If you have gone to counseling, then you probably wanted something to change in you or something connected to your life. If you have counseled someone or been their wise friend, you also wanted something to change. There are a variety of ways to try to calculate or observe change. Is there a reduction of unwanted behavior or an increase of hoped for behavior? Is there a change in affective or perceptual change (i.e., do I feel better or have more hope?)? Is there more insight? More acceptance of what cannot be changed? Greater responsibility taking for what can be changed? Is there greater congruence between faith and practice, head and heart?
While everyone (counselor, counselee, insurance company) wants objective evidence of positive change to prove that counseling was worth the cost and effort, the most powerful and most valuable change gets little attention. What is that change? Script or narrative change. We all live by a storyline. We use that story line to make sense of our world and of ourselves. However realistic we think we are, we never really use all the data to determine our reality. Rather, we use scripts to fill in blanks and supply us with the “truth.” Don’t think this is true? Just examine the common fights of a couple. Most likely you can remove the content of the fight and you will find an enduring pattern of feelings and perceptions about self and other in each spouse.
How did we get these scripts? We have experiences of self in the world? We make interpretations of what we experience. Others communicate interpretations for us. But we are not blank slates, we come to these experiences with a distorted imago dei–a God-given image and agency that is both active and yet distorted due to Sin.
So, how does counseling change a script or life narrative? There are a couple of options. You can begin with behavior change. Changes in behavior may cause someone to re-evaluate view of self and other. For example, a person may move from “I can’t” to “I can” based on the evidence in behavior change. You can begin with insight. What is my dominant life narrative and is that really accurate or is there a better one to live by? You can begin with relationship. This form of intervention is less clear but probably more powerful than the first two. By focusing on the “here and now” you are having an impact on narrative as it plays out in the moment. In opposition to insight which pulls narratives apart, this form of intervention is predominantly an experience that shapes the narrative in a more implicit fashion. In other words, we realize the change sometime after the fact.
What you cannot do is exhort someone into a new script. When we try (and we do sure try: “Don’t be afraid of ____ …It isn’t that bad…”), we fail. Even if the counselee “buys” the new script, they have only listened to you say it. They have not yet written it on their heart. Passive acceptance ought not be mistaken for real change. In fact, sometimes hearing the needed change over and over only makes the person more resistant to it. A change in script must be practiced and owned for it to become real. That is why an addict may well become sober by accepting the limits imposed by others and still yet remain an addict at heart.
Narrative changes usually take time. It is possible for powerful experiences to create instant change in our view of self and other. Certainly conversion experiences are evidence of massive script changes. Many of us have had powerful “a-ha” moments that also change our perception of self and the world. But most of our script changes happen via the drip method–water dripping on rock does indeed make changes when viewed over the long haul. When we look back on our lives, we often note places where we have indeed changed–sometimes for the better, sometimes not.
For more on intervention points in counseling, check out this post I wrote 2 years ago. I tried my hand at illustrating both the script and the intervention points.