Tag Archives: Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy and emotion 1


This month, Richard Smith and I are teaching an on-line class entitled, Christian Counseling in Postmodern Culture. Dr. Smith is managing the culture side of things in this class and has students thinking about the impact of consumerism, the “empty” self of the modern era, and “infantilist ethos” (from Barber’s 2008 Consumed)

This week Dr. Smith gave the class this quote:

At heart postmodernity [is] the same anthropology: both see humans as primarily units of consumption for whom choice is the defining characteristic… The difference between modernity and postmodernity is not that great looked at in this way: The cult of the autonomous ego, an endlessly acquisitive conqueror and pioneer devolved into a commodious individualism characterized by an unencumbered enjoyment of consumption goods and commodities.¬† (Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat).

A mouthful? Boil it down to this…postmodernist philosophy is very much concerned about the self. Not all that new. Now, postmodernism is much more than that and NOT all bad. But my point here is this: a counselor working in this culture must be able to connect with the client and help them construct/reconstruct their story rather than just give them lists of universal truisms to apprehend. Not that there isn’t universal truth but that the approach to them must¬† done in a dialogical and storying manner.

Enter narrative therapy.

Thus, I intend to blog a bit on this topic during the rest of August by summarizing and commenting on Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy: Changing Stories, Healing Lives, by Lynne E Angus and Leslie S. Greenberg (APA, 2011).

Chapter one begins with this statement:

Being human involves creating meaning and using language to shape personal experiences into stories, or narratives. (p 3)

Do you agree? I would argue there is much truth in this. We shape our sense of self from our retelling of our experiences (both in words and in unspoken thoughts/emotions). But, we do not re-tell all of our experiences. Rather, we collect some and ignore others. Part of counseling is to dialog with the clients about how they shape their own narrative.

The authors then make this statement about the work of counseling,

As therapists, it is when we listen carefully to our clients’ most important stories that we gain access to how people are attempting to make sense of themselves in the context of their social worlds. In this way, psychotherapy is a specialized discursive activity designed to help clients shape a desired future and reconstruct a more compassionate and sustaining narrative account of the past. (p. 3-4)

Here they are telling us that our stories we tell are shaped by our emotions and at the same time make sense of our emotions.

What is EFT? It is a therapy that sees emotions as “centrally important in the experience of the self.” (p. 6). It was developed (principally by Les Greenberg) out of humanistic and Rogerian ideas of self-actualization and of counselor activities of being with, following the client and guiding. Throw in some F. Perl’s empty chair techniques as well. EFT focuses on emotions. Adaptive emotions are “the most fundamental, direct, initial, and rapid reactions to a situation…” (p. 7). Maladaptive emotions “…usually involve overlearned responses based on previous, often traumatic, experiences.” By this they mean emotions such as shame and abandonment sadness. They define secondary emotions as those reactions that are intended to protect the primary or most vulnerable emotions. Finally, they define instrumental emotions as those expressed for a motivation to achieve an aim.

Why the focus on emotion? Because they seek the goal of being emotionally congruent and adaptive. In this book, they focus on empathic attunement and changing client narratives.

How? Clients identify, experience, explore, story, make sense of, and flexibly manage their emotions (their words). Therapists notice “meaning markers” that reveal client confusion or conflict with the self.

This book will explore the narrative approach to EFT. “Critical life events must be described, reexperiences emotionally, and restoried before the trauma or damaged relationship can heal. New meanings must emerge that coherently account for the circumstances of what happened and how the narrator experienced it…” (p. 11)

Finally, they say,

…no form of psychotherapy is likely to have a big impact on basic temperament traits, but a client’s specific strategies, adaptations, and their internalized life narratives (i.e., macronarratives) have as much impact on behavior as do dispositional traits. (p. 13)

That is an interesting quote and puts the act of storying as more important than disposition.

So, what we will look at in the remaining 7 chapters is how the authors help facilitate new meanings and change their own narrative. The question for us is whether or not the narrative or re-storying approach to therapy is (a) effective in remediating problems, and (b) fits with Christian faith.

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