Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 2.1 What is Narrative Therapy?

The following is the second entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

Narrative Therapy - An Overview

Narrative Therapy, or Narrative Psychology, is a post-structuralist form of psychotherapy that builds upon the nature of man as a story-telling being and is heavily informed by ideas of postmodernism and social constructionism, largely inspired by the writings of Michael White and David Epston (White & Epston, 1990).

Telling narratives, telling stories about ourselves and the world around us, is something that seems to be inherent to humanity, something one could even call a defining feature of our species. Stories are a means of communicating with others and ourselves. People tell stories about their own as well as others’ lives, and even the most mundane things can serve as anchors for a story, like how we missed the bus or how we got out of bed. People tend to not just communicate facts to others (“I missed the bus today”), but to automatically clad their communication in narrative terms with beginnings, endings, and arcs of suspense.

A story is a means to get others to identify with you, to communicate feelings to others and to incite empathy. This is not restricted to the stories we tell to others: people tell stories about themselves to themselves. We tell the story of our life in terms of beginnings, endings, different parts and distinct arcs, roles taken and denied, growth and decline, goals and obstacles, challenges, victories and defeats. And these stories have power over us.

“Narrative is a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions. Narrative meaning functions to give form to the understanding of a purpose to life and to join everyday actions and events into episodic units. It provides a framework for understanding the past events of one’s life and for planning future actions. It is the primary scheme by means of which human existence is rendered meaningful.” (Polkinghorne 1988: 11, quoted from Payne, 2006, p. 27)

No story is ever complete, meaning in this case that no story includes every detail about what it covers. Even if the story is only about, say, how you made yourself a coffee at one particular morning, you couldn’t include every detail surrounding that element. The smell of the coffee, the taste of it, the subsequent motions of your arm, the sounds in the background, the temperature of the air, the thoughts that crossed your mind – there are uncountable aspects of any given moment in human experience, and every single one could be included in the story, but to include all of them would be a task that is literally impossible and, more importantly, not desirable for telling a good story.

If you wanted to tell this Story of Making a Coffee, you would pick and choose elements of the situation to tell your narrative, depending on why you are telling the story in the first place. Maybe you want to communicate how great it felt to pour in that coffee after a long night with not enough sleep, in which case you would probably mention certain aspects of smell and taste. Maybe you want to communicate the humorous nature of your morning, so you would focus on the minute details of your sluggish thoughts and movements before you spilled the coffee all over you new pants. The way you pick the points between which you draw the lines of your story is completely arbitrary, but vastly changes the nature of the story that is told and the meaning it conveys.

The same applies to the Story Of Their Life that people tell others and themselves: even the short time it takes to pour a coffee has too many possible story-points to name them all, let alone tell them in a coherent whole, and the life of even a young person has already had billions of those moments. Thus, when people tell the story of their life, or of a certain part of it, they choose the points they connect to form their story, their narrative.

People visiting therapy usually start out by telling a problem-saturated story of their life, a story that is focused on the problem that led them to therapy, limited in scope and not doing justice to the enormous complexity and variety every human life has. By encouraging to take more story-points of their life into account and to seek out enriching sub-plots and unique outcomes, meaning exceptions to the rules of the problem-saturated narrative, the therapist aims to help the person visiting him to expand the view they have of themselves and the narrative identity they have build around their self-narrative.

Narrative Identity

Narrative Identity is a concept that posits that people define and build their identity not by their inherent essential nature or determined through their experiences in early childhood, but through the socially influenced stories they tell about themselves, through what narrative therapists call self-narratives (Gergen & Gergen, 1988; Payne, 2006).

Based in social constructionism, this view of identity-building “questions the concept of a ‘core-self’. [Social constructionists] propose that identity is socially constructed – ‘negotiated’ – from moment to moment, and varies according to circumstance, its apparent continuity and illusion based on the generally consistent and repeated social circumstances within most people live (Gergen and Davis, 1985; Anderson, 1997; Gergen 1992, 1999)” (Payne, 2006, p.33).

Each microsecond might be a slice of time, but people experience existence not as a moment-to-moment series of distinct events, but rather as a flow. A coherent identity gets formed that exists throughout this flow of time and events; people identify continuing traits in themselves – a short temper, a great intelligence, a strong sensitivity for emotions, a love for art, a knack for machines, bad luck or good fortune.

They also define themselves by their roles throughout life - as a man, a mother, a brother, a doctor, a citizen, a sportswoman – and how they perform those different roles: “I have always been a bad mother”. This last, simple seven-word-sentence already connects an uncountable number of moments and events, actions and thoughts, to a coherent identity, which is a story in itself: that the person saying it about herself is a bad mother. Such a self-description also sets forth a layer of expectations that inform the perception of future events into the continuing narrative, when the pre-moulded narrative identity either gets challenged or confirmed.

As identified by social constructionism, identities don’t exist in a vacuum, either: the social context significantly affects the way people think about themselves as well as the way they tell their stories, as those are typically formed alongside the lines of well-established dominant narratives told in the culture the person exists within. For example, people from western societies, which place a lot of value on youth and vitality, typically tell a declining self-narrative about themselves when they get older (“After my golden years were over, I started to feel older and older...”), while persons from eastern societies, which see great value and wisdom in people of old age, typically tell self-narratives focused on continuing growth and valuation about their later years (Gergen & Gergen, 1988). The nature of a story told about a certain set of events changes with the social background of the story-telling observer.

Taken together, this means that self-narratives are incredibly important for a person’s sense of self and also highly mutable recipients of a host of influences. Accepting this means that people are authors of their own story, and thus have the power to change the narratives they tell about themselves. Narrative Therapy is a means to assist in doing just that, in assisting persons to reconsider the roles they see themselves in, to re-evaluate the context in which they have grown up and told their stories, and to tell richer, more layered stories about themselves than they did when they entered the therapy room.

Continue with 2.2 Concepts and Practices of Narrative Therapy

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