Giving Pain A Narrative

In an article entitled Post-Prozac Nationin the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times yesterday, Helen Mayberg, a neuroscientist at Emory University referred to depression as, ‘Emotional pain without a context.’

It is this very predicament that speaks to the power of Narrative Therapy, which seeks to frame, and then re-frame, the story – or context – of what people are feeling. In the article, Mayberg connects this loss of context with malfunctions in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory. It is interesting to note that research in other quarters on ‘Reminiscence Therapy’, (Brooker and Duce, 200), has demonstrated that seniors who reminisce, display greater well-being than their non-reminiscing counterparts. Thus the power and importance of (re)connecting people to their own narratives.

As a Narrative Constructivist clinician, with a background in playwriting, I like to collaborate with my clients in a meaning-making exercise that uses deep dramaturgical questioning.  This evokes a narrative arc, based on key phrases that the clients use, right from the first meeting. In fact, I begin every initial session by asking each client to tell me ‘the story of them’;  beginning with the most important thing they feel I should know. Usually this first thing that they tell me, or the way they tell it, provides a window into the most wounded part of their souls.

I like to think that as clinicians we serve as dramaturges (or midwives) to the sacred texts our clients bring. That we not only need to listen with three ears, but to ask the right questions…those that will help them to unravel the riddles that may be dividing them, from themselves. Once the context is recovered and reorganized, the meaning of the depressed life force becomes evident, and begins to unfreeze.

Find Your Voice Goes to Therapy

As I have presented my work to clinicians in many different settings over the last few years, I have discovered that I bring a unique perspective on client ‘material’, having been a playwright and a dramaturge.

Clinicians are all looking for creative ways to reduce people’s suffering and I have, perhaps, something creative to offer. I agree with Dan Siegel, [the cutting edge psychiatrist who has brought the science of brain development into clinical practice], In the most recent issue of the Psychotherapy Networker, when he says that, “the most important thing about a person’s history, is how they’ve made sense of that history” — in other words, the story they tell — or have been told. A dramaturge helps a playwright find a coherent narrative; a therapist does the same, and within a safe relationship.

Clinicians are often trained to ‘ignore the words’ and focus on the affect. While client’s tell their story in many ways (body language, symptoms, facial expressions, feelings, etc.), their words are an essential part of the story…especially if the right questions are asked, and if the material is handled with respect, flexibility and transparency.

The Find Your Voice approach to clinical work grows out of the approach we’ve taken to Narrative Coaching for the past twenty-five years. This approach begins from the first critical question asked at the first client meeting, to paradoxical sentence completions, to transcript sharing, to in and out of session writing assignments, to the creation of dramatic dialogues that bring chair work to life and offer clients the opportunity to balance their view of the characters in their lives; resolve conflicts; speak the unspoken; effect revision; and safely activate that which has been frozen.