‘Native’ cultures around the world have worked for thousands of years with story. More than ‘worked with’ – been founded on, lived by. Why? Because, at the risk of being repetitive and using one of my favourite quotes yet again, ‘Stories go to work on you like arrows … Stories make you live right … Stories make you replace yourself.’ These words, spoken by people from Western Apache communities to anthropologist Keith Basso (Basso, 1996), get right to the heart of why stories can change people. What we do with ‘narrative therapy’ is really no different in intent – it just runs the risk of being (and often, quite frankly, is) a whole lot more boring. We steal the idea, give it a fancy name, wrap it up in clever-sounding but largely meaningless jargon, and then, if we’re not careful, rip the heart out of it. Which, of course, is what western ‘culture’ does best.
‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,’ says Native North American Thomas King. ‘I will tell you something about stories,’ the Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko reminds us, ‘They aren’t just entertainment/ Don’t be fooled/ They are all we have, you see/ All we have to fight off/ Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.’
A few years ago I used to work with myth and story during the course of my own therapy practice, and during those years I taught a form of narrative therapy to health professionals (mostly clinical psychologists) for CPD (continuing professional development) purposes. It’s important to understand that the term ‘narrative therapy’ covers a wide range of approaches to therapy, though many psychologists when using it will be referring primarily to the work of New Zealander David Epston & Australian Michael White, who in the 1970s and 80s first began to write about what they called narrative therapy from a social constructivist perspective. Entertainingly, Wikipedia tells me that the term ‘narrative therapy’ must apply ONLY to approaches founded on Epston & White’s work, but that seems to me to be excessively appropriational … ! Certainly, the methods I worked with and the course that I taught derived very little from Epston & White’s work, and more from Jungian and other psychodynamic approaches, as I’ve always found them much richer and infinitely more transformative. For the sake of argument, and because quite often the work I did was less a matter of ‘therapy’ (which implies ‘fixing’ something damaged or broken) than simply personal (or group) growth and transformation, I’ll call the work I used to do ‘narrative psychology’ rather than ‘narrative therapy’.
Briefly, narrative approaches to psychology hold that life is storied: that meaning is given to experience through story, and that an individual’s identity and sense of self are chiefly shaped by stories. Stories which people tell about their lives and experiences; stories which determine how they see themselves and the role(s) they play in the world. Very often, individuals can tell stories about their lives that are dysfunctional, or, to use Epston & White’s phrase, ‘problem-saturated’. A story which is dysfunctional is a story which prevents an individual from growing, from changing, from solving a problem or even approaching a problem and learning to move on: for example, a story in which the individual only ever perceives himself as a victim, and never a protagonist with the power to act and change. The ‘problem-saturated story’ may become so dominant that it prevents the individual from interpreting their experience in any other way.
Nigerian writer Ben Okri says it much more elegantly: ‘In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.’
Because life, of course, is multi-storied. There is no one true story of anyone’s life; it is so much a matter of perspective. There are many stories occurring at the same time, and different stories can be told about the same events. I used this concept in my first novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue. One of the two main characters, Laura, is motivated by an elderly storyteller to look at the way she presents the victim-laden story of her own life:
Meg’s voice is fierce. ‘Listen, lassie: I’ve been a storyteller all my life. I’ve told the same stories over and over again. But here’s what I’ve discovered – here’s the beauty of stories. Stories are like life. At any point in the tale you can interrupt yourself. You can say: no, I don’t like the way this story is going. Maybe you can’t go back and change what’s happened up until now, but you can think about where the story went astray. You can learn from that. And then you can tell the next section in a different way. And next time you can tell the whole story in a different way. And then eventually you’ve transformed the story into something new: something better. You’ve seen it with different eyes.’ Laura feels rather than sees her shrug. ‘It’s not always easy, but it’s always possible.’
The role of the narrative therapist is then to help the client/patient deconstruct their self-limiting problem story, and create a more functional one: a process of ‘re-authoring’ (to use Michael White’s phrase) or ‘re-storying’ their lives. It’s about creating stories of identity that help people to break away from the influence of the problems they’re facing. The same principle applies if you’re just working with people in a personal transformational way, to find more meaningful stories to tell about their lives. To find more meaningful stories to live. Or with groups. There are many different techniques that can be used to achieve this; my preferred ways of working, and the ways I’ll be writing about here, have always involved much more than simply working on new and better story plots. Plot is only one aspect of narrative; there are many other building blocks which can be used to make the story richer, deeper, more meaningful, more transformative. If you work, as I did, in Jungian modes, then imagery, symbol and metaphor are critical. I worked in particular with myth and with mythic structures: both by using existing myths as metaphors, and by the creation of new ‘personal myths’. More on both of which in forthcoming blogs …
You may, of course, if all this is new to you, be wondering what’s so special about working with stories. Well, there are lots of reasons why narrative approaches to therapy and personal transformation can be so powerful:
- Telling stories is a basic human activity – everyone knows how to do it
- Stories move people and capture the imagination
- Stories allow us to achieve distance and objectivity in difficult interpersonal situations, to express and absorb emotional content constructively and safely
- Stories are not fixed but open to interpretation
- Stories are transformative. They allow growth: they can develop, change
- Stories help people to identify and use their own resources to cope with challenges in creative and personalised ways
- Stories help us to understand the roles that we and others play, and to respect each other’s skills and differences
- Stories help us to make sense of chaos: to simplify the complex. They help us to understand the plot and to gain insight into our role in it
- Stories allow us to see obstacles as challenges and to choose behaviours, for example, more fitting to a hero than to a victim
- Stories are powerful vehicles for communicating values and beliefs