Let me tell you about a woman I am seeing. We began our work together because of her anxiety about her heart. She's had some coronary artery disease diagnosed, but not severe enough for treatment yet. She's in her late seventy's and was full of criticisms about her life and her value and how she lives. We began by exploring the stories about the critics in her life -- her father, primarily. She grew up as the only daughter of the law school Dean at a major Eastern university who doted on his sons and ignored her. The sons were expected to go to Law School and to become important contributors to the legal community. Girls got married and had children. This was the 1940's. Rivka's stories were all about her trying hard to get noticed in this family of men and never succeeding. Her mother had long before withdrawn into gin and tonics, the drug of that generation. Over time, I was able to construct a different story for Rivka -- one of being a heroine of the gender wars of the 20th century. Hearing my interpretation for the first time made her very uncomfortable. She had a visceral reaction in her gut and her chest. "Look at it," I said. "Your daughters had a very different relationship to gender roles than you had. They did what they wanted for work. They weren't limited to becoming nurses, teachers, or wives like you. You participated in the "Great War" that changed all that.
Rivka had reasons to deflect my re-interpretation of her life. She saw herself as having had two marriages that hadn't worked, one of which was still current. Her first husband had been very much like her father -- partriarchal, domineering, controlling. That was the dominant paradigm (aka story) for how men behaved toward women in those days. I pointed out how Rivka had the courage to divorce him in a time in which divorce was uncommon and to create a new story for her daughters about gender relationships. Her second husband, while problematic in other ways, was not patriarchal, controlling, or domineering. Actually, he seemed the opposite. She had gone too far in the other direction. She viewed him as passive, weak, and indecisive. However, I pointed out that she had radically shifted the balance of power by becoming the stronger one in the relationship. This was a gender role triumph. She could be proud of her work as part of the "Great Gender War".
She had more arguments about how others had been more visible and more important in changing gender roles; others like Gloria Steinem who seemed to singlehandedly transform gender in New England. "No," I said. "It was just waiting to change and she gave everyone permission to come out and do what they were already preparing to do. She just got all the credit for being in the right place at the right time. What about the countless numbers of people who fought in World War II. Not all of them got the Medal of Honor, but weren't all of them heroes?" Rivka had to agree. She had been a part of that story about the returning warriors from the second Great War.
We continued to work on Rivka's writing the story of her life from the perspective of a great granddaughter, seven generations removed into the future. She was slowly coming to see herself as more heroic than she had ever thought and to see that her "Critic" was really the voice of her father's generation of men, an amalgam of all the men who sat around her father's exclusive, all-male club at the University, smoking their pipes, sipping their single malt whiskey, and sure of their supremacy in the world. Progress consisted of her coming able to laugh at that image. We accomplished that initially by turning them into animals, lounging in their suits at their club. Her father was a badger. His best friend was a wolverine. All the Ivy League men from her father's cadre became animals. Making people into animals is a good technique for seeing the story in which they are all living. Rivka was taking an upcoming training with a man that intimidated her. We turned him into a raccoon which made the whole issue hilarious.
Here's an example of how narrative work addresses low self-esteem, especially the low self-esteem that an elder can have for herself at last portion of her life when she has judged herself by the stories of her birth time and place, despite the reality that all these stories have changed. The patriarchy has melted. Hilary Clinton is Secretary of State and Michelle Bachman can terrorize us with her radically conservative views as a potential President. The world of Rivka's childhood only exists in old movies.
How is this important to her worries about her heart? That remains to be determined, but I suspect that being "hard-hearted" toward oneself can't be helpful. Compassion and forgiveness for ourselves matters, and maybe even to our hearts. In Cree, the word for fire translates literally as "the heart of a woman". Compassion and forgiveness is thought to warm the heart, which could symbolically melt the cholesterol plaques in her arteries. Of course, the better we feel about ourselves, the better we evaluate ourselves, the more likely we are to exercise, eat well, and do the other heart healthy behaviors that reverse arteriosclerosis.
Be that as it may, the narrative approach is a lot more fun than diagnosing Rivka as having an anxiety disorder, which is what the DSM would do. The work we're doing is more productive for the last phase of life than being diagnosed, treated with drugs, or even an uninformed psychotherapy. She still needs to learn and practice more mindfulness (who doesn't?) and to live more in the present moment, but that become so much more possible when we feel good about ourselves.
On a personal note, I am in Times Square for New Year's Eve along with over one million other people which couldn't be more exciting. I will be doing a hypnosis course with Peter Blum at All That Matters in Warwick, Rhode Island, January 6th to 8th and a workshop on healing with Deena Metzger in Topanga Canyon, California, the weekend of January 20th to 22nd. For more information, visit my Facebook page or the websites of All That Matters or Deena Metzger.