Tag Archives: narrative

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.

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Changing Your Narrative in Counseling?

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.

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