The Role of Narrative and the Importance
Particular narrative themes hold important clues as to the unresolved emotion that has been stimulated in the mind. Paradoxically, narratives arouse emotion as well. Either way, mental narratives reveal what needs to be “worked through” psychologically. Sometimes we may need to “let go” of a particular story, hold it more lightly, or make it not so significant. But at other times, we may need to delve into the story: reflect on it more deeply, think about why we are so invested in believing it, and understand why we may have told it. This is wise when relating to narrative.
When we dig down into human problems and experience, underneath we find relational underpinnings. Relational patterns underlie narratives and hold them in place. As discussed at length in Chapter 6, the mind is organized for relationships, and this includes patterns acquired implicitly (i.e. nonverbally) with significant others in early childhood. This is the “relational software” that runs the human “biocomputer” (Lilly, 1967).
To summarize the major points presented in previous chapters, psychological wounding and trauma occur when painful events befall us, not only actual (objectively real) events, but also those we construe in painful ways. We may, for example, feel rejected, betrayed, or abandoned, and we may also judge or blame ourselves in relation to what happens.18 How adequately we are able to negotiate the travails of human life depends in large measure on how well our significant others were able to help us make sense of (and therefore “metabolize”) what happened to us as we were growing up.
When significant others have been insufficient to our developmental emotional needs, we are left with feeling unsafe and emotionally overwhelmed, and we develop psychological defenses which in turn cause their own difficulties. In order to heal these wounds, we need what Robert Stolorow (2007) has called a “relational home” for our pain, a place where we can bring our metaphorically bruised knees to be examined, soothed, and bandaged. We need time and a compassionate space that can hold pain as we learn to accept it and be with it. This is one way that emotional healing occurs.
Alongside deconstructing experience and developing deeper emotional understanding of problems, a key step in psychological healing is the provision of empathic understanding by another. Being deeply understood in this way is primary and its value cannot be overstated. The other side of this same coin is the healing value of articulating our experience. When we speak deeply and from the heart out loud, subjective truths emerge which might otherwise remain in the shadows of our minds.
The intimacy of deep conversation, both speaking and being heard, is the heart of emotional growth and integration. It is the third leg of the “stool” in inquiring deeply: mindful awareness, self-reflection, and deep connection. Beneath and interwoven in narrative is the lived experience of the relational field. Depth of connection is what gives the words spoken in therapeutic conversation—symbols of connection—the power to contain the patient’s experience.
Our essential human nature is relational; every new relationship calls forth new versions of ourselves. The evolving process of change needs to be biographized and understood within new narratives of meaning. In inquiring deeply, therapist and patient become partners in the construction of this new narrative.
Various ways that the psychotherapeutic conversation/relationship can help in resolving problems are explored in this chapter and throughout this book. The bottom line is this: once we have truly understood how something has been brought about, and how and why it came to be in that particular form, those insights may themselves constitute the beginning of change.
When we inquire deeply (in psychotherapy or otherwise), we create the possibility of discovering the organizing principles which have been unconsciously shaping our experience, thereby facilitating change. A few examples from my psychotherapy practice that occur to me right now are the impact on one man, when he realized that he was magnetically drawn to the experience of being a victim; or the liberating effect on one woman, when she recognized that she had made happiness into a personal project against which she measured herself. In both examples, these insights enabled the person to make different choices and grow in significant ways.
Sometimes therapeutic change comes about of its own accord, through the quality of the interpersonal exchange without any explicit intervention. The patient takes in the therapist’s way of thinking about problems, the reflective frame for exploring suffering, and the capacity to hold conflicting ideas in suspension while examining connections, meanings, and significance of events. Under these circumstances, one may begin to feel a profound change in oneself without quite knowing how or why. As the saying goes, when we change the way we look at things, the things we are looking at change. This is the intersubjective alchemy of deep psychotherapy.
As discussed in Chapter 5, the calm and spacious state of mind contributed by the mindful presence of the therapist provides a platform of awareness from which things not previously recognized can be seen.19 I sometimes describe this process to patients as a metaphorical hike we will take together up a mountain, talking together on the way about the terrain we encounter. It is a hike that reveals whatever is in our way.
Problems can be understood in an unlimited variety of ways, and there are as many points of view as there are individual differences. This is where the clinical acumen and creativity of the mindful therapist becomes most relevant. In my view, what arises in the process of psychotherapy is a function of the breadth of understanding of the therapist, as well as the depth of his or her presence. We can only “take people” into the psychological territory we ourselves are able to go. This is the art of psychotherapy: it develops nuanced awareness of our experience and points the way toward strategies for change.