Narrative Focused Trauma Care with Petra Malekzadeh

Today, Dan and Rachael are chatting with Petra Malekzadeh, who is the Narrative Focused Trauma Care Facilitator Training Coordinator at the Allender Center, as well as an Instructor and Advisor. She also led a thriving story group ministry at her church for several years before joining us. 

You’ll hear about what drew her to the work of the Allender Center and, in particular, the work that she has done to understand the role of shame and step into a more fullness. 

We invite you to chat with Petra at our upcoming NFTC Level I Coffee Hour on May 8. If you have questions about NFTC training, how the program works, and how it can benefit your work, Petra is the perfect person to connect with. Sign up here for this free coffee hour on May 8 at 1:30 PM PT.

You can also reach out to Petra directly at or

This is the third of our 4-part series where we’re inviting you to join us in listening to real stories from those who’ve gone through Narrative Focused Trauma Care training with the Allender Center. Through candid conversations with these remarkable individuals, our goal is to give you a glimpse into the profound impact of saying yes to this life-changing experience. 

Related Resources:

About our guest:

Petra Malekzadeh relocated to the U.S. from Germany with her family 15 years ago. She has had a career in the corporate world and worked as a self-employed artist and small business for over a decade. Four years ago, she joined the staff of a large Seattle-based church where she established a thriving story group ministry, leading groups and coaching a growing team of story group facilitators.

As part of her journey with the Allender Center, Petra completed the NFTC I, Externship, and Fellowship Programs and has been working as a Core Facilitator and Facilitator Advisor. She believes that healing and redemption are found where people can make sense of their own stories in the context of God’s greater story. This is what ultimately opens the door to embracing one’s own calling with clarity, capacity, and courage. Petra has long been drawn to the transformative power of small groups in inviting people to become what they are most meant to be and loves to utilize the group experience to spark curiosity, to invite authenticity, and kindle desires that lead to a more resilient hope.

Petra also offers 1:1 or group coaching and care to those who have completed the Allender Center’s training programs and are ready to start leading story groups in their own communities.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: A premise, and it’s as simple as this, if people don’t fascinate you, then you’re either too busy or you’re pretty locked into your own sense of self. And people, people, crazy, wonderful wild people, absolutely intrigue me. And so we have begun something of a series of focus on people who are engaged in the kingdom of God and are at least in some portion of our playground of the kingdom, and that is the Allender Center. And so we want to highlight some of our lovely, odd, fascinating people, and we have one today that again, is such a compelling, rich, complex, thoughtful presence. And Petra Malekzadeh, welcome to this podcast and I’ll explain a little bit who you’re in a moment. But again, thank you for joining Rachael and I.

Petra: Yeah, I’m excited. Thank you for having me.

Dan: The technical category is you are the facilitator of trainers and coordinators and the task that I know that you have born for us is as a lead advisor, particularly with our more advanced folks, you have a presence of caring for people and helping them not only metabolize theory and practice, but growing in the maturing process of dealing with significant trauma. And so to invite you to this process is also to basically say how in the name of God or any other, how did you get into this work?

Petra: Yeah, it is odd. I agree with you. So I moved here from Germany, it’s about 17 years ago now, and with two very young kids, six month old and a year and a half old and very early on, made a very dear friend fellow European and our kids were the same age. And we found ourselves just getting into hours and hours of conversation around who are we in this strange place? How did we get here? And also being young moms, we found ourselves in another strange place and we used to talk about who are we and why are we that way? And really spend hours talking about story. And this dear friend of mine at some point decided to go to The Seattle School, get a graduate degree in counseling psychology. And I had the enormous privilege to kind of walk alongside and vicariously experience her journey through that. And what I noticed was that our conversations took on such a different tone. We all of a sudden had so much more language and we had ways of talking about what we had talked about before, but in such a new way. And it created a lot of curiosity for me. I wasn’t in a place to go get a graduate degree, but the certificate seemed like a great option to just kind of get more of what I was getting a taste of through that friendship. So that’s how I decided to come to the Allender Center and see what that would be for me to learn.

Rachael: I love that. I just want to name, I love how God works in such mysterious ways and how so many of the paths we take with regard to calling or healing or growth happen in relationship, happen with the people we meet and the connections they make. And there’s a lot of mystery to that. And there’s just, I don’t know if I knew that you were a young mom when you found your way into this work, but I don’t know if I knew it was through a friend who came to The Seattle School and getting a taste of something and wanting more. So it’s very cool to hear that part of your story.

Dan: With this different, prior to her engagement with The Seattle school and the Allender Center, you were thinking about story and asking about origin and asking about fundamental questions of meaning. Why? Because that’s not, I think it’s normal in our world and normal to our listeners, but it’s just not normal. So what was the prompt for you to be asking those questions before a different language enabled you to actually even go further?

Petra: I mean, to some extent I believe that I always have done that. I have always watched the people around me and how they relate and having a sense of there’s something more. And I remember conversations as a teen with friends about how I was raised, how they were raised, how we feel that’s impacting us, but it was more fun and it was a way of being young and being allowed to question anything that you want to question. When I became a parent, it took on a whole lot more urgency. When I had my girls, I felt so strongly that there is more that I want and I somehow can get there and I want to be a better version of myself in raising my daughters. And it took on a whole lot more urgency to become clear around why can’t I engage the way that I want to? Why isn’t there freedom when I can see so much of what I would want?

Dan: And where did those, lemme go back to again that question. Where do you think those questions began to germinate? And because as much as that’s central to being human, I also think most people fall into the structures and systems of the world and maybe have a season where they ask it. But you’ve been asking those central questions for a long time. What do you suppose prompted you to be asking those?

Petra: I think there are so many different answers to that question. I don’t think there’s just one answer. Though, I’ll say the first thing that comes to my mind, growing up in my family, I find that for me to feel safe and to be connected, it required a lot of dismissing of my own self and losing of my own self and someone else’s experience. And I think I felt like I was always kind of searching for something. I was always kind of searching for myself because I had to dismiss a lot of my own experience growing up in order to keep myself safe and connected and my family. And so there was always this sense of there’s something I’m missing. I don’t know if that answers your question or if you’re looking for something else, you have to become more specific.

Dan: I’m just curious particularly in one sense as an exile from your family, from your culture, from your language into a world that in some sense we’re all the byproducts of modernization, but there’s a uniqueness to being a post World War II offspring. So just the interplay of being, the origin, being Germany coming to the US, all that strikes me as factors that I want to knock on the door of.

Petra: Yeah, I mean this is interesting because like you said, I grew up in Germany maybe 30 years after the end of the war, and I was very aware, obviously of my country’s history and brought up in a school system where we learned about the Holocaust starting very early elementary age of being confronted with horrible images and it was like a fish in water to me, like our history. And I think coming over here, I was initially maybe confused or intrigued or I don’t know what the right word is, experiencing a country that deals so differently with its own history. And so that’s a place of beginning to ask questions like, why do I feel so odd in conversations about race? I know I’m white, I know I have to confront my own whiteness, and yet there’s something that’s different for me than seems to be for folks living over here. And it’s not that there isn’t a presence of shame for me and for them, but it feels a taste differently. So that’s a place of beginning to ask questions. But I would say another place that feels more personal to me is that I knew I have a lot of shame, and I knew that in a way that I have examples, this might take too long to get into, but having to cancel an appointment because there’s a ton of snow and you just can’t get there and knowing that you have to pay for the appointment anyways because you’re canceling with not enough notice. And then being just taken out by shame for hours, feeling like I shouldn’t have canceled this appointment. And not even being able to make theoretically that sense of what is it that I did wrong, but just being steeped in shame for something. So obviously wouldn’t a shame response like the one I had wouldn’t be appropriate. So then I have to ask myself, why do I feel these huge amounts of shame? And so I think that’s a place where beginning to expand my own story work to a more collective lens, brought a lot of relief, also brought a lot of grief.

Dan: So shame was an issue culturally I would assume in that sense to some degree familialy. But personally that has been, I know for us as the Allender Center, it’s been some incredibly brilliant teaching that you have offered as you have invited others to engage shame. I don’t want to go too far than you would wish, but what have you learned, especially through the Allender Center, what have you learned and engaged with regard to shame?

Petra: Again, that feels like such a big question.

Dan: Shall we just say they’re springboards and I don’t really care where you go. I just love the thought that you have metabolized so much and you have offered so much. And just to get a better sense of where does that take you, where the first thoughts are?

Petra: I think when I think about shame, it took me a really long time to begin doubting its effectiveness in keeping me safe until in some ways very recently I felt very strongly that it was actually helping. It was actually a good thing to be kept small, to be kept careful, to be kept hypervigilant, that there was actually a better chance of being connected and beginning to understand it as an oppressive reenactment structure. That’s what really brought a shift for me, and it created a fierce stance against shame in myself. And I would say that’s a real place of freedom. It’s become a real place of, I think as I was anticipating our conversation, I was thinking about the question, how do I live differently? What is it that is different, especially in regards to when you were initially talking about the kingdom and how do I reflect that into the world? And I think two things came to mind. I have so much more freedom to join beauty, to join gifting, to join glory. And that is something that’s so valuable to me and so dear to me in my work with other facilitators, to be able to wholeheartedly celebrate someone else. And in the flip side of that, to be able to wholeheartedly enter someone’s pain, someone’s suffering, I think shame interferes with both of those. You cannot join someone else’s gifting if you don’t feel like you are enough or if your shame is keeping you in a place of comparison and envy and you cannot join someone else’s suffering when you don’t feel like you have what it takes to fix their suffering. And there is a demand from shame that that’s what you would have to do. So I would say those two places fear really remarkably different for me. And it’s something I enjoy every day, and I feel like it’s something that allows me to be more of a presence of God, the people I work with.

Rachael: I mean where that takes me. As much as we might all wrestle with the apostle Paul and his words, his writing, just that sense of we’re called to rejoice with those, rejoice and suffer with those who suffer or I think about laugh with those who laugh, groan with those who groan. And you’re absolutely right. In order to be liberated to do that, we have to become people who can bear so much tension and who have a greater capacity to be with. And shame is such a debilitating, it’s such an isolating force because it keeps our countenance looking away and afraid to take in and or defended looking to fight or looking to be fought or be violated. And so I think there’s a lot of power there. And where I’m feeling drawn is just knowing the hunger you had stepping into this kind of work and at a lot of questions, you had a lot of questions. What did story work or even learning more about trauma? Did it answer all your questions?

Petra: Yeah, it did answer a lot of my questions. There are still a lot of questions that I have and I think it would be very dangerous if that wasn’t the case. I think I’d want to start with remembering myself stepping into Level I. I very well remember my first words, we do this round of introduction group, and I remember saying, I just want you to know I don’t feel very strongly about anything and don’t have a lot of emotions. I don’t have any strong convictions. I’m not a very passionate person. I don’t like having to face other people’s feelings either, but I am honest, so this is what you need to know about me. And I remember, I remember those words now, and I don’t think many people would describe me that way. I don’t think I was that even then. But I had come to a lot of conclusions about myself that confusing what it took for me to be saved with who God made me to be. So the clarity that I gained in that process, just having to wrestle with how my self perception is so different from what’s reflected back to me, that’s brought a lot of freedom.

Dan: What a shame statement that you offered your group.

Petra: And full of self contempt and contempt for them, because I already knew they weren’t going to get me.

Rachael: I also love the contradiction of, and I mean what you’re naming Petra is just, I think so many people, myself included, can relate to where we try to make meaning of who we are in our suffering in ways that it’s like, this must just be who I am when we don’t have a story that helps us locate the meaning and just the contradiction of I’m not a passion, I just don’t have a lot of passions, but I’m a really honest person because I just think about all the really honest people I know, even if I may not feel passionate about the same things they’re passionate about, even to be an honest person is at least being passionate about the truth. So I like the ways that we so give ourselves away in how we name ourselves, and at least for me in my own journey and in my work with other people, how those moments can lead to such beautiful curiosity around how did that, I was thinking, oh, if you had been in my group, I would’ve loved you from the start. I would have been like, how did these firm but contradictory statements come to be the ways in which you feel safe navigating the world, but also like, oh, you have so much desire, you’ve come to this thing and you must be really at war with yourself around this desire to live into these passions and to wrestle with these questions.

Dan: An adamant opinion-less person, again, the hilarity of that contradiction. But again, in some ways shame as a presence is always going to create a violent contradiction. But as well the intersection again of our incredible beauty is image bearers the brokenness of the reality. You were evidence. Do you remember? If you don’t, it’s fine, but do you remember how people responded at that point?

Petra: I don’t remember that there was a whole lot of any type of response. I think my facilitator probably, I remember she probably smiled at me in a knowing kind of way, but I do think that was actually a pretty instantaneous action between my facilitator and myself, which was lovely. And when you were talking a little bit ago, Rachael, you even just using the word desire, that was not a concept for me at all. I had come to the conclusion that it was much better to not desire – much safer, much less painful.

Dan: And again, a process like going through a year with four long weekends addressing story, your family of origin, your sexual development, the reality of calling all the things that we attempt to address, it’s almost impossible. I’m giving you an out here, but it’s almost impossible to find one particular moment that was significantly transformative because more often than not, it’s the process nonetheless, I come back. Were there any one or two moments where you went, oh good God, this is not what I thought I was getting into?

Petra: I don’t know if it was so much that I think from the first few moments that I was in the program listening to you teach, I very much felt a very strong sense of this is a place of home for me, which is so strange because I was obviously not in my home country. I was not speaking my native language, and yet the language felt like home to me. And it was both reassuring and disturbing, but in a way that I felt such a strong sense of this is where I’m meant to be. And overwhelming gratitude really from the start. So I don’t think I had a sense of what did I get myself into, but I have probably three from the years of training that I’ve done, I have three moments that I would say were markers where I had significant… I think the first one I remember was we are invited to pay attention to our bodies. That was a new concept to me altogether. I remember a participant story, not even my own, it was someone else’s story actually resonating in my body and feeling a sense of electricity, just flowing such a strong sense of I am feeling what this person’s feeling and it’s lighting my body on fire. And I had no idea. I think I had prayed desperately for years to be given a heart of flesh because I felt like my heart’s like stone and I hate it. And at times it’s hurting me. And to be able to feel like my body’s alive and it can feel someone else’s suffering was a huge, another time was where a participant had gotten angry with the facilitator and was voicing the anger, not even voicing the anger, I would say the facilitator picked up on the anger without it even being given voice and just drew near and said, you are angry with me. You’re disappointed and it’s okay, and I can take it and I won’t leave you. I could not. I think that was the only time throughout this entire year I cried because I couldn’t believe that it would be possible to feel anger and have a person come close rather than moving far away. It opened up so much imagination for it is actually possible to be myself and have someone not leave, but have someone come close. And then the third one was when the facilitator said to me, I was engaging a story, and the person said, you would agree that you’re a passionate person though, right? And the whole group looked at me, or I think he said, deep feeling person. The whole group looked at me, and this is in level three, and I was still, and at that point I had to begin wondering am I? And I think that also was a significant shift for me.

Dan: Well, we begin with a very core premise, and that is that the eyes of other is necessary for me to be able to see myself. That the judgments oftentimes build around shame and contempt. The judgments we make about ourselves in sometimes even naming something of our gifting and goodness oftentimes has something sufficiently skewed that we are not in consort with how others perceive us. And it’s a very disruptive thing to hear where our beauty or our brokenness is perceived very differently than another. So your group work was obviously really, really important, not just dealing with your own story, but the process of, in one sense, investing yourself in the rich reality of other people’s stories has obviously had a huge good on your behalf. Is that well said?

Petra: Absolutely. And I would say for the first year it was more other people’s stories that moved me forward. It was so hard to engage my own story because there was such a lack of my own experience. And actually that was another transformative moment. I brought my first story and my group was wrestling and wrestling and it felt very dissatisfying to me and I think to them, and we were all kind of at odds with, what are we doing here? This feels weird. And finally someone said, I think we’re having a hard time finding you in your story because you’re not actually in it. It was shocking and embarrassing and exposing to, because I consider myself, and even then I consider myself a very self-aware kind of person. And to have unconsciously written a story that barely includes me was a shock. So throughout that year, I learned to find myself more in my own responses to other people’s stories, my ability to see and feel on behalf of other people before I could do the same with my own story.

Dan: One of the things that I know that you have been part of is creating opportunities, particularly in your church where you have the framework of utilizing some of the material from the NFTC experience, but creating on behalf of others a way of entering that you thought would be more helpful in the context of a church. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.

Petra: Yeah, I said a little bit ago, I had this prayer for so many years that I would be given a heart of flesh, and I prayed this prayer and I didn’t feel like it was coming to bear in my life. But I think having grown up in the church, I had imagination that there was something more. I think that’s one thing the church is good at; creating imagination and desire for peace, for joy, for freedom, even if it feels like what you have to do to get there is maybe not helpful. But I felt like the church is a place where I have encountered more desire honestly than I have in other places of my life, people long for a change because they’ve promised it over and over and over again as they engage in the church. And so for me, coming to NFTC one, I felt like this is the missing piece. Literally. This is the missing piece, and I want the people that I know at church who I know long for something different. I want them to be able to get a taste of this. And so when I had the opportunity to come on staff for Bethany, I came with a very, very much an agenda of my own. And it was to bring this work, and I wanted to provide a way for people to have a framework that wouldn’t be overbearing or that would be providing a good balance of here’s a theological imagination and here’s something to know about how humans work that will help you understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. And it was a time in the life even of the church where we were beginning to look at discipleship more holistically and understanding that our bodies play a part in that, our stories play a part in that. And so there were actually a lot of open doors for me to situate the work in the context of discipleship, which churches tend to invest in way having more heavily than soul-care or recovery or whatever the words you want to use for this type of work. So being in this kind of discipleship category, I think opened up a lot of doors. And so I was able to invite people for three years to step into their stories and engage. And we did this work with bosses and bosses, bosses in terms of staff, and we did it with congregants all across the board. And yeah, it was very, very fulfilling, exciting work.

Rachael: Well, and now, yes, you have a role with the Allender Center. Oh my gosh, we’re so privileged and honored to have you on our team. And you also do work with ministry leaders coaching and story work and support work. And I would just be curious, the work you did within your faith community, the work you’re doing with people who are steeped in theological imagination that’s interacting with the human condition, what are some of the things you’ve learned or that you feel become like, oh yeah, these are primary paradigm shifting and maybe you’ve already named them, so no need to come up with something new, but just in your work with ministry leaders and translating story work to a more accessible, in a more accessible way, what stands out to you as necessary for doing work with human beings who have a theological imagination already.

Petra: I mean, I think it, to me, shame is probably the biggest category, the biggest lens through which I engage people because it’s the lens that I have used to understand myself better. And it is so curious to me that so often in conversation, whether the ministry leaders or just people who want to grow, I sometimes ask the question, what would happen if you were all of a sudden set free from this shame that you feel this ruminating that you have to do after a conversation that had tension or this email that you have to think of for three hours? What if you would be all of a sudden set free? And almost every time the answer is, I think I would become a horrible person. There’s a conviction that if you didn’t have the shame to manage you, there’s something that would be set loose that would, and I think what that says to me is a fear of being rejected as a fear of experiencing disconnection. That if you bring your full self, there’s something that will happen and that will leave you alone. And so I think there’s still in so many of us, the belief that shame actually does serve us. And there are so many ways in which it does, and the cost of letting that go, there’s a real cost to living without shame. And I think I am someone who wants people to count the costs. I want to work through what, because there are risks, right? There are risks in the world when we show up as our full self. And things do sometimes get harder. The darkness feels darker and the light feels brighter. And so there is a cost. And so can we engage the cost? And to me, that’s very scriptural. Counting the cost is a very scriptural approach. So that’s definitely something that feels like is coming up again and again and again.

Dan: Well, you’ve always been a translator in your family. Certainly cross cultural, cross language, trying and doing so, so beautifully. I mean, the manual that you created on behalf of the church is one of the most beautiful translations of our work into that setting. So as a translator, you’re always living and in some way with the tension of language, with the tension of meaning, the tension of that one sentence in one language cannot be put fully and completely into another. So there’s always this sense of living with some degree of discrepancy between the original text and then what’s said next. Is that a fair way again, of putting it? Yeah. So how do you live with the complexity of your being?

Rachael: No pressure.

Petra: No pressure. Yeah, I love that question because I feel like it allows me to give a second example of I could have added this to the question Rachael asked me before. There’s another place of, I think reckoning. It’s closely connected to shame, but it’s kind of different. And it’s this place of being caught between power and powerlessness. It’s the experience of in my family having held a lot of power and also feeling utterly powerless. And often it was my word that both felt so true and so needed even to my young self. And I felt such conviction in bringing my words, and then my words were utterly powerless to change or bring the change that I would want. And so wrestling with the, like you were saying, the discrepancy and the gap and the less than for me, it means there’s a place of being able to live with. Yeah, I actually do have power. I notice in my work, I work part-time and I feel like I have impact. If I can bring myself, I have impact. And there’s so many limitations. There’s limitations in myself, there’s organizational limitations, there’s limitations everywhere we go. And we are not God to live as humans with limitation, but to also know we do have power. We do have impact in being able to live well in that tension. I think that is true for every area of our lives.

Dan: Well, before we end, these are just things that I should have. I mean, it’s intriguing to me that a million questions are coming in this context that I wish I had asked, but how often do you get to work as a consultant with people who speak your mother tongue?

Petra: I don’t.

Dan: That’s what I feared.

Petra: I do have one person who does speak the same language, and there are circumstantial things that often lead to us speaking English together. And it is interesting because the language of the Allender Center, the language that you have offered, then it does feel like a home to me. It does feel like a place of grounding, a place of knowing myself, a place of making sense of the world. And that’s true even if it’s not my native tongue. So having to translate into German what feels close to my heart in English, again, creates a distance. There’s maybe something of gaining and being able to write a story and saying the actual words that were spoken to me in my own language, there’s something sweet, but then all of it again creates dissonance and distance because that’s not how I’ve come to know myself.

Dan: Well, what we know of you is that the gift that you have been to us personally and to the organization is profound. The brilliance of being able to take sometimes difficult concepts and perhaps difficult in part because of the obscurity of one of the teachers i.e. me, requires people to come and go, how do I make this language mine? How do I frame it in a way in which I’m not just hearing somebody else teach? But if it’s true, then it’s true, not because they taught it, but because there’s residence within me that holds this to be true. So it becomes not the Allender Center’s language, but your language. And I think you have brought that into your work in the context of the church, certainly back into our context and you’re central and central for the future of our work, being able to define, redefine, reconstruct. But in that, you’re a brilliant consultant. And so again, we’re not here to create more business because of anything. I’d rather have you work for us full-time. But nonetheless, the reality is you bring a richness of experience in life, of suffering, but also hope. So we want to make sure people know that you do do work outside of the Allender Center, and that is a good work. So we thank you so much, Petra, for joining us, and as I said at the beginning, you are a profoundly fascinating human being and we are so grateful that in your way you serve the kingdom, not merely the Allender Center, but the wild, odd and compelling kingdom of God.

Petra: Thank you Dan, so much fun. I wish we could keep going.

Dan: We will at another time.