Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 2.2 Concepts and Practices of Narrative Therapy

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

Ideas behind Narrative Therapy

In recognizing that persons tell their own stories, narrative therapists emphasise that every person is the greatest expert for her own story. Just as a researcher in a foreign country can’t observe the actions of natives without his own social background colouring his observations and interpretations, a therapist can’t entirely free themselves from their own individual biases and cultural lenses. And just as a good researcher, if they were to observe a foreign ritual, would be well advised to consult the natives about its meaning and the myriad cultural factors that contribute to it, a narrative therapist should consult the person themself about their life. This falls in line with one of the core principles of narrative therapy: the questioning and re-thinking of power structures, in this case that of the relationship between therapist and client.

Psychotherapy has, for some time now, become a staple of pop-culture, and even if you are not at all familiar with the language or the concepts of psychology or any of its different schools, chances are that you have nevertheless seen several examples of “therapy sessions” on TV shows, at the movies or in a book. This high profile of psychology and psychotherapy in various media has led to widespread beliefs and assumptions about how psychotherapy works, what kind of person therapists are and how the client-therapist-relationship is structured.

The image of the all-knowing, ever polite analysis-machine that seats some poor fellow on a couch and digs down to the deepest fears and traumas of the patient, just so that the striking revelations can heal the patient, is deeply imbedded in the collective mind of western society. This is a model of therapy deeply rooted in assumptions of structuralism, which posits the existence and study of ‘deep structures’ underlying all of human life, knowable only by trained experts.

This concept of therapy and therapists conveys several one-sided and distorted beliefs about psychology and psychotherapy, for example that All Psychotherapy Is Freudian (TV Tropes, 2018a), that psychotherapists are somehow above all the cognitive biases, cultural influences and emotional baggage that John and Jane Doe have to wrestle with, and that the relationship between therapist and patient should have the clear power dynamic of the sick patient who seeks out the doctor, who has the power to cure him. Narrative Therapy questions these assumptions and seeks to subvert them.

That not all psychotherapy is Freudian is a given, despite Freudian models being by far the ones most frequently displayed on TV. Freudian psychology / psychoanalysis is only one of several schools of thought (most with corresponding forms of therapy) besides cognitive psychology,  humanistic psychology, systemic psychology, Gestalt psychology or behavioural psychology, to name only a few.  Narrative Therapy, in its concepts and beliefs, overlaps with several of the different schools of psychology, for example the encouragement to re-think cognitive patterns that’s essential to cognitive psychology, the acknowledgement of the fact that a therapist cannot access the emotional past of a patient directly, but only through the filter of his account in the session, which is core principle of psychoanalysis, or the approach central to person-centred counselling of facilitating a process the client undertakes himself instead of imposing expert knowledge of the therapist on him. It is still very much its own therapeutic model, and Michael White even warns against the assumption that psychological models are interchangeable and just different faces for the same thing:

“[...] running together of distinct traditions of thought and practice […] leads to the false representation of the positions of different thinkers […] when these distinctions are blurred we cannot find a place in which we might sit together, regardless of our different persuasions, and engage in conversations with each other in which we might all extend the limits of what we already think.” (White 2000: 103–4; quoted via Payne, 2006)

Narrative therapists take a postmodern stance on knowledge (which shall be further discussed under 4. Lukas the Trickster), with postmodernism being a critique to binary thinking and a broad line of thought questioning the existence of universal truths, for example the objectively describable nature of the human mind or fixed roles for people in society. Narrative therapists are acutely aware – or are encouraged to do so - of their own basic, human nature, with all the fallibility that includes. Just as the introductory example of the researcher in a foreign land is supposed to illustrate, a therapist, just like every other person on this planet, is deeply shaped by the culture she grew up in, the social stratum of that culture she lives in, and all the other thousands of influences that form the personality of every living person in a different ways.

As such, a therapist, as every other human being, cannot have perfect objectivity regarding the story of any client. She is separated from the other person by the basic fact of being someone else, and her experience of the others thinking and feeling is again filtered through the vocal account that is given to her in therapy. The person seeking therapy, on the other hand, is the sole inhabitant of his mind throughout his whole life, is intimately familiar with his assumptions, feelings and beliefs regarding the various facets of life and is the author of his own self-narrative. For the therapist to acknowledge that she is as much a person with her share of faults, irrationality and biased perception as the person seeking therapy is a deliberate contrast to the kind of seemingly objective, apparently all-knowing archetype of a psychotherapist that a lot of people believe psychologists to be.

This post-modern stance includes questioning assumptions of modernism about human behaviour as objectively describable by science. It encourages persons seeking therapy to accept themselves as the most important actors in their life and to take responsibility for their actions and feelings. It also gives them agency contrary to a one-sided patient-doctor-relationship, where the doctor is the one holding expert knowledge and, thus, power and agency in the relationship. Many people seeking therapy suffer from harmful and belittling power structures in their life, some obvious, some occluded; the person they seek out for help shouldn’t create another hierarchy with them at the deep end.

Scrutinizing, questioning and challenging power structures and their underlying, cultural narratives sits at the core of using “narrative means to therapeutic ends” (White & Epston, 1990). Narrative therapy is post-structuralist, meaning that it opposes the rationalist, authority-based view of structuralism that knowable ‘deep structures’ underlie human experience, challenging “descriptions of human life based on metaphors of physical mechanism, biological functions or universal essences such as human nature” (Payne, 2006, p.36). This also comes with challenges to the position of expert knowledge and expert position of the therapist himself, who undeniably holds a fare share of social power by his assumed possession of expert knowledge. Opposing this, narrative therapy values ‘local knowledge’ over expert knowledge, the former meaning experiential knowledge that incorporates personal meanings and has no claims to being objective (Payne, 2006, p. 27).

Bruner (1987, p. 12; quoted from Payne, 2006, p. 27) formulates a form of mission statement of this narrative approach:

“for the last several years, I have been looking at another kind of thought, one that is quite different in form from reasoning: the form of thought that goes into the constructing not of logical or inductive arguments but of stories or narratives … just as it is worthwhile examining in minute detail how physics or history go about their world making, might we not be well advised to explore in equal detail what we do when we construct ourselves autobiographically?”

Every culture has narratives it imposes on and imbeds into the persons living in them, many coming with restrictive beliefs and assumptions regarding gender, sexuality, age, and every other possible facet of life: what a good life makes, what the place of different people in society should be, what the appropriate behaviour for men and women is, what it says about a person if she does this or thinks that, what the most important values in life are, etc. These beliefs can take the form of dominant cultural narratives, stories that are repeated and reinforced over and over, carrying the values, assumptions and expectations of any given society. Many of these beliefs and dominant narratives aren’t questioned or even recognized as “beliefs” rather than “facts” or “rules” for large stretches of time by most persons, and even those schooled in analyzing their own thoughts are sure to fall into that trap from time to time.

People seeking therapy often have unquestioned beliefs that prove to be harmful to them, hinders them from taking the agency they need or leads to behaviour and ways of thinking that hurt other people in their life. This does not mean that a therapist should judge apparent beliefs, or an accounted self-narrative in general, but that he should encourage his visitor to question the source and usefulness of the beliefs that govern his self-narrative. Questions like “Where did you get that idea?”, “Who told you about that in the first place? Who do you think told them before?”, “Do you think that every man holds this belief?”, “What do you think other women do in this situation?” are all aimed to assist a person in making the strands that form their self-narrative visible, to track them to their source and, if the person feels it to be necessary, try to re-order and re-think them (“Does it have to be that way?”).

Practices of Narrative Therapy

Central to all practices of narrative therapy as described by Payne in his Introduction for Counsellors is a very deliberate use of language.

“The powerful associations triggered by evocative language can be called on in therapeutic conversations to increase vividness and immediacy […]. But there is a down side. Narrative therapists try to remain aware that language is fraught with possible ambiguity, misinterpretation, and unthinking assumptions. By its very nature language is saturated with historically and culturally derived meanings, often unrecognized as such, which may influence or distort what the person and the therapist characterize and how they communicate. ‘Masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are good examples: even to the most thinking person these words are likely to trigger rooted associative overtones of ‘tough, active and decisive’ contrasted with ‘soft, vulnerable and passive’, and both imply an absolute gender distinction which biology and social psychology deny. It takes a conscious effort to escape from these meanings. Words are not representations of clearly distinguishable realities, but generalized symbols inviting the reader to supply meaning and definition from her own store of associative linkages. These associations are powerfully imbued with assumptions derived from their usage in a social and linguistic community.” (Payne, 2006, p. 8)

Narrative therapists try to avoid such misleading language and the pitfalls that go with it, one example being that Michael White uses the word “person” instead of “client” and never referring to them as “cases”, because both of the latter are not doing justice to the very intimate, personal situation that persons seeking therapy enter when visiting a therapist or counsellor. The practices used in narrative therapy all are build upon the central ideas informing narrative therapy and presume a deliberate and respectful use of language. Some of the practices shall be mentioned in the following paragraph; all of those deserve deeper scrutiny and come with their own pitfalls, upon which Payne expands in his Introduction.

Naming the problem (Payne, 2006, p. 11, p. 42) is one of these practices, where the person is invited to give their problem a short name of their choosing that it can be referred to. This supports the usage of externalizing language (p. 12; p. 44), meaning that persons are encouraged to describe their problem as an external one affecting their life, not something internal (and thus, immutable) to their self (“depression attacked me again” instead of “I was depressed again”), which is supposed to provide agency to the person.

It is worth mentioning that using externalizing language has clear limits and does not expand to abusive behaviour, which Payne states to always call out and encourage taking responsibility for. The consideration of social and political issues (p. 12; p. 47) is further advised to take into account to allow for a holistic, suitably complex perspective on the person and the problem at hand.

Relative influence questioning (p. 13)  seeks to underline moments where the person had influence of the “life of the problem” and not the other way around, aimed to help the person realize instances in which she was able to overcome or affect the problem in some way.

Moments like this that contradict the problem-saturated story the person is telling are called unique outcomes (p. 13; p. 65) and a central practice to narrative therapy is deconstructing unique outcomes (p. 14) to support the telling of a richer, more complex story that goes beyond the problem-saturated one. At a later point in therapy, persons are invited to take a position on the problem (p. 14; p. 74), to choose whether they want to fully acknowledge the richer story they have told with assistance of the therapist and work for change. Possible consequences of different positions on the problem are explored together with the therapist.

The usage of therapeutic documents (p. 15; p. 101) can be helpful for therapy, to assist persons in record important discoveries or to consolidate what they have achieved so far. A practice called Re-membering (p. 15; p. 172) invites persons to think about persons that have had a positive influence on them, such as role models, by-gone friends or lost relatives, and let them metaphorically ‘join the club of their life’ again (or, conversely, exclude persons that have abused or hurt them). A less metaphorical version of this is the usage of outsider witnesses (p. 16; p. 130), where actual persons are invited into therapy to listen to the persons’ story and provide their own perspective on it, telling and re-telling the story. This can provide the person with the discovery of sub-plots or reinforce the re-telling of their life-story.

All of these techniques and practices support the telling and re-telling of a persons’ self-narrative towards a rich, complex life-story (p. 16; p.126), which sits at the heart of narrative therapy.

This shall serve as a short introduction to the core concepts and narrative principles behind the practice of narrative therapy. Further exploration of different practices and the many facets of narratives as therapeutic means and binding powers will be discussed in the following parts analyzing Josh Reynolds’ three novels about two of the most infamous and idiosyncratic inhabitants of the Warhammer 40.000-universe: Lukas the Trickster (Lukas the Trickster, 2018) and Fabius Bile (Primogenitor Lt. Ed., 2016; Clonelord, 2017). But first, a short introduction to Warhammer 40.000 as an intellectual property and a short summary of the fictional history of the universe will be provided. After that, it will be discussed how Warhammer 40.000 invites players and readers to engage as active story-tellers with its material.

Continue with 3.1 An Introcution to Warhammer 40,000

If you're already familiar with Warhammer 40,000, feel free to skip ahead to 3.2 A Universe for Story-Tellers

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