“Stories Old and New: Narrative Approaches to Therapy”
by Kelly Murphy Mason, PsyD, MDiv, LCSW
When anyone declares, “same old story”, it’s intended as a dismissal of sorts. Implicit in this dismissal is our supremely human need to tell new stories alongside more familiar ones. In recent years, narrative approaches to personal healing have proliferated across academic disciplines and helping professions worldwide, from the Narrative Medicine practiced at Columbia University (1) in New York to the Narrative Therapy modality taught at the Dulwich Centre (2) in Australia. Whatever their particulars, narrative approaches to therapy all remind us that persons struggling with significant problems often work with problematic life scripts, as well.
Some people may even conclude that serious troubles have been scripted for them, if they notice certain troublesome re-enactments cause them to play caricatured roles in their own lives. They might operate with the assumption of a predetermined outcome unchanged in the face of a continuously shifting cast of characters at various stages of their own development. They might live to tell their tales, but the same ones, again and again. The more regularly certain tales get told, the more powerfully they can get reinforced as a dominant psychic reality.
Storytelling tends not to be a neutral act; rather, it evokes strong emotional states for unified effects, be they comic, tragic, or epic. Our personal narratives function to create a story-logic that gets preserved at the cost of curtailing a broader scope. Stories routinely establish what is and what is not relevant to the course of action; they determine what knowledge is essential to our proper understanding. As professor and psychiatrist Robert Coles (3) observes in his book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, stories seem to be educative the sense that they are generally perceived as containing a moral.
Those stories that give us our most memorable moral instruction often comprise sacred scripture. In Western religious traditions, canonical scripture presumes a moral universe that requires human participation. It also presumes an arc of action that is purposeful. Although psychotherapy challenged the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the collective experience of a shared reality by privileging instead the role of the individual’s inner life, it left unchallenged in the West our fundamentally narrative ways of knowing, as academician Donald E. Polkinghorne (4) has observed. From the earliest days of psychoanalysis, for example, analysts were trained using case histories recounting the life stories of their patients.
Yet the promise of storytelling as a therapeutic technique lies in its capacity not only to provide people with an open hearing and cathartic release, but also to cultivate their awareness of the idiosyncratic narratives they – consciously or unconsciously – use to organize their existence. People can be encouraged to become simultaneously author and protagonist in their own life stories, carefully crafting intersections around central themes that provide them with a sense of psychological coherence. They can become the bards of their lives as they are lived, recognizing their unique ability to make choices in the present tense, shaping a storyline as it progresses.
Psychotherapy usually involves persons telling therapists those stories they most want heard. Narrative therapists, though, are always listening for those important stories that have been that have not yet been told. All narrative therapists must challenge the fiction of the overdetermined narrative, authors Michael White and David Epstein contend (5), by highlighting instances when a “problem-saturated story” has excluded an exceptional outcome which can only be accounted for in a broader narrative framework, one that endorses a fuller range of our human potential.
Instead of overidentifying with the problems memorialized in the limiting story, a given narrator can be encouraged to interrogate his or her story-logic and modify it accordingly. In doing so, the individual narrator achieves a personal freedom. Without such freedom, the narrator runs the risk of becoming stuck in “the same old story”, without the benefit of a larger, and perhaps wiser, perspective being available. Should the interests of the story itself supercede its usefulness as a life script, the story enlists the teller for its ends instead of the opposite (and necessary) thing occurring.
The mark of any healing story is that it ultimately proves to be inspiring as well as inspired. As people begin to feel empowered as storytellers in their own right, they become more fully engaged as lead actors in their own lives. A few of their old stories may no longer be told with any conviction, while others may need to be told in entirely novel ways. Newer storylines emerge, complete with surprises. Recognizing that their stories exist as fabrications rather than artifacts, people become increasingly imaginative co-creators eager to re-story their lives to a meaningful degree.
The decisions all of us make about how we will regard and meet our life circumstance allow us to choose with intention the sorts of story we will participate in, be they scriptural or secular, conventional or exceptional, comic, tragic, or epic. Like psychotherapy itself, storytelling has long been considered as a shamanic practice, a method of channeling powerful energies in the service of significant human concerns and the greater good. With a more sophisticated narrative awareness, we can all communicate newer stories that express our deepest desires to heal ourselves and our storied world.
If you – like so very many people today – want to learn more about a narrative approach to therapy, please join PSI for its 2017 Fall Conference on November 11, with Gail Noppe-Brandon as our keynote speaker. See more details here.