Aug 11, 2008

Keeping the Horribles at Bay: Life as Stories

In his 2003 Massey lecture, award-winning author and scholar Thomas King talked about storytelling - how stories shape who we are and how we understand and interact with other people. He talked about the wondrous and dangerous aspects of stories and the moral and social responsibility carried by the storytellers. It was a fascinating lecture series before podcasting so I had to actually set time aside to sit beside a radio. How old skool! Anyway, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, got me very interested in the idea that we are both a collection of stories we tell ourselves and others and the stories others tell about us (our socially constructed identity).

Because I've moved from city to city with regularity, I've had to tell my stories over and over to different people. Every place I've lived has allowed me to amplify some experiences and downplay (or omit) other experiences. I can choose the stories I share. Because I have a blank slate while travelling, I create my identity and meaning by my choice of stories. The only person packing my baggage is me. However, like undies and socks, my depression narratives always get packed.

In past weeks I've written about mindful meditations in controlling depression and making meaning by using the metaphor of life as story. This week, I'm going to look at how narrative therapy seeks to make meaning from our stories so that we can heal. What exactly is narrative therapy? Therapist, Erik Sween, has an article that explains narrative concepts in layman terms:
  1. Every type of psychotherapy designates a different aspect of life as the basic unit of experience. For example, behavioral therapy focuses on behavior, cognitive therapy focuses on logical thinking, while systems therapy focuses on family interaction as the basic unit. In this way, narrative therapy holds up the story as the basic unit of experience. Stories guide how people act, think, feel, and make sense of new experience. Stories organize the information from a person's life. Narrative therapy focuses on how these important stories can get written and re-written.
  2. Narrative therapy proposes that people use certain stories about themselves like the lens on a camera. These stories have the effect of filtering a person's experience and thereby selecting what information gets focused in or focused out. These stories shape people's perspectives of their lives, histories, and futures. Despite information to the contrary, these stories of identity can be remarkably stable. Narrative therapy provides a means to refocus the lens on this camera and help reshape a person's stories and life.
  3. As people, we are inescapably meaning-makers. We have an experience and then attach meaning to it. Since time immemorial, and the days around the campfire, we have been telling stories. Stories are our most familiar means of communicating the meaning we find in our experiences. Narrative therapy is interested in the stories we live by - those stories we carry with us about who we are and what is most important to us. Narrative therapy involves unearthing these stories, understanding them, and re-telling them.
  4. Many forms of psychology and therapy place enormous emphasis on the process of individuation. In this way, the individual is believed to construct her or his internal world almost single-handedly. Narrative therapy provides a contrast to this perspective. Narrative therapy proposes that identity is co-created in relationship with other people as well as by one's history and culture. Thus, being seen by others in a certain way can contribute as much as seeing oneself in a certain way. We come to see ourselves by looking in the mirrors that other people hold up for us. In this way, a person's identity is said to be socially constructed. Narrative therapy focuses on the degree to which that socially constructed identity fits for that person.
  5. Narrative therapy consists of understanding the stories or themes that have shaped a person's life. Out of all the experiences a person has lived, what has held the most meaning? What choices, intentions, relationships have been most important? Narrative therapy proposes that only those experiences that are part of a larger story will have significant impact on a person's lived experience. Therefore, narrative therapy focuses on building the plot which connects a person's life together.
  6. A person's life is criss-crossed by invisible story-lines. These unseen story-lines can have enormous power in shaping a person's life. Narrative therapy involves the process of drawing out and amplifying these story-lines. Questions are used to focus on what has been most meaningful in a person's life. Common areas of inquiry include intentions, influential relationships, turning-points, treasured memories, and how these areas connect with each other.
I recommend reading the entire article. Depression is a real downer and finding many ways to heal and control the downward spiral is one of the most important things anyone who suffers from depression can do. Choose the make meaning, be mindful of the present moment and figure out which stories are better off not repeated again and again and which ones are worth retelling.


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