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Articles    H3'ed 12/31/11

The Narrative Paradigm and the New Year

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It's New Year's Eve, almost 2012!   The year the Mayans ran out of space to keep going on their calendar and had a good laugh about what people in the future would make of that!   I wanted to begin the year talking about the narrative paradigm, which I have embraced wholeheartedly and hope to be helpful in its development.


The narrative paradigm arises from the realization that all things human exist in the form of stories.   Our brain stores and manages information in a storied form.   We communicate most effectively with others through telling stories.   We live our lives through the performance of roles that we come to understand through listening to stories that inform us about how we are supposed to live.   We change through hearing stories about other people's lives and trying them on for our lives to see if we could do what the hero in the story did.


Psychotherapy involves the negotiation of stories.   In my practice, I've learned never to ask "Why?"   I don't ask people why they do what they do.   I assume that they, like me, haven't a clue.   We like to ascribe motives to people and we imagine that they know why they do what they do.   We wait breathless at the end of crime dramas for the suspect to explain why.   We want a wrap up.   We want to know their motive. We need narrative closure.   We want to tie together the story into a neat package -- Bob killed Mary because she cheated on him and he was jealous, for example.     However, my actual experience is that most of us (including me) don't have a clue why we do what we do.   As children, when an adult asks us the "Why?" question, we try to make up an answer that will please or satisfy the adult or minimize our punishment.   Instead I try to ask "How?" questions.   "How does that work?"   "How did you know to do that?"


I've also learned not to give people advice.   People have actually explored all the possible answers that I could imagine without being in their lives.   They've already thought about everything I could suggest.   The only possible good suggestions could come from other people in their lives who have known them for years, which a therapist never will.   People don't need advice.   Rather, they need assistance to explore what stories they have about how to live that keep them from following the advice that they already know they should follow.


So, I try to find the story behind the position, belief, fear, stance, or attitude that people have that keeps them from changing.


Rather than interpret other people's lives and stories, I try to maintain a stance of appreciative inquiry -- asking lots of questions from a standpoint of appreciating how well the person has negotiated their life and wondering how they were able to do as   well as they did.   I try to balance the positives -- to find positives in stories that are presented as all negative.   Sometimes it's even important to find a negative in a story that's presented as all positive.   My hero in all this is the character, Columbo, a detective who never stopped politely asking respectful questions until he solved the crime.


There's no answers; just stories; no truths, just many perspectives.


What's liberating about this?   If we're shaped through stories and stories shape our brains (through in part our performance of the roles taught to us by those stories), then there are no diagnoses, no DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) as absolute truth or fact (rather, just one more classification system that's more or less useful depending upon the circumstances and situation), no defective people, just stories that work better or worse depending upon the circumstances and the situation.   Our job becomes helping people become aware of the stories that are shaping them and influencing them.   Then we can learn how to change those stories.


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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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