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The Story is Everything by Peter Allen (Part 1)

For many of us, our early experiences with language came through the stories read to us by our parents, caregivers, and teachers. Even nursery rhymes tell a story. This is important for therapists to understand because as language is acquired in the brain, it is inextricably paired with a narrative structure. Language is one of the primary mechanisms by which we understand our universe and process our various and continuing sensory experiences. All the sciences are our best attempts to create a story about the universe in which we live. We have observed that gravity pulls objects towards the center of the earth, so it makes sense to us when our phones fall out of our hands and smash on the ground by our feet. Were our phones, upon being dropped, to fly upward and into space, we would truly be disoriented. It is not random; there is an explanation for the phenomena we encounter, and that is the core function of story—it is everyone’s explanatory language.

Storytelling as an approach in and of itself dovetails quite nicely with such popular approaches as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Narrative Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), to name a few. Regarding DBT in particular, aside from its documented effectiveness, Dr. Marsha Linehan’s life story is intimately connected to how and why she developed the approach.

As you read, I’d like to tell you a story about some of my own thinking that went into this piece. I do not present myself as an expert on this subject, but rather as an excited student. My hope is that you find these concepts energizing and useful in sessions, and they increase your ability to help your clients deal and heal. The story I’m telling myself is that if you know I am writing with humility in my heart, even if any hubris shows up on the page, you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. Ok (deep breath)…that felt good to write. I’m also telling myself that you will be very sick of the word “story” by the time this is over.

Understanding through Stories

We understand everything under the sun in more or less a linear fashion, proceeding in time from past to present, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Most of our stories, real and imagined, are populated by heroes, villains, allies, and red herrings, and they follow fairly predictable rules in terms of plot development, character arcs, climaxes, and resolutions. There are exceptions in narrative form, of course, and many great works of art have played against the observer’s expectations. Think of Salvador Dali’s paintings, the films of David Lynch, or any number of time-travelling scenarios depicted in literature and film. Works of art without clear linear narratives are often stimulating, if confusing, because we are very accustomed to viewing things through this narrative lens. They challenge our ingrained perceptions of how things are supposed to play out.

Just as it is difficult to imagine watching a movie with no coherent plot, character arcs, or resolution approaching (I’m looking at you, Lynch), imagine living your own life under similar conditions. This is to imagine a life without progress, goals, structure, or narrative cohesion. Many of our clients come to us in this state, whether it is recognized as such or not. It is common for clients who have experienced trauma, for instance, to show up in session with a fragmented narrative, reflecting perhaps not only literal missing information but also an unconscious belief that the universe itself is chaotic and unpredictable. They are not quite sure how or why the traumatic event happened, or how to prevent it from happening again. These narratives can contribute to feelings of fear and powerlessness. It is also common for trauma survivors to show up in session with a finely crafted, fixed narrative—one that puts themselves in the position of blame. These stories can contribute to feelings of shame and resignation.

One of the great strengths of approaches like CBT, DBT, Narrative Therapy, and EMDR is that they compel us to admit that there are several ways to look at any one event in our lives, even if they achieve this feat through differing approaches. Fortunately, we have been doing that on our own for millennia, well before these approaches existed. These disciplines discovered something new about humanity while tapping into something very old within us. We can help our clients access this endless reservoir and capacity for reflection when life presents with challenging events. This is one of humanity’s true superpowers—deciding how we see something.

Viktor Frankl understood this well as he developed logotherapy, which is focused on making meaning in life. Meaning springs forth from narrative. In Dr. Frankl’s case, his ability to make meaning helped him to endure the Holocaust rather than give in to despair. He had a reason to live, and this gave him purpose. Part of that purpose included telling the stories of those who perished in the concentration camps. The crafting of a compelling story was central to Frankl’s own survival and success after the war. He was not tinkering with his thoughts myopically; he was looking at the grand, sweeping current of his entire life. His frame was large, not small.

Our work with clients must include helping them to shape a coherent narrative that promotes health and mastery within their lives, and it must by necessity also keep the large arcs of their lives in mind, even as we address the smaller phenomena of their daily experience. If my client gets mugged on the street, is the story built around how they should never walk down that street again, or is it built around how they should study martial arts after that event? Will this story close possibilities or open them? When a loved one passes away, do the loved ones construct their story around the missed opportunities or the wonderful times that were experienced with that person? Does this narrative focus on what is missing or what was present? If my client is rejected by a potential partner, does it mean they are unlovable…or is the other person missing out? Does the story provoke a shame response or result in ego integrity? It is not difficult to see how certain narratives tend to arrive at certain conclusions, and those conclusions are accompanied by a series of decisions and behaviors that will have very real impacts on any person’s life. Using a storytelling approach in therapy considers that a narrative must be crafted, or in many cases altered, before a person’s outward reality can be improved.

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