I attended a level 1 training course last week, run by the Institute of Narrative Therapy, and below I highlight some features of the course which grabbed my attention:
The first thing that struck me was the focus on our sense of self, presented as what motivates us, our passions, what we place value and worth in, and what are our principles and commitments. When I say it struck me, it did, and the relevance of this being hard hitting for me suggests that this is something that I am perhaps distanced from. It wasn’t so much the reference to identity it was what it was seen as. Concepts of identity which referred to constructs such as traits, disorders, aptitudes and needs were frowned upon in favor of less inherent terms. These internal descriptors present a sense of self which is predictable, linear, measurable and fixed and I couldn’t help but wonder if in my professional and personal life I barrier mine and my clients’ existence in this framework. Narrative therapy on the contrary presents self as being more than what can be summarized in questionnaires or squished into test tubes, and presents the person as being one of passion and meaning, unrestricted and uncontainable. I like this definition.
A related aspect is the appreciation for the role of relationships in this sense of self. Narrative therapy accepts that the person is not independent and isolated, and narratives and meanings are all in the context of relationships. In investigating people’s problems and exploring the events of their lives relationships are fundamental. This really appealed to me, and I believe that as a society, we are neglecting the social nature of ourselves when we assess and ‘treat’.
Throughout the week I also found it challenging not to keep looking for the problem. The trainer gave various examples and demonstrations, and I couldn’t help but try to look for underlying statements, or search for things like ‘negative automatic thoughts’, ‘negative attribution styles’ and ‘negative core beliefs’. Is this problem oriented approach really so necessary?
Narrative therapy looks to deconstruct the problem in the first instance, to bring its game out in the open, and reveal its scams and expose its tricks. This gives a client a better vantage point to re-address the problem. The therapist highlights ‘unique outcomes’ that don’t fit with the problem narrative and which have previously been overlooked by the client. The therapist also questions and investigates, using the clients preferred concept of oneself as a platform to further explore the clients relationship to self by reflecting on events, relationships and actions across time. Embellishing and exploring this new narrative from the base of one’s preferred identity, opens up a new concept of self, unrestrained and not dictated by a problem focused perspective.
Narrative therapy also uses a technique called externalisation to encourage perception of the problem as being something separate from the person. It’s not about avoiding responsibility and association with a problem, but it says that who you are and what the problem is, are two separate things. I have often seen how this muddying of a sense of self with a problem contributes to many a mental health difficulty. Externalising a problem from the person, places the person in a greater vantage point of autonomy and choice over the problem, and helps people reflect on a problem in the light of a preferred identity.
The issue with approaching the problem from an internalised perspective, is that it takes attention and blame away from wider contributors to the problem, such as oppressive societal discourses. My own anxiety around workloads is an example. If I become too anxious and perhaps resort to having to take time off work sick, then I could assume that I have a problem, and that there is something wrong with me. What this also does is it gives justification for increased workloads, speed, efficiency and a buisness style approach to working with mental health. When I reflect on this discourse from a more distanced position, and externalise the anxiety, it seems scandalous that this approach is adopted and promoted in therapy. In deconstructing a problem narrative and externalising it, narrative therapy therefore also challenges and exposes, oppressive societal discourses and attitudes.
To conclude, the training was refreshing, and I see narrative therapy as a genuinely empowering approach. I hope I continue to employ, and explore what I’ve learnt, as it seems essential in order to prevent loosing the person in the busy market place of our lives.