“Anger issues” is how Ben explained why he was in my office looking for help. Ben’s wife had passed away four years earlier, leaving him t...
In 2008 I had the privilege, along with about 200 others, of being with Michael White in San Diego for a conference on Narrative Therapy. ...
Recently, a client in couple’s therapy, who was obviously struggling with our work, asked me about the purpose of therapy and how it works...
Metaphors help us make vivid, colorful comparisons. They capture complexity in just one word, or a few. And the metaphors we carry around ...
As promised in my last entry on Building Preferences , here’s an example of building a preference. The preference is for Dave, who has been ...
Thomas had an affair. Gina has embarrassed Carlos in front of their closest friends. LuAnn learned that Raymond wasn’t completely hon...
I'm very pleased to have my partner in therapy and marriage, Michelle, contribute the piece below. It describes her playful narrative wo...
How do you have a conversation that helps you better understand and address the complexities and difficult patterns of your relation...
AN ILLUSTRATION: GRUMPINESS AND DAVE In Parts 2 and 3 of this article I want to illustrate the mining and bookshelf metaphors by revisitin...
THE BOOKSHELF METAPHOR: SIDE-BY-SIDE UNDERSTANDINGS OF GRUMPINESS Instead of arranging the different ideas about Dave’s grumpiness ...
Between my 2nd-grade and 5th-grade years the volleyball-sized red rubber ball was the only piece of equipment needed for several of the games that occupied most of my recesses. With it we’d play games called two-square, one-square, dodge ball, and kickball. In a pinch, the red rubber ball could also be used as a basketball or soccer ball or to play three-flies-up.
Because it could be used for many purposes, just being in possession of the red rubber ball on the playground at the beginning of recess did not give a clear indication of the game to be played. Unlike a football or basketball, which mostly spoke for themselves, your intentions with the red rubber ball had to be announced, in words or actions. You had to “name the game.”
I'm pleased to say that I just passed the one-year anniversary of my first post. I started this blog as a vehicle for writing about some of the interesting things I get to experience as a narrative therapist. Writing in such a public forum has been important to me as it's required that I think about my writing from the perspective of others: people real and imagined, known and unknown, critical, skeptical, open, curious, or just having stumbled in. The main benefit to me, in addition to trying to imagine the many responses a given piece may elicit, has been that by "going public" I "get to" face the challenge of working on a piece -- revising, refining, throwing out and starting over -- until I feel good about having others read it. So, thank you. The fact that you're reading, and that some of you are even responding, questioning and engaging the ideas, is very helpful to me, and makes this whole process extremely satisfying.
Instead of arranging the different ideas about Dave’s grumpiness in a hierarchy, with one key underlying cause, in the bookshelf metaphor the ideas or explanations are arranged side-by-side, like books. Below are the items from the layers of the mining metaphor, now shifted 90 degrees to become books on a bookshelf, with slight name changes to move from “causes” to book titles:
In Parts 2 and 3 of this article I want to illustrate the mining and bookshelf metaphors by revisiting Dave and his dealings with grumpiness (from one my first entries in this blog). You may recall that Dave struggled with grumpiness in the evenings at home with his wife and two kids. He described grumpiness as a fog settling over his house and we identified the effects of the fog on Dave and his family (increased tension, distance, feeling “on edge,” a sense of heaviness and sadness).
Our conversation eventually helped Dave to name his preference: He preferred to be happy, upbeat, and pleasant rather than grumpy.
This article is about two metaphors we might use to understand ourselves when dealing with problems: the mining metaphor and the bookshelf metaphor.
By Michelle Naden
The following is an account of my meetings with a very vivacious and tender 8 year old. I’ll call her Amy so that her privacy is honored. Amy is the oldest of three girls. They live with their mom and dad who are among the most loving of parents I have met. Too, they are playful and helpfully engaged in their children’s lives. But even with such good things going for her, life has been difficult for Amy. She felt challenged by some significant changes in her young life and by the complications of her relationships. Before coming to see me she had lost a good neighborhood friend after a painful struggle between their families. She hated school and didn’t want to go. Overall, Amy didn’t feel very good about herself and she struggled with very BIG feelings that would well up and often erupt into explosions. These had her family tired, confused, sometimes angry, and perplexed about how to help Amy. Explosions were affecting everyone in the family, including Amy, who felt quite dispirited and beaten down when she first came to meet me.
The Use of Story in Therapy
Before continuing with Amy’s story I want to say something about my work so you have a context within which to understand some of the steps Amy and I have taken together.
The idea of “story” is central to how I listen and work with people of all ages. To explain this in a little more detail, the “narrative mode of thought” (White and Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, 1990):
(1) privileges the particulars of people’s lives, and pays special attention to the unique ways they live them. Out of these particulars come the unique meanings that people themselves hold about their lives. These meanings are the “stuff” of therapy conversations.
(2) “Time” is a critical dimension in the narrative mode. As events unfold over time, stories can be told that help to make meaning of these events. These “plots” of people’s stories “place us at the crossing point of temporality and narrativity” (Ricour, 1980), which is a fancy way of saying that paying attention to sequences of time and plot is what makes a really good story!
(3) To enhance the development of preferred stories, “rich” (i.e. poetic and picturesque) descriptions are elicited and conversations always are more exploratory and less purpose-driven.
(4) Narrative exploration acknowledges that stories are co-created between at least two participants. The protagonist or subject (or person consulting a therapist) is always accorded the status of privileged author. Therefore, it is the subject’s words and meanings that are taken as most valuable rather than a therapist’s interpretation or clinical evaluation of them.
Now back to Amy. I quickly realized that Amy was a fabulous artist. Her beautiful flowers put mine to shame and her skillful ways with making things and illustrating her ideas riveted me to the possibility of our work together centering around her creations. Because reading books was her passion, the idea of focusing on the story of her own life made really good sense to Amy. Too, Amy loved to dictate what we should do in any given meeting and so I put this talent of hers to good use and asked her if we might work together on a book that would document our progress with the very tricky problem of Exploding. Here is the result of this dynamic collaboration between us that took place over a period of a few months. It ended up in the form of an actual book that Amy illustrated and carefully dictated to me as I faithfully scribed.
My name is Amy and I am eight years old. I am still having problems with exploding. But Michelle is helping me with them.
I have two sisters. Their names are Sally and Hannah. Sally is one and Hannah is four. Sometimes Hannah can be a pest and she aggravates me. When Hannah makes me mad this is what I used to do:
Sometimes I would get so mad I would even jump on her! When I would hurt Hannah I would feel sad and my mom and dad would be mad. Then he (dad) would almost spank me but he didn’t because my mom stopped him. Everyone in the family was frustrated—except Sally.
Then things began to change in our family. We all went to see Michelle in her office.
We talked about Exploding. Exploding happened when Tired and Hungry got together to make me miserable. It was all because of Exploding. We went to work to get rid of Exploding. Here are some of the things we tried.
We tried playing games with Exploding and chased it away from the house. He went thumping down the street in a cloud of dust.
He’s kind of like a robot to me. Everyone has their own imagination of what Exploding looks like. Everybody is different.
One day things got really, really hard and Exploding went crazy! We were away from home, which is hard for me. So we came up with a new plan so that everyone would be safe. The plan was for me to be able to go to sleep without my mom there and without a fuss. If I could do this I would get to go to Apex, which is a super fun place.
(1) Take my Michelle CD to play at bedtime.
(2) Read my book until I fall asleep.
(3) Take my three favorite animals: Cheddar, Puzzle, and Nuzzle. They will help me get to sleep.
I think I am pretty determined and can do hard things. Even though this won’t be easy I am going to be able to do it!
I really did do it!!!
I took Cheddar and dressed her up in ski clothes.
And NO EXPLODING!!
One day we decided that sometimes I don’t know that Mommy loves me. She surprised me one day with a box and a card. In the box was a beautiful real gold necklace. It was a circle that means forever. Mom said it reminded her of the gold in my heart. If I touch it I remember that my mom loves me and it helps me to feel much better.
Now I am eight years old I understand more. Like not hitting my sister. Like stopping myself, writing it down, talking it out. I like talking it out best.
Exploding is kind of like a ghost now. He’s gone. I‘m not going to pack Exploding on our trip to Apex.
Mom says things are really good at home now. She sees me coming up with solutions when I don’t get my way.
I am much happier now.
Here’s one of the book’s illustrations:
One day, after meeting with Amy and her family, I discovered a very scary picture of Exploding under one of my office chairs. Amy strictly forbade me to include a picture of this horrible problem in her book and so you’ll just have to take my word for how frightening he was!
Witnesses and Celebration
As a part of our book-writing project, I visited Amy’s second grade teacher to interview her about the unique qualities that Amy brought to her classmates and her teacher. All sorts of treasures came out of that conversation and I copied down verbatim what the teacher told me and included a copy in Amy’s book. Amy didn’t say much about these reflections from her teacher but she did begin to express enjoying school and her teacher.
Amy and I decided to have a celebration and to bring her parents and sisters to our final meeting. She decided that we should eat strawberries and have lemon and vanilla cake. Too she wanted strawberry Italian sodas. For entertainment I read her book to the family and we played a card game that Amy decided we would enjoy. Following is a certificate that I prepared to honor Amy’s work. We all signed this as witnesses to Amy’s newly developed story of “Creativity Brought to Tough Problems that No Longer Exist” and entered it into her book that she proudly took with her.
This is to certify that AMY has successfully applied her very significant creative talents to the very tricky area of relationships. Her biggest achievement of talking it through has turned Explosion into a ghost and has her feeling more successful and happy at school and at home. Reading stories has helped her through tough times as well as remembering for sure that her mom loves her—fantastically!!
Amy gave her permission for me to publish her book here. She felt it was a good idea to share her success and strategies with other kids who might also struggle with tough problems like Exploding.
There is one catch, though. Amy would like to hear if anyone finds her experience to be useful in their own struggles with tricky problems!
One answer might be found at the movies, in the voice of the narrator: that disembodied voice that speaks from outside the movie or on top of its action, that helps set the historical context, explains a key plot point, or conveys thoughts that would otherwise be only “in the head” of a character.
The voice of the narrator came to mind recently when working with a married couple, Maria and George, who were frustrated by a regularly occurring conversation that would lead to nowhere but misunderstanding, defensiveness and distance. As we looked closely at their conversation, what was both obvious and saddening, was how, in the course of their difficult interaction, they would drift away from their original good intentions. Those good intentions would get lost in the background, implied but never spoken.
This time their difficult conversation began with a concern expressed by Maria, which felt like a criticism to George. He then responded defensively, or self-protectively, or with a counter-criticism (they disagreed on the exact nature of George’s response), and the conversation went back-and-forth, and headed from-bad-to-worse.
I asked Maria what her intentions were when she started the conversation earlier that week. Was she hoping for something in particular? What did she want to accomplish by raising the topic? Why was it important to her? What was her preference for how the conversation would happen?
Maria said her intention was to “connect with George, as a partner,” around an issue that was of concern to her (I’m not naming their particular issue here; feel free to insert one that’s familiar to you). Her hope was that George would be “open” to her concern, that he “could understand” why she was concerned and maybe even appreciate her for raising the matter. When I questioned her further she was able to cite occasions in the past when they were able to interact in this preferred manner, and she was clear that this was a strongly held preference, or preferred story, for their relationship.
Then I asked George about his preference for that same conversation. Similar to Maria he expressed his desire for “non-defensiveness,” “mutual care,” and listening with “openness” to one another, to build more understanding and closeness.
In that moment I was aware of how vastly different were the two conversations they described: the conversation that actually happened earlier that week where they got lost in the content and their reactions to one another – I’m calling it the “lost-in-the-process” conversation; and the second conversation, which didn’t happen that week, except in their descriptions, that was built around their intentions and preferences – I’m calling it the “intention-focused” conversation.
The lost-in-the-process conversation had all three of us feeling sad and overwhelmed by the mess of hurt, fear, accusation and counter-accusation George and Maria described (and that they actually re-lived, to a certain extent, while they were describing it in session).
The second conversation, the intention-focused one, had us feeling more optimistic about Maria and George’s desire for closeness and connection. We were clearer about what they wanted and how they would like to talk with one another; what they wanted felt do-able, and certainly worth doing.
In session I moved to the whiteboard and tried to visually depict the two conversations. For the lost-in-the-process one, I used back-and-forth arrows and words like “fear,” “hurt,” “vulnerability,” and “defensiveness” (words they had used) to depict the pain and stuck-ness they felt. It looked something like this:
Then I depicted their intention-focused conversation and wrote the words they used to describe their intentions and preferences: “clarification,” “talking about things that matter,” “tackling the tough topics,” “being open,” “being respectful,” and becoming “closer” in the process. It looked something like this:
With both drawings on the board, and with all of us feeling the different effects of these two depictions, I asked George and Maria to indicate their preferences. They both opted for the intention-focused version. Among the reasons they cited for their preferences were that they thought this kind of talking “brought out the best” in both of them, and rekindled “hope” and “love” that was often hidden by frustration. They also said that this kind of conversation didn’t let fear and vulnerability rule the day.
Later in the session, I wondered with them about what it would be like to step out of the lost-in-the-process conversation and into the intention-focused conversation. That is, if they found themselves in the midst of a lost-in-the-process conversation, headed in an unproductive direction, would it be desirable to step out of that conversation and into the other one? Or, might it be worthwhile to just begin some conversations by focusing on intentions and preferences, as an introduction to raising any concerns?
In other words, would it be valuable for Maria and George not to leave all of their hopes, desires and good intentions in the background, but to bring them up-front in their conversation? Would it be valuable to name those intentions – to “own” them, so to speak – and allow those intentions, like the narrator in a movie, to provide the context in which the desired conversation could take place?
From a narrative perspective
Michael White’s work on “landscape of action” and “landscape of identity” has been helpful to me in understanding how the “story” of an experience, how we understand or make sense of it, is derived both from our actions (what we do and say), and from the meanings, values, hopes, commitments, and intentions (“landscape of identity”) we ascribe to the situation.
For example, when Maria first raised her concern George not only heard the words Maria spoke and saw her gestures, movements, etc., but he also attributed or viewed them through the lens of certain meanings, like: “she’s unwilling to accept that my ways are just as legitimate as hers”; “she doesn’t like it that I’m so happy”; “she’s still afraid of me.” Likewise, George’s responses were also viewed and interpreted by Maria using these dual landscapes (“his words and tone are ‘defensive’; he knows I’m right but he’s too proud to admit it”).
From a narrative perspective we see these dual landscapes informing all interactions, and we assume that there are always multiple possibilities for how we understand a situation (we believe that multiple stories are always present). There are lots of interesting applications of these narrative ideas and assumptions to the situation with Maria and George. I’ll highlight just two or three of them here.
One application is that these ideas help us see that it is possible for George and Maria to explicitly influence the meaning they’re making of a given interaction rather than “leaving it to chance.” By stating, up front, that her intention is to “tackle an important issue,” or “make a tough decision” and to “work together” while doing so, Maria is helping to shape the unfolding story. She’s offering a lens or perspective to George to help him interpret what she’s up to. By doing so she’s increasing the likelihood that George hears her concern as an effort to work something out and get to a better place, rather than as criticism. (And, yes, it is possible that George won’t believe Maria when she says that her intention in bringing up a concern is to “work together” or “get closer.” And it’s likely that Maria has multiple intentions and may be choosing to highlight just one of them. There may be much to discuss even in the simple statement that “I want to be close to you.” Did I mention that relationships can be pretty complex?)
Another potential benefit of George (or Maria) naming his intentions at the beginning of the conversation (or during it, perhaps), is that he puts himself in the position of considering what actions and attitudes would be most consistent with his intentions: “If I really want to accomplish this, how should I behave? What words and tone-of-voice would best match my intentions?”
One thing I really like about Maria or George making a clear statement of their intentions is that it lets the other person make a more-informed decision about whether they want or feel able to participate in such a conversation. If Maria wants to “talk about a tough subject” in order to “be clearer” and “possibly get closer,” is George interested in or able to talk about that subject? Is he able to do it now or would it be better in an hour? Does he want to get clearer? Does he want to get closer? And is he willing to extend himself toward that end? In other words, Maria is naming her preferred story for the conversation, and now George can make a more-informed decision about whether he wants to help create or build that story with Maria. Of course, George may not want to or feel capable of doing so at that time, but maybe that’s better to know at the beginning rather than finding out at the end.
Finally, I’m aware that this discussion about naming one’s intentions can seem like an overly cautious, scripted, or regulated way of being in a relationship – not “free” or “natural” or “in the moment.” I think spontaneity or “free-flowing” or “open and honest sharing” can be beautiful and delightful, and when a relationship is working well, such conversations may predominate. The fact that they are possible and that they do work well may also indicate that those in such a conversation already have a good understanding of one another’s intentions, and that their conversations are consistent with and supportive of those intentions. But I think we also need options for when difficulties arise, or for when we want to give ourselves the best chance to have a good, productive conversation about something difficult. To return to the voice of the narrator: Sometimes the movie’s action and dialogue carry the story, and sometimes the narrator is needed to set the stage or fill in the gaps.
…People loving each other but suffering because they can’t seem to make their relationships work better.
…People knowing what they want but suffering because they keep encountering obstacles, sometimes the same ones over and over and over.
…People not knowing what they want but suffering because they’re sure there’s something “better than this.”
…People suffering because their actions and choices have hurt others and yet they’re hurt themselves, by those same people, and there’s no clear way out.
…People suffering because there’s too much risk, too much vulnerability between where they are and where they want to be.
My usual focus for this blog is to share some of the ways hope and new possibilities arise from suffering. But for now, for this blog, I wanted to write a reminder to myself of the presence of suffering: not to worship at its altar or to imply that therapy is always or only about suffering. But to acknowledge that suffering is often the territory of therapy: real people in real dilemmas who see their hopes and dreams vanishing.
I realize that this talk of suffering may evoke a big “of course” for you (You: “not a surprise, really, that people are in pain when they show up to therapy”). And your imagined response has made me wonder if this entry is worth writing. But here’s my dilemma: In writing from a narrative perspective about the practical and hope-giving solutions people develop, I don’t want to give the impression that people’s lives and the painful experiences they share with me in therapy are merely fodder for my blog, nor that I have simple, formulaic answers for them. For me the truth is quite the opposite.
People’s pain and fears, and the complexity of their problems can be daunting for my clients and for me. Ironically, perhaps, it is probably this sense of feeling daunted that most draws me to my work as a therapist. To be let in to people’s lives when they are truly in pain, and to be asked to help, is to experience a special, privileged kind of connection with them. Words fail to accurately capture the feeling of it, but I’ve heard many therapists talk of this experience as “sacred.” That feels about right to me.
I’m also drawn to the challenge of helping people find a new way, a solution, when they’ve already tried everything. The things I write about in this blog, the practical solutions inspired by a narrative perspective, usually begin in the territory of low spirits, fading hopes, and no apparent solutions. My clients and I venture forth by seeking to name and feel and understand their pain and suffering. And we let their pain and suffering lead us to their hopes and dreams.
My blog exists because I love how narrative ideas and practices help me and my clients move from suffering to solutions. But in the effort to express the joy, excitement, and practicality of what people are able to accomplish, I don’t want to diminish the fact that their beginning places, and their paths, are complex and challenging: and those paths often begin or lead through suffering.