(Adapted by Jill Olver from Ncube-Mlilo, 2006.)
This exercise helps clients to cope with tragedy and move on with their life. Its aim is to highlight for clients their existing strengths, encourage an alternative storyline to a ‘problem saturated’ narrative and increase a sense of connectedness with family and community. This exercise can be particularly useful when exploring issues of culture and diversity.
The exercise involves encouraging the client to build a picture of their life through the representation of a tree. Encourage the client to build their tree from the ground up, talking along the way about each of the elements that make up their tree. You can use what you know about the client to help them (e.g. you may know that the client’s grandmother was a very important person who taught the client how to stick up for themselves).
- The present – Where are the important places in your life now? Who are the important people in your life now? What are the important things happening now?
- The past – Where do you come from? Who do you come from? What are the important things in your history (whether they are good bad or other)? Who are the people, places, animals and things throughout your life that have had a significant impact on you? (e.g. historical events, family members, significant teachers or those of influence, friends, care givers, pets, books, toys, music, toys etc.)
- You – your skills and knowledge, the things you can do, the qualities you possess, what makes you the person you are (e.g. serious, tolerant, kind, silly, practical joker etc.). What roles do you play in your life (e.g. sibling, son/daughter, partner, parent, artist, environmentalist). What are the acts of kindness you show others? Where did you learn these things? What was important to you about this?
- The future – your hopes, dreams and wishes for yourself (e.g. to have a safe and happy family, to travel, to feel calm, to not have to worry about money, to become a vet, to have new friends etc.)
- The important, valued people in your life – from the past and present (e.g. family, friends, carers, teachers, other people of significant influence.)
- Gifts you have received from the important, valued people in your life (e.g. safety, love, support, kindness, education, income, laughter). Why were you given these gifts? What is it about you that meant people gave you these gifts? What fruits have you given to others?
- By highlighting all the elements that make up the person (not just the problematic elements) you can encourage the client to share stories and support them to see alternate stories. Allow plenty of time for re-telling of the person’s story that includes the hopes, skills, and the things that are important to the person (these get lost with the trauma).
- If using this exercise with a group, you can create a ‘forest of life’ where you display all of the trees together. You can encourage group members to offer words of encouragement and support for others.
The Storms of Life
- There are always storms in everyone’s life. Externalise the problems in the client’s life by referring to problems as ‘storms’ or ‘bad weather’.
- You can talk about: Whose fault is the storm? What effects do the storms have? How do we respond to storms? What can you do during a storm? This kind of externalising of the problem can help create a shift from victimisation to bringing out skills and knowledge the person has to ‘weather the storm’. Being able to do something when the storm hits can reduce the power of the storm.
- You can also point out that it doesn’t storm all of the time. What are the times when there are no storms? What is happening then?
In this example, the client has been helped to articulate the things they wanted to put on the tree - especially in the trunk of the tree where the client was asked to articulate the qualities they possessed. They found their own qualities difficult to name, so they were encouraged to consider what other people would say about them. This exercise was done in a group setting and other members of the group were called upon to name the qualities the person possesses.