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The Story is Everything by Peter Allen (Part 2)

Anticipating Resistance

Anecdotally, I have encountered some resistance in my clients to the rubber-meets-the-road work of CBT: identifying negative cognitions and self-limiting beliefs and building awareness of when those thoughts show up, so they can actively replace them and practice thinking in new ways. Once I had experienced the work as a client myself, I understood…it just seemed small. When we are dealing with powerful internal and external realities that are shaping our lives, it can feel somewhat uninspired to be examining the tiny and ethereal thoughts that flit through our minds like innumerable hummingbirds through the hedgerows. It can be hard to even catch one sometimes. A similar resistance can arise when attempting to utilize narrative therapy techniques with clients; it is not necessarily evident or intuitive to everyone that changing one’s story can result in the reduction of suffering. We must be able to demonstrate and then apply this concept to their real lives.

the field of psychology is the quaking autumn leaf in the aspen grove that is human storytelling

Before this resistance shows up, we can utilize the power of human storytelling by doing some simple psychoeducation, encouragement, and proactive framing. When conducting our intakes and assessments, we can already begin to introduce elements of storytelling and narrative structures with our clients. This could be as simple as saying “I am very interested to hear your life story,” or “Tell me about how your journey brought you into this office.” Such statements are already starting to prompt the client to see life through a narrative lens, which means that there will be a story with some coherence no matter who walks in the door. This gets them thinking about when the problems started, the times before there was a problem, and how their behaviors or choices have changed in relation to or because of the problem. It gets them thinking about other things besides the problem, such as their joys, their successes, the love they have had in their lives. Because all of that is part of the story.

We must have a story to understand our relative universes. In terms of what we find helpful as a species, this tendency in us predates the field of psychology by tens of thousands of years. The field of psychology is the quaking autumn leaf in the aspen grove that is human storytelling. Before we developed symbols to write and record language, the only way human beings passed on any intergenerational information was via storytelling. People are good at this, and it has been working to soothe primate psyches for, well, a long time.

Encouraging Storytelling

We know there is going to be a story. I see storytelling and meaning-making as powerful tools in facing whatever the malady may be. I want clients to understand it is in their DNA to create and interpret stories, so we are accessing an inherent human strength immediately. Most people show up to therapy as strong storytellers, and we are doing incredible clinical work if we slow down enough to hear the story…to listen to the themes, to identify the allies, the mentors, the heroes, and, more often than we would like, the villains.

If you are with me so far, then you have heard three main ideas by now. The first is that we understand the known universe through stories. Science is a story. The universe is composed of planets and stars made up of various elements that sit all together in a big stew we are all in, and a part of. That is comforting, right? It sure beats my saying “Nobody has any idea about anything.” The second is that there are any number of stories a person can tell about one singular event. A past tragedy can be the reason a person is struggling now, or it can be the source of their strength. The third is that people will create stories to explain their experiences, even if those stories are inaccurate or damaging. Trauma survivors will often blame themselves for incurring the trauma, even if the outside observer can plainly see that they bore no fault. In the absence of a coherent explanation, we will certainly craft any explanation so as not to be left in the emotional purgatory of narrative nihilism.

Accessing Imagination

It has taken me many years to even begin to understand the role that our imaginations can play in relation to our experience of suffering or thriving. I think Mark Twain may have captured this best when he said, “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Most of us can easily recognize the absurd validity of this statement; so much of what torments us is generated in our imaginations. We are somewhat prone to believe in the more negative aspects of our imaginations and discredit some of the more positive aspects. People ruminating on worries often believe they need to do this to be ready or prepared for a bad outcome. The same person may feel incredulous if you ask them to visualize positive outcomes, even though this is fundamentally the same exercise in reverse. Some of this is adaptive; we need to be prepared for threatening or uncertain outcomes, whereas we do not always need to prepare for positive outcomes. If it’s going to rain, I’ll need to bring a raincoat. If it’s going to be sunny, I don’t really need to do much ahead of time. Our prefrontal cortexes are always running simulations for us so that we have good information available when we need to make decisions. We are evolved to give our perceived problems more real estate in the grey matter.

To communicate the power of imagination to clients, there is a simple way to have them practice calling on this resource to produce very short-term, minor distress or calming properties and regulation. With their permission, and for clients who can tolerate some distress, we can have them visualize the last time they got into an argument or a conflict and report the sensations they feel in their body. Unsurprisingly, they tend to report feeling their heart beats faster, maybe getting hot, and feeling tension in their chest, neck, or back. All they did was imagine something, and then physiological changes showed up. Next, we can ask them to take a couple of deep breaths, settle into the chair, and describe their favorite place on earth in detail. Usually, they report feeling calm and pleasant at the thought, with more or less an associated reversal of those physiological changes. Doing these exercises together in this way helps to illustrate that, depending on how we employ and deploy them, our imaginations are quite effective at both increasing and decreasing our suffering. Having had the visceral experience, it becomes easier for clients to integrate the idea that our imaginations can be harnessed for positive outcomes that support their goals. We can use our imaginations to reduce our distress and create powerful emotional connections to the imagined lives we have for ourselves.

I have more than once pointed out to clients that they seem to have no reservations about using their imaginations to be miserable, but they seem hesitant to use them for joy. I communicate my curiosity about why they have come to believe in this one-sided relationship. This can help to motivate clients who sometimes believe that positive thinking or visualization is somehow naïve or unrealistic. We know intuitively that people feel better when they believe they did the best they could (control, finality, resolution) when compared with thinking that they should have done more (overwhelmed, unresolved). The vast difference in these two mental postures, and eventual behavioral outcomes, comes down to how they are imagining themselves in that situation.

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