By Emilie S. Thomas M.A., LMFT
Among the myriad therapy techniques out there perhaps one of the most creative is a method called narrative therapy. To simplify greatly, narrative therapy focuses on the stories we tell, both to ourselves and to others, about life. Often these stories are unconscious, yet we create our lives and how we experience our days according to their dictation. The story does not change the external facts, but it can determine how the facts are lived. Therefore, it can be a powerful, life-changing exercise to become aware of our unconscious narratives and learn to shift them if necessary to shift life itself. Sometimes that shift involves a fact-finding mission to provide data with which to compare one’s dominant story. Finding such facts can be powerful indeed, because they can prove how subjective our experiences are, not only to the stories we tell ourselves, but also to the ones we have heard from our family, our friends, and our culture.
A narrative I have come across in working with clients involves the fallacy of complete independence. Clinical studies have identified that alienation and isolation are leading contributors to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Since incidences of these conditions have been skyrocketing in our culture, it makes sense to examine the disconnect that people are experiencing in their daily lives. In talking with my clients, I have found that many people feel deeply faulty because they are not thriving on their own in the face of sometimes devastating hardship and sadness. They are having difficulty enough through the external facts of their situation, but then they suffer doubly– not just from their conditions but also from their personal narrative about what they should be able to handle alone. If I go on a fact-finding mission with them, we can discover together that those “shoulds” arise largely from our cultural values on independence and self sustenance, brought about by years of others’ narratives and ideas. Stories indeed can and do layer upon each other until they become a kind of accepted truth, even if there is little to no basis in fact.
To illustrate I will consult my perhaps overly extensive knowledge about pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Since I was a young girl I have been captured by her family’s strong independent spirit and their reliance on courage, love and faith to survive tremendous challenges. However, even they did not survive alone. In fact, they spent very little time without neighbors within a mile or so, and they relied on those neighbors for labor, support, childcare, and company. The extent to which they did so is not explicitly revealed in the story books, which emphasize the independence of the pioneer, but it is clear in the many researched biographies written about Wilder. Even childbirth, an event that in our collective narrative was terrifyingly isolated on the frontier, was physically dangerous, but still quite different than modern assumption dictates. In fact, women in that place and time often had “a girl” come in for upwards of two months to cook, clean, and care for older children while the mother rested and bonded with the new baby. If free help from neighbors was not available, people would often pay for it, as is reported by Wilder herself. Contrary to popular narrative, history teaches us that even women on the frontier often had company, support, and work done for them for several months after giving birth- with no guilt. I do not know of one modern family that enjoys such a luxury, let alone feels entitled to it. Therefore, I might say to a young mother struggling with exhaustion: the facts do not lie! Our assumptions and our stories might, but the facts do not. If pioneering Laura Ingalls Wilder expected and received that much help from others as a self-sustaining homesteader, why should modern mothers and fathers shame themselves for not being able to juggle babies, older children, work outside the home, and housework by themselves?
Why should a grieving widow feel like she is weak because our impatient culture tells her that she needs to move on long before the typical two years that grieving actually takes? Why should a man working two jobs feel extra shame when he struggles to support his family on his own because he believes a stronger man could do better? Life is difficult enough. There is a never ending cascade of challenges, obstacles, losses and injustices that we all must face. To suffer with guilt and shame over the tough times when our stories that engender such emotions aren’t even based in reality, is tragic, exhausting and unnecessary. Next time you hit a rough patch, pay attention to how you’re thinking about it. Are you suffering over your suffering? If so, that might be a cue to examine the narrative you’re using to handle the challenge. If it is a critical or unrealistic one, challenge yourself to accept help and support from someone else in changing the story- whether the support comes from a therapist, a friend, or family member. After all, none of us are meant to get through this trip alone.