(Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-advice/9280598/The-best-apps-for-public-transport.html)
This past week I completed a 4-day intensive in Narrative Therapy, organized by the Vancouver School for Narrative Therapy. There are many great take-a-ways from a theory that teaches that we all carry around with us, or live our lives within, problem-saturated stories which can be deconstructed. For example, I can carry around the story that I am depressed, and everything that I experience can confirm that story. By externalizing depression, though, as not something that is part of me, but something that is acting upon me, I can shift out of that depression story, and see a lot more to life than originally available. This is not an immediate process, but a subtle process that gains momentum as I learn to construct a more nuanced and accurate story.
The theory also holds that our problem-saturated stories are often sparked and maintained by social discourse that privileges certain identities over others. For example, it is hard for a queer person in our society to be unscathed by poor self-esteem, when the dominant culture privileges defined and neat categories of sexuality and gender. Thus, when a narrative therapist helps a client to deconstruct a story of oppression, the client often becomes an advocate for their identity as deserving of dignity.
What I want to lift up from Narrative Therapy is the idea that problems have become privatized. We experience this privatization of our problems when we have the sense that, “my anxiety is my problem, I have tried everything I can to fix it, so my anxiety is not going anywhere!” We can see that by gripping so tightly to our exclusive ownership of our problem stories, change is pretty impossible.
When we invite in the understanding, though, that our problems are sourced in social discourse, our problems are actually very public. What a relief to know that my depression, or addiction, or anxiety, or self-loathing, or fear, or whatever, is already shared by every being that I encounter, or hide from, in my life. There is no cross to bear alone here!
So what is the practical application? Should we run around and tell everyone we meet about our problems? (Probably not.) Should we tear down professional convention at work and just have one giant hug-fest because everyone experiences suffering? (Maybe yes in some cases, but that probably will not go over very well in most situations.)
I think the application is in the reduction of shame which can get in the way of someone seeking the help they deserve. If we can remember that everyone has a part in creating and re-creating problems that we experience individually, we can feel a little less bad for needing help. Also, the circle of people that can help becomes much wider than we first realized.