Monday, April 16, 2012

The Story of You (and Me)

[Standard Disclaimer: Psychology and its sibling, psychiatry are not nearly the science that too many believe they are. Psychology and psychiatry have more in common with philosophy and religion. Psychology and psychiatry present a model and models are limited, imperfect explanations.
In 1931, Alfred Korzybyski, commenting on models and theories observed that (a)  maps may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory and that (b) the map is not the territory. Applied to psychology and psychiatry, Korzybyski’s statement suggests that while the models may be presented as reliable explanations, they are in fact limited and sometimes inaccurate. Many have had the experience of trying to use a map that just doesn’t accurately reflect the terrain we’re trying to navigate. I say all of this to disabuse anyone reading that the foregoing is a fact. What follows is a theory, a map – a belief. It is valid only to the extent that it is useful in helping us understand and navigate our lives.]

In the last 20 – 30 years a fairly new school of psychotherapy has hatched from the mother nest of philosophy. This newish belief system, the progeny of subjectivism, is often labeled, “Narrative Therapy”.

I don’t present myself as an authority on Narrative Therapy but it does present a number of ideas that help me understand myself as well as many patients. In this brief essay, I will try (albeit imperfectly) to put forward some of the ideas of Narrative Therapy. I invite you to ponder the ideas yourself – to see how it fits (or not) with your own experience of Life.

Basically, the narrative approach suggests that humans organize our lives and our relationships with others based on “stories” (i.e., accepted explanations). The stories may be “authored” by “authorities” (sometimes our parents, our families, our culture, or professionals). Sometimes, but not often, we are authors of our own life. I sometimes ask the question, “Are you living the autobiography – or are you living an unauthorized biography?”

Forgive me while for a moment, I use myself as an example. How did I come to the beliefs I have about who I am? Many years ago, I believed I was stupid, perhaps intellectually impaired… how did I come to believe that? I don’t recall anyone explicitly telling me that. I do seem to have a distinct impression that the belief was widespread and generally accepted – so I believed it too. I probably believed it for 35 years.

How many of us have had the experience of helping our son/daughter with homework and because they are frustrated (or tired or bored) they exclaim, “I can’t do it.” Or “I’m just not good at this.” Sometimes, this develops into a broader belief about themselves. They begin to “believe” they are generally incompetent. This narrative or story that “I can’t” becomes a “dominant narrative” that overshadows other possibilities. So when we encounter a situation, we invoke the dominant narrative, “I can’t”. The dominant narrative becomes a template for our lives. We use it to explain out past (I’ve never been good at math.) It colors our present experience and predetermines how the future will be experienced.

The narrative approach suggests that along with the familiar dominant narrative, there is a “competing narrative”, a narrative or story that contradicts the dominant narrative. Some say that the competing narrative is “marginalized”. As an illustration think of a large group of people, the great majority believe in the XY political position (the dominant narrative) a few believe in the PQ political position (the competing narrative). The PQ believers will likely feel it is better to not voice their beliefs too loudly because they might be overwhelmed by the XY believers – so the PQs are marginalized. Rarely, the PQs might be particularly courageous and voice their beliefs. There may be consequences for saying something unpopular. They may be told they’re wrong – stupid – immoral, they may be shunned. They may feel pressure to conform to the dominant belief to be accepted by the group.

One may wonder how the XYs came to believe in the XY position. Often we believe something because authorities (authors) have authoritatively stated the position and the author/experts have a valence of unquestioned credibility. How do these “experts” come into possession of so much power? Why do they have greater credibility than we do? Why did I believe that I was stupid? I believed it because a competing narrative (I’m smart) was marginalized. I believed it because unquestioned authorities said so. But… something didn’t go according to “the plan”. Gradually, the dominant narrative came under scrutiny and as the competing narrative gained ground, I became the author of my own life. I was no longer living a biography written by others.

Some of you may remember the 1944 movie, “GASLIGHT”. The concept of the movie is similar to what is suggested above:

Why does the flame go down? Lights in the London house are from fixtures with gas flames, and when you light one light, it reduces gas supply to the other lights in the house that are close by, and the light dims. But no one in the house has lit any other lights! And there are also footsteps overhead, from a nailed closed attic. Neither of the two servant ladies sees or hears either of these signs. Paula Anton (Ingrid Bergman) thinks she is losing her mind, just as she has lost the broach her husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) gave her. Her new marriage is falling apart; she cannot go out lest she make another embarrassing scene. Is it the house? The house where her aunt, a famous and beautiful concert singer, had been murdered when the young Paula was actually in the house. What does her new husband, who plays the piano beautifully, do for a living? Nothing. Why does he go out every night and leave her alone, alone to fret and worry? Who is the man who sees them at unexpected times and places, a man we the audience soon learn is Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland Yard detective. He is curious about the unsolved murder of Alice Alquist, the aunt who looked a great deal like the beautiful Paula does now; it was a murder that defied the investigators. No motive, no suspects. No clues. (IMDB)

The movie portrays a person’s perceptions being supplanted by another narrative. In the movie, the plot is intentionally driven by malicious intent. In our daily lives, our own native narrative is replaced, ostensibly, by well-meaning experts and authorities – but the net-effect is that our own experience is replaced with a culturally ordained norm.
  • How do we reclaim what has been appropriated by an unquestioned, ostensibly authoritative culture?
  • How do we free ourselves from identities that others (sometimes well-intentioned - sometimes not) decided for us?
  • Do we have the courage to “speak truth (the truth of who we are) to power (the dominant culture)?

I never cease to be inspired when I witness a marginalized culture “stand up” to speak their truth to the dominant culture. Here, I must admit that while I am inspired, I am not always comfortable with it. I’m not always comfortable because I am part of the dominant culture. I am Caucasian Christian heterosexual and male. I make no apology for it but when others, different than me, speak their truth, sometimes it conflicts with mine. Nevertheless, I am inspired by their courage and their commitment to authenticity.

If we want to speak our own truth – our own personal truth – perhaps we can borrow a page from those who, for so long,  have been disenfranchised and excluded.

I like learning new words. Learning new words contradicts the narrative that suggests that I’m stupid.

Hegemony is one of the words I like. Wikipedia says of hegemony:

In the practice of hegemony, the leader state (hegemon) formally establishes indirect imperial dominance (rule) by means of cultural imperialism, which dictates the internal politics and societal character of the sub-ordinate states that constitute the hegemonic sphere of influence. The imposition of the hegemon’s way of life — its language and bureaucracies (social, economic, educational, governing) — transforms the concrete imperialism of direct military domination into the abstract power of the status quo, indirect imperial domination. In the event, rebellion (social, political, economic, armed) is eliminated either by co-optation of the rebels or by suppression (police and military), without direct intervention by the hegemon; the examples are the latter-stage Spanish and British empires, and the unified Germany (ca. 1871–1945).

Hegemony is what many (sadly, sometimes myself) would seem to prefer. It seems we want others to reflect our standards, tastes, beliefs and values. It seems there is less and less tolerance for variation.

Can you say who you are without being seen as a monolith?

If I say I am Republican, that also means ________________ (fill in the blank)
If I say I’m Gay, that also means _______________________ (fill in the blank)
If I say I’m a Jew, that also means _____________________ (fill in the blank)
If I listen to NPR, that also means ______________________ (fill in the blank)

Can I be a Gay, Republican Jew that listens to NPR and Rush Limbaugh while eating red meat and drinking green tea?

Who tells the story of you (and me)?
What do we do if it's unpopular? Who will speak the truth?

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