How Narrative Therapy Can Help Us Take Ownership of Our Stories
Veronica Esposito on Finding the Connections in Human Experiences
As a mental health counselor working toward licensure, it’s my job to learn to understand the experiences of other people. I am supposed to account for their long and complicated histories, their family connections and webs of interpersonal relationships, the fears that hold them back and the aspirations that drive them forward. This is no small task: Marilynne Robinson once speculated that the human mind is the most complex object we know of, its magnificence and range of interconnection dwarfing even that of entire galaxies made of billions of stars.
How then to assimilate a galaxy’s-worth of human experience? Fortunately, counselors are given many different tools to help them, and one of the most potent is stories. To borrow from Joan Didion’s The White Album, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We live entirely . . . by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” This is true, and it aligns with a kind of counseling known as Narrative Therapy.
Narrative what? To explain, let me take a step back. All therapists subscribe to one or more theoretical orientations, of which Narrative Therapy is one. Theoretical orientations can be thought of as lenses that clinicians use to make sense of how the human psyche works and how positive change occurs. For instance, one of the best-known theoretical orientations is the psychodynamic model, aka Freudian theory, which holds that our problems as adults are caused by developmental traumas, and we can overcome them by releasing our repressed pasts and processing them. They psychodynamic model is just one of numerous theoretical orientations to choose from, and during the course of therapy, therapists use their theories like roadmaps that help them navigate their clients’ complicated life histories and powerful emotions. They also rely on these theories to offer interventions that can help clients heal and move past their challenges.
When you study to become a therapist, the various theoretical orientations are laid out before you for the choosing like a buffet, and you very quickly realize that each has its own personality. Some seem like long lost friends, and others completely turn you off. Some seem quite old fashioned and inflexible, only salvagable after a wholesale revamping to deal with their inherent misogyny, racism, and/or LGBT incompetence. Others are much more conversant with the realities of our time, and these feel more adaptable to our evolving understanding of mental health. Some aren’t compelling enough to earn your total agreement but make enough sense to offer you a few useful ideas that you can integrate into your primary theoretical outlook. All have strengths and weaknesses, specialities and blindspots.
All of this brings us to Narrative Therapy, which is the theoretical orientation that I use when working with my clients. I was drawn to it for multiple reasons, foremost because Narrative Therapy primarily works by focusing on language and stories—things that I adore and know to be quite powerful. It was created by two avid readers, and it seeks to bring about positive change by helping individuals become more aware of the life stories that they tell themselves, then giving them the tools to reauthor those stories.
Narrative Therapy is straight out of Derrida in that it sees the world as dominated by various systems, with language being the system par excellence. Because language is so essential to our world, Narrative Therapy construes everybody as inherent storytellers who—consciously or not—are crafting the narratives of our lives. It holds that these stories are crucial, as is the language that we use to tell them.
Consistent with ideas that travel with the likes of Derrida and Didion, Narrative Therapy emerged from the intellectual tides of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and its founders—Australian Michael White and New Zealander David Epston—began promulgating it in the ’80s. (This makes it one of the newest theories that therapists use.) It grew out of movements like Second Wave Feminism and the poststructural theory epitomized by Michel Foucault; that is, forms of protest and revolution that questioned how certain groups (e.g. women, LGBT individuals) had been pathologized and othered by the patriarchal, heteronormative structures that were not seen as biased choices made for the benefit of powerful individuals but rather as inherent features of our world that were synonymous with reality itself.
Narrative Therapy sought to ameliorate the effects of these power structures; instead of telling clients who that they were diseased individuals in need of fixing, it empowering clients to define themselves on their own terms. It insisted that clients were the best experts on themselves, and it saw the job of the therapist as supporting clients as they authored their stories. It chose not to see anyone as inherently diseased or wrong but rather to focus on an individual’s strengths and to separate people from their problems.
It is important to note that Narrative Therapy is not a recipe for solipsism. While it can be powerful to recognize the control that we have over the stories we tell about ourselves, Narrative Therapy is also attentive to the inherent structural inequalities and biases that exist in this world, and the powerlessness that can come to those on the receiving end of them. Rather than an attempt to isolate the self from the rest of the world, Narrative Therapy encourages individuals to connect with these other structures and stories, to do the hard work of integrating these facts into our lives. It also recognizes the enormous importance of relational health—that we all thrive on connections of to other people, and that we cannot live healthy lives if these connections are not strong and nourishing.
Narrative Therapy resonated with me not just as someone who has worked with stories for all of my professional life—and who has long believed that we do tell ourselves stories in order to live—but also as a person who has been on the receiving end of the power structures and forced isolation that had deformed my own life narratives to bad ends. As a transgender individual, for entire decades of my life I accepted the narrative that the dominant systems in my culture gave to me, construing myself as diseased, shameful, grotesque, unacceptable, and irredeemable. I accepted the idea that I would forever envy a life that could never be mine. I did my best to cope by embracing narratives of pain and futility, but despite my attempts to thrive as best I could, I was cutting off my true self from the world, and disconnecting from my own body.My work is not so much to help individuals craft their stories as to help them see the stories they are already crafting, and then to help them have more ownership over them.
It was only when I began to tell my own story with my powers of language that I started creating a space where this real me could exist. I came out as transgender via an essay I wrote in 2014 for The White Review, and I further explored my predicament in a memoir I published with a small press. I cannot express how much it mean to me to write these documents and to put them out into the world. Around that time, I also began reading autobiographical narratives written by other transgender individuals. This period marked a crucial transformation. It was the beginning of my capacity to rebut the stories about who I was that had pathologized me for my entire life—essentially, I began to reclaim my very body and my very mind for myself.
I asserted that there was nothing wrong with me, and I began to tell the story of a woman who had been terribly wronged and who was finding the wherewithal to free herself. It is a story that I am still crafting to this day and that is still impinged upon by the harsh and malicious narratives about transpeople that are promulgated by extremely powerful individuals and vast institutions. This life is not an easy one to live, but I feel proud to be the author of my own story, and it helps me to be in community with those who read my work and who help me as I continue to tell this tale of my life.
One of the things I love about Narrative Therapy is that it is open to all of us, for anyone who is human has some kind of a language, we are all inherent storytellers. My work is not so much to help individuals craft their stories as to help them see the stories they are already crafting, and then to help them have more ownership over them. I am just beginning to practice in this field, so I have much to learn, but already I can see how satisfying and necessary this work is.