Narrative Therapy and Emotion: Meaning Making


Continuing with our summary of Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy (by Angus and Greenberg) we come to chapter 2. Here the authors attempt to lay out how we make meaning. But before we try to describe their model, consider how you make events and feelings mean something to you.

What data do you use to make something mean something? You use your body, your culture, your emotion, your reason, your previous meaning making (and the messages you receive from others). Consider this example. You pull up to a light and you glance over and see a person in the car waiting in the next lane. They wave a finger towards you. What does it mean? Well, it depends on your culture and your previous experience with that finger way. Is it a curse or a point to something else? The answer depends on where you live and what your lived experience of that finger wave.

The authors slow this process of meaning making (and meaning changing) down by considering facets:

1.   Bodily sensations. These do not exist by themselves but are connected to a sequencing of events. So, you have a feeling and then you immediately put it into a sequence. “I feel this way because…” The goal of therapy is to work to accept, tolerate, and “explain” or narrative emotions in a healthier way.

2. Words. Putting feelings into words tends to “[diminish] the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.” (p. 21). Thus, as they say, “…the person is having the emotion rather than the emotions having the person.” (ibid). “…naming an emotion integrates action, emotion, and meaning and provides access to the story in which it is embedded.” (ibid).

3. Naming is construction. “Conscious experience is not simply ‘in’ us and fully formed but instead emerges from a dialectical dance” (p. 22). Thus clients can learn how their own construal of emotions (the words, the meanings) shapes ongoing feelings

…understanding how a condemning self-critical voice leads to feelings of shame and helplessness helps clients to recognize the role they themselves play in maintaining their feelings of depression. (p. 22)

Thus, the goal is to encourage reflection of one’s common interpretative themes to see how they tend to organize and categorize their lived experiences.

4. Change the story. How does a person go about changing narrative themes (e.g., challenge and re-write feelings of shame)? How does one re-interpret shame feelings as sadness? Note the that goal is not to deny the feeling or reject it in any way. Rather, the goal is to interpret the feeling in a more constructive way. Consider this example:

I offer my son some advice. He does not take it but goes on to do the opposite. I might feel rejected? Further, I might go on to remind myself that no one ever respects me and listens to my ideas. I might feel insignificant and unloved. With the help of a counselor, I might re-name the feelings as sadness rather than rejection (e.g., I feel sad that he didn’t take my advice and recognize he might face certain consequences that he might have avoided if he had listened to me). Part of the transformation requires that I live with limitations. I am not capable of making my son choose what I want. I suspect that part of what leads us away from sadness and towards anger and feelings of rejection is our unwillingness to live with feelings such as sadness and grief. These things shouldn’t be this way if  others would just treat us right!

5. Reconstruct identity. Its one thing to re-write a narrative of a single event. It is yet another to write a new narrative about our self or about others. The authors say this, “Constructing a sense of self involves an ongoing process both of identifying with and symbolizing emotions and actions as one’s own and constructing an embodied narrative that offers temporal stability and coherence.” (p. 25)

What might a counselor do to facilitate reconstruction? The authors go on to give a brief overview of 4 phases of “narrative-informed EFT.” I will cover them in the next post.

1 Comment

Filed under counseling, counseling science, Uncategorized

One response to “Narrative Therapy and Emotion: Meaning Making

  1. Pingback: Retelling the Story (in crisis, loss, & healing) | the long way home

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