“I sat with my anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.” ~ anonymous
For many people, identifying and/or processing emotions is difficult. But when they tell their stories, suddenly things that were jumbled in their minds become salient as they are expressed and named. This is called “externalizing problems.” Clients learn to put things down on paper and/or out of themselves which can be cathartic. It’s also a way to gain critical space between oneself and one’s perspective, allowing for more objectivity.
From oral history to written history to present day digital formats, like blogging or vlogging, storytelling is how people understand themselves or others and how these stories are told changes how they are interpreted. Generally, people live their lives by the stories they tell themselves and others and they derive much of their meaning in life from these narratives and the through-lines they may or may have yet to draw between them.
The mechanics of re-authoring identity in Narrative Therapy require many techniques and types of questioning:
- Co-construction: This is when a peer, facilitator, or therapist and a client work together to develop an “Alliance” (or therapeutic relationship set out in a co-active and contractual way) and to develop a different view of their problem(s). And, as they develop new meanings, clients develop new ways of resolving these problems.
- Collaborative case notes: This means writing process notes with the help of the client and constructing the meaning of the session with the client.
- Externalizing problems: This is done chiefly by naming the problem(s) and helping the client understand that problems are artifacts born of the social contract yet functionally distinct from themselves i.e. people are not defined by their problems, they define their problems.
- Identifying a dominant narrative: This describes understanding one’s principal view of the world and whether it is or how it is helpful or hurtful.
- Identity story questions: These consider how stories shape identities. A storyline is comprised of: i) events, ii) in a sequence, iii) across time, iv) that can be organised according to a plot or theme. If any of these elements are missing, then it is not possible to have a full storyline. So, considerations of each of these elements are critical in re-authoring conversations.
- Landscape of action questions: These identify times when the client was able to successfully deal with their problems and they help the client focus on strengths and begin the solution-generating process.
- Landscape of consciousness questions: The unconscious is where things exist prior to our assigning of meaning to them, and exploring them may bring previously unresolved issues to the level of conscious awareness.
- Objectification: “Objectification” is when an individual is conflated with their illness or, rather, when people are diagnosed and categorized by their psychiatric labels instead of being recognized for their full humanity. Understanding this helps the client disengage from the medical model or pathologizing of mental health consumers/survivors and advocate for themselves.
- Opening space questions: These function like “Unique Outcomes” i.e. identifying a time in the past when an individual was able to overcome their problem(s) without being previously aware they had done so.
- Questions about the experience of experience g. How do I experience other’s perceptions of me?”
- Questions that extend the story into the future: These are especially effective for individuals who find it difficult to imagine their futures or set goals.
- Reauthoring or meaning questions: These are designed to challenge negative self images and emphasize positive agency, like — “What does this tell you about yourself that it is important for you to know?”
- Reflecting team: Team members observe the therapy interview and then discuss their observations and thoughts in front of the therapist and client and the therapist and family then discuss the team’s conversation (as it is a process of full transparency).
- Rhetorical questions: These questions are designed to elicit a specific response or to help people see they are separate from and have power over their problem(s) e.g. “Was the way you handled it more or less effective than you have before?”
- Story development questions: These build the story from Unique Outcomes e.g. “How will you know when this new story has begun to play out for you?”
- Therapeutic certificates: This is when a therapist, peer, or facilitator has the client create certificates to announce the solution of their problem(s).
- Therapeutic letters: Writing clients letters based on the sessions serves as a reminder of the emerging subjugated story.
In this process, the facilitator/peer/therapist must show unlimited positive regard for the client and maintain a stance of unknowing and curiosity. They help a client question, label, and focus on strengths and re-evaluate important moments and events in their lives.
There are so many variables in anyone’s narratives that there is no way to know which direction a story can take and this is the majesty and transformative thrust of storytelling.