We Live by our Stories: Truth or Not
As a therapist who sometimes uses Narrative Therapy (a theory which starts from the assumption that “the story” is a basic human strategy for coming to terms with our human experience), I listen to a myriad of lovely and sometimes difficult stories. I am not talking about porch sitting, lap slapping, grandpa told stories. I am talking about the stories we tell ourselves on a daily basis, “I am always the outsider; I can’t seem to fit in.” “I am just not a good relationship person.” “I am an anorexic.” I am fat. I am ugly.” “I am the child of an alcoholic, so I have my issues.” “I just cannot be monogamous in a relationship.” “I have a learning disability, so I am just not smart enough for a good job.” “I am a wreck financially, and I always will be.” “I am a terrible mother; daughter, wife, friend.”
These stories may sound familiar to you. As humans, there is a running dialogue in our minds more times in the day than not. That is normal. When the story puts limits on you and influences the way you live your life in a negative manner, is when it becomes something to look at more deeply and maybe look at it with a friend you can trust, or a therapist.
For example, the story that you might tell yourself is “I am always the outsider, I can’t seem to fit in anywhere I go.” This bigger story includes smaller stories like these: “I moved to the South when I was young and was considered a “transplant” “yankie” or “stuck up” or just different from the others.” “I’m an overachiever in most things: grades, jobs, or projects. So people are threatened or jealous of my success, and do not want to be close to me.” “I am very liberal minded for a Southerner, so having these ideals keeps me away from the more abundant conservative crowd here.”
These stories about yourself that you hear from your family and peers or you tell about yourself and others in casual conversation becomes the storyline or narrative of your life and is indicative of how you live your life. Believing this particular story may keep you from joining in readily with others and keeps you at a distance. It may keep you from applying for your dream job. It can convince you that something is wrong with you. Or maybe it convinces you that you are “special” or “more unique” than others and gives you a narcissistic bent.
Neither is really true, is it?
Sometimes your narrative is used with power and greatly benefits you; and sometimes not. We don’t know why some folks tell inspiring stories about themselves and others tell limiting and punishing ones. By aspiring to be authentic at all costs, I check and recheck my stories, and I do see holes in some of my own stories or plotline, but it takes a lot of practice and the knowledge to debunk them. The beautiful truth is you are NOT your thoughts, your problem, or even your story. You, I mean we, are much much more than our stories.
Using Narrative Therapy on your own story/stories doesn’t take a therapist. We can logically expose the negative and debilitating stories and live our lives more truthfully and successfully with a friend (and these steps) or even better…a narrative therapist.
Choose a name for your story/problem. If we were to give the problem a name, what would it be? Ask yourself this question when a trustworthy friend is present and discuss. As a therapist, I ask the client this very question. “What can we name your story?” Since I have probably heard many versions of the same story and correlating themes in the sessions, I can offer suggestions. In the particular case of the first narrative I mentioned: “Outsider” is a perfect name. You can name your particular story: Stinginess, Bitterness, Addiction, Not Smart, or Not Fit For a Relationship.
This is a BIG and very important step, so make sure that you understand it completely before you continue through the steps. Externalize and personify the problem as if it is a character in a story or a puppet in a play. This just means to separate the character, Outsider, from yourself (externalize), and assign it the oppressive attributes that it deserves. It is a thing, a character in a play, or puppet, an icky critic over your shoulder, or an animal. The Outsider is a loner, not a member of many groups, cold, is lonely, is unloveable, is self-conscious, is ultimately unworthy. When we use an externalizing language like this, you can start to see how YOU are NOT the problem; however, the Outsider has a myriad of problems just mentioned. The key here is to use a non-blaming manner with yourself, do not shame yourself…remember we are talking about a part of yourself the Outsider. You are more than the Outsider.
For example, “The Outsider makes me believe I am unworthy and unable to fit in.” “It seems like Bulimia tricks me into binge eating” or “The Motor inside of Me makes it hard for me to sit still in class (ADHD).”
Ask yourself how the problem has been disruptive and discouraging throughout your life? How are your choices being limited? Is the Outsider keeping you at home instead of going out and being more social? …keeping you out of healthy relationships? …keeping you from going back to school or from applying for that new job that you think you want? Is it keeping you in the same pattern of continually repelling others and perpetuating the idea that you don’t really belong?
If you could wave a magic wand and change the Outsider story, how would the next 24 hours look for him/her? I am a big fan of writing things down: a detailed list of things that would change in the next 24 hours. This list helps make it more official…that this is a problem story and a problem that I really don’t want or deserve. I encourage you to look at how the magic wand will change YOU and your outlook and your future…and not others.
Talk with a friend or therapist and discover moments in your past when you were free from the problem/story. Dig deep, give yourself credit for those good times and sparkling periods. We tend to loose these memories because they haven’t been part of the plotline…but there are exceptions to the problem’s influence or unique outcomes in your life. Your job is to find historical evidence in your past to encourage a new view/story. This perspective will consist of the competent person that you are victorious over the Outsider, a joiner, a sociable person always invited to the party, the fearless and fierce pursuer of career and dreams. The question you ask yourself looks like this: “So when was the last time you were not considered an Outsider?” “Who knew you as an adolescent/young adult/child who won’t be surprised that you’ve been able to reject feeling like an Outsider?”
I encourage you to spend a lot of time on this step. Write it down. Keep it close. Refer back to it when you get stuck in the old plotline.
Design the future without the problem/story. What future story emerges from the strong, competent person who you have redefined? Because the problem/story is not a permanent characteristic of yourself, it can be done away with or changed; although you have been telling it for 50 years. What specifically will result if you keeps resisting the problem/story? “Can you describe what it will be like when you are free of the Outsider plot? Write it down and manifest your new perspective of yourself.
Re-write your story and tell it. What this means is to do just that. You can write in letter form with your friend or your therapist. If you don’t like to write, and it makes you feel bad to actually write it down, use a therapist or good and trusted friend to re-write it orally. Follow the rules to writing a new, positive, and doable narrative/story and include: Plot, Character, Setting, Conflict and Theme.
Tell it. Tell it more than once. Tell it to more than one person. Allow it to become your new narrative and refuse to repeat the former negative one…even in self talk or casual conversation. Be vigilant and mindful of the running dialogue in your mind and what comes out of your mouth. SHUT DOWN the negative. It is ever so important.
Narrative therapy helps people become authors of their own stories which greatly influence how they live their lives. In my practice, it is a GREAT day when a client re-writes his/her story and becomes the survivor and winner in his/her own storyline.
Freeman, J., Epston, D. & Lobovits, D. (1997) Stories of hope. In Playful Approaches to Serious Problems: Narrative Therapy with Children and Their Families (pp. 47-67). New York: Norton.
Nylund, D. & Corsiglia, V. (1993). From deficits to special abilities: working narratively with children labeled ADHD. In M. Hoyt (Ed.), Constructive Therapies (pp. 163-183). New York: Guilford Press.
Zimmerman, J.L. & Dickerson, V.C. (1996). If Problems Talked. New York: Guilford Press.
Disclaimer: By no means does this blog capture the whole heart of Wendy J. Poole's practice. There are many therapists and many points of view gathered there. It is JUST A BLOG, so don't take it too seriously and don't substitute if for real therapy. Reading and writing about how to manage a better happy life has been an ongoing project for Wendy...most of her life.