Thanks Jess for agreeing to write our first Guest Blog – a new feature on this website. Jess wrote these reflections after attending her first Narrative Therapy workshop (June 2017) sponsored by Re-authoring Teaching.
My First Professional Experience with Narrative Practice
Attending narrative camp in Vermont this summer was my first professional experience with narrative practices. Since being introduced to the tenants of narrative therapy, I’ve been trying to identify why I felt so completely different at a narrative workshop compared to other trainings in more “conventional” modalities. Not only did it feel different professionally, but I was able to be present in an unusually authentic way, personally. As a person with ample lived experience, I am generally afraid of being “found out” by colleagues, which is a fear that has only grown as my career progresses. I felt so different at the narrative workshop. The energy was different, the people were different. Most notably, I didn’t feel like an imposter and I didn’t feel hot shame smoldering in the background. As a clinician with lived experience, I always feel I need to subordinate one identity (professional) over another (sick person) in frameworks that focus on pathology. Either health wins or illness wins, but there is often not space for a more complex and nuanced narrative. Consequently, the sense of internal fragmentation with which I always contend becomes thicker and more alienating. The energy required to present well becomes an ever increasing tax demanded to inhabit professionalism, a tax I’m terrified I won’t be able to pay on any given week.
A phenomenon I experienced while learning about narrative practices was this curious sense that self-compassion through a narrative lens somehow feels more attainable and less threatening. I sometimes find it hard to be in a yoga class, workshop, or other space where one is bludgeoned with directives of self-compassion; it makes me feel like a hysterical cat tied up in a sack about to be drowned in a sea of meaningless platitudes by glowing people who look great in their yoga pants. Hmm…maybe that’s a touch histrionic! But seriously, I think self-compassion is different in narrative because the client has to be the one constructing the narrative arc, the one gathering points of evidence into a story that is both compassionate and manageable. I’m not sure I’ve ever truly believed in a visceral way that I’m deserving of love and compassion, but recently I caught sight of some of the scars on my arms and thought, almost tenderly, “My body has been through a lot.” This kind of neutrality when thinking about myself is rare and it was a very welcome experience, a dose of self-compassion I could tolerate.
My first real introduction to narrative in a professional capacity has allowed my literary mind to take over as an observer self who is more curious than contemptuous. What I would normally identify as a core belief (ex: I am a loser) is somehow different when examined as a story or dominant narrative. I’m still not exactly sure why, but I think it has something to do with the dogmatic connotations around the word “belief.” It suggests the integrity of the entire system is compromised if the belief is altered. Thus, changing a belief is incredibly daunting because it feels as if the entire self-system must be renovated. A story, however, implies agency and creativity and gives the impression of “moving toward” identity versus “moving away” from a core belief. A belief seems to demand a system of thought, which is overwhelming, whereas a story can be localized and non-threatening.
Since learning about narrative therapy, it occurred to me that one of the things I struggle with theoretically is a somewhat utilitarian view of therapy that developed while I was working in NYC. I haven’t necessarily been creative and flexible in my approach because of this idea that any mental health service must be efficient, cost effective, able to be disseminated, maximizing resources for the greatest number of people. But this comes from the idea that we, as clinicians, are supplying the resources, the commodity of expert knowledge. I love the narrative notion that everyone is inherently resourceful and contains their own expert knowledge. Through this lens, the resources available are infinite and it’s only a matter of gaining familiarity and experience with these internal resources through collaboration. Suddenly the work is less Sisyphean and actually sustaining.
While listening to seasoned narrative clinicians discuss their work, I felt something almost unrecognizable, which I decided to identify as a feeling of joy. Confused, I wondered why I was feeling joy (I worried for a moment that I had a brain tumor). It came to me: I AM ALLOWED TO LOVE MY CLIENTS! Since the day I began this work, I’ve been acutely aware of how distant we are trained to be and how constricting this is for me as a clinician. I’m not talking about boundary-less relationships or reckless practices, I’m talking about the power of loving through witnessing. I’ve had some of the most productive and meaningful sessions with people since exploring narrative practices not because I’m doing something drastically different, but because I have been freed to be enthusiastic and passionate and CURIOUS. The clients detect this shift and respond with more authenticity and willingness to tolerate vulnerability.
I have barely dipped a toe into the community, but I can’t wait to learn more and to make narrative practices a huge part of my work. One of my passions is working with people diagnosed with psychotic disorders and I’ve been thinking a lot about how narrative can be invaluable in this area. The experience of psychosis is almost exclusively viewed through a pathological framework and clients are often very aware of the fear outsiders have of their experience. Narrative practices could allow clients to make meaning of their experiences for themselves and to engage strengths and values within their own system of reality to manage participation in a broader community, to gain agency and increased sense of self-worth, and to improve their quality of life. Narrative has opened up so many possibilities!
Narrative practices have allowed me to begin to reacquaint myself with certain periods in my life, elevated not by embarrassment but by compassionate recognition; I understand the illness identity could be part of a richer history and not just shameful episodes or a dismembered narrative. Being able to share that space with like-minded people allowed me to feel, really for the first time, that I can have the experiences I’ve had, even be open about these experiences, and still be a good clinician.
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