Some Thoughts on Psychotherapy and Stories

If you could tell the story of your life, where would you start? This is not a simple matter. The beginning, for example, may start before your beginning, with decisions made by people before you were born. Are these part of your story? Who would you tell your story to? Are there things you would never tell anyone? And the other people who are part of your story, would they necessarily tell the same story as you, where your stories intersect? As the answer is probably not, what are we to make of that?

I did not study Psychology at University, but English Literature, so I think about stories a lot, and also how my academic background influences my work as a Psychotherapist . I have read a lot of stories, and people have told me a lot of stories too. Every day I listen and reflect as stories pour out of people, sometimes for the first time, sometimes for the hundredth. I feel very priveleged to be a witness to these stories, and I try really hard to listen with all of my mind, heart and intuition. Sometimes these stories remind me of my own, and I have to be careful what I do with that. I cannot talk about myself, I have to keep my story to one side. But I am only human, and my mind can wander like anyone elses. I have to remember that their story, as is unfolds in between sessions, may not necessarily end like mine did. This is important because we like certainty, to know the ending. But life isn’t like books in that way.

We are constant editors of our stories, even when we are telling them to a Psychotherapist . There are all the usual omissions, distortions and exaggerations. I know because I have had therapy too. We create a sense of self by telling our stories, and that has to be something we can live with. It can take years before the omissions and unconscious deletions can surface, and when they do we can struggle to integrate them into our sense of self. In fact our sense of self may be altered forever. We may experience this as scary at first, and eventually liberating, but the people around us may not like it at all, because their sense of self is bound up with us being as we are. If we change it unsettles people, and they, like us before we were brave enough to have therapy, are all struggling to stay in their comfort zone. Some people reach a point in therapy when they are really good at telling their story, and can’t move on from doing that. Psychotherapists can collude with this by becoming too engaged with the story, with the who did what when and where. So the question, ‘How do you want to be in the world from now on?’ may never be addressed.

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For me, a big part of therapy is realising that, although you cannot change your story in the sense of alter historical facts, you CAN change how you tell it, and cast yourself in a more empowered role than you have done previously. We can also come to realise that perhaps the dominant narratives of our lives were written by other people. It takes courage to challenge these. If your parents always told you that you were shy, or just like your uncle Derek, or should be a doctor for example, it’s worth questioning in what way it suited them to say those things. Are they true at all? Did they become a ‘truth’ by repetition? We can decide. Self discovery always awaits us.

The great hypnotherapist Milton Erikson used stories and metaphors with his clients to encourage the changes they wanted in a more indirect way that engaged their imaginations. When we hear a story, we may see ourselves in it. This can allow us to imagine ourselves as more resourceful and capable than we have realised we are. The story jolts our mind from its familiar paths. A powerful story I always remember is this. It’s from Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson:

“The Emperor Tetrahedron lived in a palace made absolutely from elastic bands. To the right, cunning fountains shot elastic jets, ssubtle as silk; to the left, ten minstrels played day and night on elastic lutes.

The Emperor was loved by all.

At night, when the thin dogs slept, and the music lulled all but the most watchful to sleep, the mighty palace lay closed and barred against the foul Isosceles, sworn enemy to the graceful Tetrahedron.

But in the day, the guards pulled back the great doors, flooding the plain with light, so that gifts could be brought to the emperor.

Many brought gifts; stretches of material so fine that a change in temperature would dissolve it; stretches of material so strong that whole cities could be built from it.

And stories of love and folly.

One day, a lovely woman brought the emperor a revolving circus operated  by midgets.

The midgets acted all the tragedies and many of the comedies. They acted them all at once, and it was fortunate that Tetragedron had so many faces, otherwise he might have died of fatige. They acted them all at once, and the emperor, walking around his theatre, could see them all at once, if he wished.

Round and round he walked, and so learned a very valuable thing:

that no emotion is the final one.”

There’s something scary about this though. We want to know how stories end. We are vulnerable emotionally when a story we have always told ourselves about life is contradicted by the events of life. For example, we may have told ourselves ‘If I work hard I’ll succeed, and that will make me happy’; or ‘If I’m really good, bad things won’t happen to me’. Unhappiness comes; goodness is not necessarily rewarded. At such moments in life, it’s really helpful to have someone you can talk to about your disappointment and fear and anger. Then, realising that no emotion is the final one, can be a lifeline.