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.