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Narrative Therapy: What you believe matters

There’s this great quote by Michael White, the “father” of narrative therapy, that unfortunately sounds pretentious as heck. "Meaning does not pre-exist the interpretation of experience." This guy’s books are just chapters of sentences like this, they are DENSE. But his point is sound:

Experiences don’t have meaning until someone creates meaning for themself.

What does that mean? The stuff that happens to us just happens, it’s what that stuff means to us that shapes how we understand it.

If you’re thinking that doesn’t make sense, consider this: The first time I shaved my head I was 18, bored, and my housemate had an electric razor. It wasn’t a big deal, to me or anyone else. Go back a few hundred years and women forcibly had their heads shaved as punishment, and it was considered hugely traumatising and impactful. And even now you can find articles about young women shaving their heads for charity and they’re always so brave and amazing for cutting their long hair. So why wasn’t I sobbing on my bathroom floor, clutching my erstwhile curls?

Well, according to Michael White, because it’s not the event, but the person, that defines the emotional impact of the event.

I’m very on board with this. Any member of a minority group has some experience with outside voices telling us what our experiences mean. And Narrative Therapy can help us take some of that power back by reducing how much outside voices get to control our narrative. Yes, outside forces still have an impact, but we at least can decide whether we take outside meanings to heart. Especially when who we are - physically, mentally, emotionally - are considered to be ‘weird’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘less than human’ by those outside forces.

It’s a way to take back power in our lives, starting with the power to define ourselves and our experiences on our terms.

So that’s one of the Big, Main Concepts of Narrative Therapy. It’s probably the first that comes to mind when people hear about it. “Oh Narrative Therapy? That’s about, like, rewriting the story of your life, yeah?” The other well-known one is Externalisation. White’s most famous quote is actually:

The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.

He was a big believer that modern medicine and psychiatry (modern by his standards - the 70s) was too focused on digging inside a person, finding the Bad Thing, and yanking it out. And if that sounds too oversimplified, keep in mind that Walter J Freeman, inventor of the ice pick lobotomy and operator of the (I swear this isn’t a joke) Lobotomobile, was banned from practising surgery in 1967. It was the era of free love and freer ethics.

Anyway. Our guy White believed that people don’t have a pure state of ‘goodness’ that gets damaged or poisoned, and requires an expert to get rid of the impurities and return people to their perfect state. He believed that we’re survivors, constantly growing and changing and making decisions not based on whether we’re good or not, but on our complex relationship to reality and the information we have (or remember). The “bad thing” wasn’t inside us, it was something external that impacted us and that we could make choices and work against - or with, depending on what we wanted.

So when looking at things like a Narrative Therapist, we ask about what people think and feel about a problem, how it affects them, and how they’ve resisted its effects. The problem can be anything, but the important thing is also that it’s you, and not the therapist, that decides what it is. Problems are unique and individual and take all sorts of forms, so we can’t guess what it is or how it affects you, just like we can’t guess how you’ve been standing up to it without asking you. There’s no driving into the town square and deciding all the teenagers would be model citizens if I remove a part of their brain without wearing gloves or a surgical mask… sorry, can’t stop thinking about the Lobotomobile.

We’re at two out of… at least ten… a whole bunch of fun things that Narrative Therapy does, and these two are among the mainstays. Can’t do Narrative Therapy without ‘em. But you can do ‘em without going deeper into Narrative therapy. Play with these ideas for yourself, and see if seeking out alternative stories, or looking at a problem as outside yourself, makes you feel differently about yourself.

If they sound interesting to you, go forth and learn more, you won’t regret it. If they sound like a way of working you’d like to experience, get in touch and let’s see what we can learn together. I promise not to get distracted by horrifying medical history.

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