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Thickening Narrative Therapy Through Existential Psychotherapy
There was a time ago now, now. The past is written from multiple perspectives but the future is still empty and the present is the act of writing. Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that uses narrative or storytelling as our way of seeing situations in our lives. We look for that shape in the lens that describes an alternative way of understanding our troubles. Not to change the story but to tell it from a different point of view. Narrative therapy honors these stories and yet acknowledges that each viewpoint contains the meaning that the family, society, culture has established as the “true” meaning. Existential therapy tends to focus more on the individual’s attitude and on the “now” rather than the past or future. It primarily explores limits and expansion. The four main areas of inquiry within existentialism are meaning (vs. meaninglessness), freedom (vs. confinement), death (vs. life), and isolation (vs. inclusion) (Yalom, 1980). Narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy can help fill in the gaps left behind. It even includes the past, present and future and gives meaning as both an individual and a collective attitude.
The meaning of the term has eluded philosophers for thousands of years. It turned out to be almost impossible to give a precise definition. The way we use meaning is a theme that runs through most major schools of psychotherapy. The view within narrative therapy is that meaning is not a given, something not bound by meaning, but instead is an interpretation of experience. That interpretation is based on the social construction theory of reality. According to this (“The Social Construction of Truth”, 2009):
“The basic concept of the Social Construction of Reality is that individuals and groups acting together in a social system, over time, develop concepts or mental representations of each other’s behavior, and that these concepts eventually become the opposite roles that arise from are played by actors. Interrelation. When these roles are given to other members of society to step in and play, two-way relations are said to be institutionalized. and trust) of what is real, in the institutional fabric. of society.”
A more general way is that we give meaning to an experience through language, symbols and interactive dialogue. First comes experience and then that experience is filtered through these cultural interactions and then creates interpretation. Just because we see the color blue, it is only “blue” because that is the assigned meaning that has occurred in a cultural context. A quick formula for meaning in narrative therapy is experience plus interpretation of meaning.
One of the basic tenets of existential psychotherapy is what Sartre often called “being before nature.” Meaning is personally constructed, socially constructed. As we all die there are data that we will join. Then the meaning is created personally in this context. Since we will die in the future what does the present mean? It is believed that this meaning comes from people. When we accept this obstacle but ask ourselves what are we going to do about it, do we become a more honest or true person? First there is only existence, as it exists now, and then we create from that essence. Meaning within existential psychotherapy focuses on dominant beliefs such as the question “what is the meaning of life?”
A key theoretical move within narrative therapy is to pay attention to what is called the spark moment. When the client tells the story of what brought them to the therapist’s office, the therapist listens for an episode within the story that contradicts the main story. A story that paints a different picture of our preferred way, for example, if the client tells a story of depression, then the therapist listens to an event or time when depression was not present. Telling this alternative story is called “rewriting” in narrative therapy. The therapist can help with what is also called a “reminiscence” conversation that focuses on the identity of a past significant other who greatly helped the client’s life. This could be a friend, lover, parent, musician, or writer.
In order to help the client in this way, the therapist must remain non-centered, and non-intrusive. They can do this by helping the client “deepen” the chosen story by encouraging details of what is being said, rather than a thin description of an event. For example, instead of just saying the weather is nice outside, ask questions about why the customer thinks it’s nice outside. What is that smell, air, feeling, it reminds them of something, Therapists would do well to remember the rich history of existential psychotherapy to help deepen the chosen way of being.
Existential psychotherapy has a rich history of recognizing the way we use what Howard Gardner called multiple intelligences. They are, according to Wikipedia, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, visual-spatial and musical (“Theory of multiple intelligences”, 2009). Howard Gardner proposed a ninth intelligence which would be an existential consciousness. Existential intelligence consists of the ability to question the big issues of life such as death, life, and possible spiritual meaning (“Theory of Multiple Consciousness”, 2009). Narrative therapy also embraces the concept of multiple consciousnesses, which may not be obvious. The therapist is encouraged to explore with the client the best way to express. This can be through music therapy, writing therapy, or even art therapy. Existential psychotherapy, along with humanistic psychotherapy, has historically developed its holistic concept through analysis. The therapist does not come from an expert role, but from an interest in the real person or a phenomenological approach. In order to be fully consistent with this approach, the intelligence that the client works best for should be the path of exploration for further development.
We are always in the moment but always focus on future plans, worries, hopes, or even dreams. Likewise, when we are not in the past, we are dwelling on the past. The past has focused on our worries, our shame, even our doubts. This becomes the field of narrative therapy. That is, it connects a series of events to a certain time and gives it meaning. Narrative therapy deals with the present. It posits a center or self as opposed to the Buddhist concept of no-self. This position is described by the situation of an observer who studies or remembers the story. The concept of no-self is opposed to this position and there is no observer, but this is in the present moment. The concept of being is now or becoming (like a flower that is in whatever it is). Existential psychotherapy respects the past and the possible future but is the main source of the temporal present. James Bugental calls this living time (Bugental, p.20). This existential attitude can be very informative during the stage of rewriting and thickening the story in narrative therapy. It can also be used in the saturated stage of storytelling. If the client seems stuck on issues of affect or judgment of a particular event, then ask what the feelings, thoughts, smells, etc. feel like to unblock. While staying in the present moment, there are many aspects that can be explored, for example the present kinesthetic experience. This is one possible way to help with the problem of constipation.
Existential psychotherapists focus on four different areas of meaning making. They are freedom, death, isolation and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980). Each of these fields can be constructed as a continuum. Freedom will have two extreme sides. In one aspect of freedom, every freedom will be taken completely. Not having any kind of choice, like being in prison. The other end would be complete freedom as seen in libertarian philosophies where everything goes without limits. Existential psychotherapists suggest that each of us falls somewhere on this continuum. In order to take action, to find relief from our struggle with mental illness or pain, we need to come to a personal understanding of where we are now on this continuum and where we want to go or what we want to be. . For example, if we feel that we have too much freedom due to unrestrained volatility, we may need to walk a bit on this continuum to get more restraint to help us balance. There are no right or wrong answers but where the individual feels fit. In order to emphasize the preferred way of being in narrative therapy, this theory may seem to limit what it means. This meaning is created by the therapist and the client, but I argue that if we use it as a map, it can help us.
This opinion piece is not intended to be a position based on a fully theoretical position. The author agrees that both narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy have very rich but distinct philosophical foundations. There are only a few philosophers who have tried to explore the parallels between post-modernism and existentialism. If one looks for connections, one can always find those connections, in small details, but each philosophy is really a different project. The healing position, or pou sto, is something entirely different. Narrative therapy not only uses postmodernism as a philosophical background and existential psychotherapy only uses a strict existentialist philosophy. Instead, these philosophical backgrounds are a convenient way to use these various therapeutic attitudes to try to cure our mental illnesses. As Foucault said in his last known interview (William V. Spanos, P.153) “For me Heidegger was always the fundamental philosopher… My entire philosophical development was determined by my reading of Heidegger.”
What are some future directions for augmenting narrative therapy with existential psychotherapy? The first narrative therapy would do well to explain further what is meant by fattening the preferred story. What does it mean to make this story more accurate or the main focus on larger narratives? There needs to be more of a philosophical discussion on the idea of meaning because both styles of therapy have a great emphasis on meaning making but they just come at it from different angles and different projects. The question that can be asked is whether these two different drugs are as compatible as this author suggests. If not, why not? And is there a way forward?
As this story (theoretical position) ends, it is important to remember that these are questions and not absolute truths. The story can still be modified by adding subtle details and reducing distractions. All that can be said is that narrative therapy and existential psychotherapy are strangers walking in the same direction.
1. Bugental, James FT (1999). Psychotherapy Is Not What You Think: Bringing Psychotherapy Engagement into Live Time. Phoenix, Az.: Zeig Tucker & Theisen Publishers.
2. Social Construction of Truth. (2009, July 8). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Social_Construction_of_Reality&oldid=301080937, 22:46, 8 July 2009.
3. Spanos, Williams V. (1993). Heidegger and critique: Reclaiming the cultural politics of destruction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
4. The theory of multiple intelligences. (2009, August 4). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 16:07, 4 July 2009, retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theory_of_multiple_intelligences&oldid=306033977.
5. Yalom, Irvin D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
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