing this!
My pleasure! I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Feel free to message me via my contact page: https://nathanbweller.com/contact/
Thank you, I am glad I found your site. It was easy to read and understand. I will be sitting down to draw my own tree and use this technique in my practice. I am definitely adding The Tree of Life to my must read list and subscribing to your blog. I am a clinical social worker and would like to link and or reference your site.
Hey! Thank you for sharing this magical life tree experience, I really enjoyed doing this task, the drawing, the writing, focusing on the people who affect me the most in life. It was a great opportunity to do a zoom in for myself and focus on me especially in today world which is full of distractions. Great page and topic.
Thank you for sharing! I really enjoyed it.
Thanks for sharing !!! I’m organizing an event for women and would love to use this for the event.
Hi Nathan, Thanks for much for this post! I’ve offered a Tree of Life workshop to colleagues at my workplace as a team building exercise. I’m getting ready to offer another and always like to google for more inspiration. I’m so glad to find you and your Tree of Life. I’m going to add the idea of a compost heap to my workshop. Thanks so much for your inspiration!!!
That’s awesome! I’m glad you found value here :)
I am looking forward to really delving into this website and it’s resources. The Tree of Life will be a useful tool for rebuilding identity after continuing to move through a lot of recent trauma. Funny, I thought I would’ve been through with trauma after having overcome so much. But it seems right when I get to the top of the mountain, I start to unravel again. I take responsibility for my mistakes. I just hope that I can keep my faith and channel my anger and pain in healthy ways and not toward others be a cause that’s most important to me not to do.
Thanks for sharing that Julie. I’m glad you’ve found this resource helpful. Good luck on your journey!
Loved your article and drawing the tree. I would like to utilize your ideas in a class I will teach. I would like permission to use your article in the class with reference and credit to you and your site.
Hi Marcia, yes please do. Permission granted. Thanks!
Such a lovely and powerful technique. Even I wanted to ask, with your permission may I too use your link and help people discover such a lovely way.
I am into sound healing and a reiki master
Yep, share away :)
I am a graduate student. I would like to know if I could use your picture for a class assignment.
Sure, no problem. You can use my sketch above.
Sorry, I meant the picture at the top of the page. It is beautiful. I would love to use the sketch also. Thanks for sharing your exercise; it would be perfect for groups sessions with my students.
Oh ok, well I can’t give permission for you to use my featured image since it’s not mine to begin with. Notice I have a link giving the source credit at the bottom of my own post. However, Unsplash images are free to use in almost every single case. So I’m sure it’s fine. You’ll just need to read the terms for this image and give credit if they require it.
Hi, just saw your tree of life. Found it very useful and interesting. Kindly allow me to use it for a workshop of school leaders. I would start working upon my tree of life.
Sure no problem. You can use it :)
(It’s not mine, but I’ve used it here out of a book–as I’ve stated in the post–so I’d recommend crediting the creator of the exercise and his book.)
I love this book too! Recognising and reframing our stories is so powerful. And this is such a client-centred and gentle approach too. Thanks for sharing.
Hello, I hope this text finds you doing well. I am a keen learner and as a facilitator to young youths. I found this piece (exercise) very helpful and interesting. It would help all range of people understand themselves to navigate challenges in life, planning way forward and acknowledge for what they receive.
looking forward to learning more from you.
Thanks for stopping by Yeshi!
Thanks for sharing this. It’s an excellent exercise. I celebrated God’s work in my life through the tree.
Glad you liked it Paul!
Hello Nathan, My name is Paul. I love this tree exercise. It is lifegiving! I work for the Canadian Baptists. I would like to share your exercise with our pastors in our spiritual practices guide. Would it be okay if I did that? I can include a link to your webpage in our email as well. Please let me know. Thanks, Paul
Hi Paul! Yes, please feel free to share this exercise with your group. I myself borrowed this from the narrative therapy book Retelling the Stories of our Lives. That might also be a good resource for your group.
You may also wish to acknowledge Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo, the African women who originated the Tree of Life in support of sufferers of HIV. I believe David Denborough was inspired by her idea. Also David is now the Director of the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, South Australia. They do some wonderful work with narrative therapy. You might like to add their link your site: (I have no other association with Dulwich other than being a follower.)
Apologies in my previous post, I should have referred to Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo as South African (not African).
Hi! I find this article and the tree of life exercise very useful. May I also request permission to use this in the book I am writing, of course with the required recognition of the source, should this request be approved. Thank you and may you be given more opportunities to bless others through your works.
I don’t mind if you reference my blog, however I cannot give permission for the tree of life concept as I don’t have that authority.
I am a mental health therapist and have added your ideal of the compost heap to the original tree of life exercise, may I copy your directions and site your website?
Yes, feel free to share and link back. However, please give credit for the idea to David Denborough and his book.
Thank you so much, I plan on using this for my patients and I have also cited your name.
This concept of the TREE OF LIFE is wonderful. I have always been looking at a concept like this one – now I found it. Will translate it into the German language, as I am living in Germany, running an Institute for Huanistic Psychology since 1972, the first one in Germany. Will include this concept in my Orientation Analysis programme of training. It is meant for the counseling situation, not for psychotherapy. I also make use of the East London University papers, which give detailled information on what should be asked to fill into the Tree of Life. Thank you very much.