Locating empathy in the transformation of harm: An intricate dance

Locating empathy for others who harmed you as a child is such an important part of childhood story work and can be so liberating and transformational…… but also very difficult. Many people want to take a short-cut to empathy… but a shortcut does not exist. You cannot truly empathise with somebody who you felt wounded by, unless you are able to fully embrace the harm… and ‘own it’…. as well as acknowledging all that flowed from there – the good, the bad and the ugly. This is frequently easier said than done, but necessary nevertheless. It is difficult because it is painful. We don’t want to look at the harm…. rather we want to forget about it and ‘move past it’.  But moving past it is not the same as ‘owning it’…  Moving past it is more like not attending to the impact of the harm in the hope it will go away… when in all likelihood it will continue to intrude. Owning it means accepting that there was real damage, and that healing will be needed… it means coming to terms with the loss and danger from the harm, because there is no sense in belittling it [“Oh, it wasn’t really so bad, I barely remember it…”]. Some wounds are horrific, and they need to be witnessed and honoured… if only to take the fear out of them. Nothing is worse than a festering experience we don’t dare to look at… both emotionally and in the flesh. Story-work starts exactly there… daring to ask, daring to look, unearthing the old Story, exploring, witnessing and embracing it.

Owning the harm you experienced in your childhood story will also make you realise that those who wounded you are actually only minor characters in your Story. They wounded you, okay, so what, it happened, it was horrible, it was unfair, it might have even been illegal, but it happened anyway, and no amount of passing judgment or criticising something after the event will undo it. No amount of blaming will heal the harm. No amount of moping about it will make you feel better.

What will make a difference is the realisation that you survived, that you are no longer the helpless child of the past, that you have built a successful adult life…. and that despite all that, the impact of the harm may not have fully healed… instead it is ever ready to appear and make a mess especially when you are under pressure or in high stakes.  And the only one who can change this is you. But then, and only then, when you know your Story, and have accepted it, only then will you fully own it as part of your identity…. and only when you own it, will you locate genuine empathy for those who harmed you and move on with your work of healing the harm.

Locating empathy for others is a critical part of the work to do and of course also relates to being able to feel genuine compassion for Self because unless you care for yourself you cannot sincerely care for others. This sheds light on the intrinsic importance of loving the inner child and redeeming her/him so that love of Self and others is even possible and adds another important step to the Story-work process.


  1. Look at the childhood story [including any harm you experienced, explore it and own it]
  2. Locate compassion for yourself [for having been harmed]
  3. Locate compassion for those who harmed you [they have no preordained role in your new internal narrative]
  4. Go to work on Self [write a new internal narrative, move on…., be in command of your shadow behaviour and its impact]

All this unfolding transformational change described above [the larger picture] is obviously much more than recognising and naming your shadow behaviours as the real enemy… and yet, the seed and structure of all of it can be found in this very specific intervention… it is almost a kind of fractal nature, where the structure of the whole is repeated in the structure of every detail… like in snow-flakes. This seems to be a distinct feature of holistic approaches… each of the individual steps carries the structure of the whole process in it…  which is another reason for the looping and back-tracking which is such a feature of Story-work where the intervention techniques are not just components which get assembled according to a rigid predetermined scheme … but somehow execute an intricate dance in which they combine, align, release and re-combine again…. only to disappear in the very end completely from the picture, leaving only the ‘finished product’ [a healthier adult in command of his/her Story and shadows through a new internal narrative].


Inspired by conversations with Klaus Hermann