Just as telling experiences configures our identity, social discourses affect how we see life. What if they were the source of our problems?
There are stories or anecdotes of our life that we always remember and that we explain to the people around us or even to those we have just met as soon as we get the chance.
Through those versions (stories) that we talk about ourselves and others, people give meaning to our lives.
THE POWER OF STORIES
It is the idea on which narrative therapy is based, a form of psychotherapy that, ultimately, understands that the events we choose from our lives to explain to ourselves or to others shape our identity.
It was the incredibly genuine and colorful therapists Michael White (Australia) and David Epston (New Zealand) who created this approach in the 1980s. Their contributions were so novel and advanced that it did not take long for it to become a major international echo.
In fact, today, psychologists, doctors, social workers, lawyers and various professionals from different fields of the five continents apply the principles developed in the best seller of these authors: Narrative means for therapeutic purposes (Editorial Paidós Ibérica).
DOMINANT SOCIAL DISCOURSES HAVE A LOT OF POWER OVER PEOPLE
Both the theoretical foundations and the practices of narrative therapy are based on social constructionism, which considers that knowledge and identity are a relational phenomenon, that is, that both are constructed through interaction with others and in a particular cultural setting.
In other words, social discourses directly affect the way we construct reality. Thus, society and individual are indivisible. This, as simple as it may seem, actually has important consequences for the human being, especially in this capitalist age when ruthless individualism prevails above all else.
Inspired by the philosopher Michel Foucault, who analyzed the construction of subjectivity in terms of the social, White and Epston paid special attention to the dominant discourses of society that exert power over individuals.
They concluded that dominant discourses can have a significant impact on the stories that people create about themselves, limiting, subjugating, or even blaming them for any failure to meet social performance demands. That is precisely one of the poisons of individualism: that it fills us with expectations and demands, isolates us and blames us for failure.
Following this logic, these authors offered a very interesting way of understanding the problems faced by human beings: they suggested that these are not a product of intrapsychic problems (arising in the mind), but are derived from oppressive social practices and dominant social discourses, implicitly assumed and little questioned, according to which people should live their lives.
The problem would then be that people frequently follow social scripts that end up constricting their identity and well-being.
STEP BY STEP: ANALYZE THE MESSAGES WE RECEIVE AND HOW THEY INFLUENCE US
We are immersed in a multiplicity of stories. We absorb them from morning to night, from birth to death. Family, society, the media, social media continually overwhelm us with stories.
The idea is that, in some way, a person can put those knowledge, beliefs and practices that come to us and strengthen the problem in parentheses and take distance to contemplate other ways of living life, more in line with their preferences. Thus, this therapy tries to convey and enable the person to “re-narrate”, to “re-write” their own life, through therapeutic conversations.
But, what then are these conversations that allow us to “rewrite” life? Let’s see some keys.
The first thing this therapeutic practice seeks is for the person to understand that their problem does not define them as society has been able to make them believe. To understand it, the first thing he proposes is to make a linguistic separation between the negative (problematic) labels that have been socially attributed to him and his personal identity. For example, it is not the same to say that someone is depressed than to conceive those social demands for success affect a person’s well-being. There is a big difference between the two perspectives.
This process, within narrative therapy, is known as “problem externalization”. Outsourcing a problem has very powerful effects on how this person will relate to the problem itself and to their future.
Let’s see an example:
- While being depressed which is an internalizing position leaves little room for maneuver for change, “fighting depression” increases a person’s degrees of freedom (depression is outside).
- The adjective depressive defines and classifies the person, while the noun depression allows us to reify the problem, externalize it.
- Later, on the noun, infinite metaphors can be articulated, for example: “face the demands of society” or “the clutches of depression”, and so on.
Unfortunately, Western society encourages the first type of descriptions in its dominant discourse. Narrative therapy, by contrast, promotes alternative narratives that give control to the person and that, and here comes the second of the crucial aspects of this model, return the protagonism to the individual. They empower you.
Indeed, “re-authorizing” the individual as an actor of his own life, of his decisions and of the narrative script of his personal history is one of the greatest challenges for a conversation to end up being truly therapeutic.
BUILDING OUR OWN LIFE SCRIPT
For narrative therapy to work, it must achieve at least two objectives to minimize the impact of dominant social discourses and, on the other hand, to enrich personal narratives that promote an image of competence and empowerment and that bring the person closer to their preferred future.
The preferred future term is important in narrative therapy. It refers to the fact that it is oriented and guided by the meanings and preferences of people. Therapeutic dialogue is thus a “co-constructed” process that allows the negotiation of meaning and expert-to-expert collaboration.
During the course of therapy, therapists try to identify milestones and exceptions in people’s lives that have not been noticed and that contradict the dominant discourses that support the problem. Therefore, noticing and valuing the experiences that have been made invisible is key in this matter.
QUESTIONS TO MOVE FORWARD
It is not easy to outsource a problem and it is not easy to reauthorize a person. This must be constant and patient in its process, since the therapist has mainly a single tool words.
In order to ensure that the person who comes to the consultation can complete this process, they resort, specifically, to questions. The questions are not used as a resource to obtain information but as a means to generate experiences to the extent that they open doors to new stories that configure a preferred future. Stories that help us to devise future scenarios in accordance with our principles, values, wishes and intentions.
It is not about teaching. It is about helping to destroy ingrained ideas and myths, deconstructing assumptions that we have implicitly taken to be true, and constructing preferred narratives about who we are, who we were, and especially who we want to be.