The Story of My Life
This five-word title leads us to expect an autobiographical essay, perhaps the length of a book, written toward the end of one's life, or at least the end of one's active career. We anticipate a reflective piece, retrospective in its tone, an attempt to make sense of the myriad individual details of a person's earthly existence.
I suggest that the story of our life, or at least the most important version of that story, is created near its beginning, by age three or four. It is certainly not a written account, nor even one that could be articulated in words, but these conditions in no way diminish its importance. This pre-verbal story has in common with the autobiographical essay the attempt to make sense of one's existence, but unlike the mature reflection the accuracy of this early narrative affects one's very survival.
According to Adlerian theory, each person—very early in life—must answer the following questions: What is the world like? What are others like? What am I? What must I do to survive? The answers to these questions—entirely pre-verbal—make up one's core beliefs, or what Adler calls one's style of life. These answers depend almost entirely upon the very restricted environment that one inhabits in these earliest years, usually one's parents' home.
As one therapist puts it, it's as if we've been thrown on stage in the middle of the second act of a play to which no one has given us the script. We have to figure out our role, and our success in doing so may actually be a matter of life or death.
A person who has been raised by loving, supportive parents may have as core beliefs the statements: the world is a safe and predictable place; others can be trusted to take care of me; I am strong and competent; therefore I can confidently explore the world. Psychotherapists tend not to see a lot of clients with these core beliefs.
Other people create core beliefs such as: the world is scary and chaotic; others are strong and powerful; I am weak and helpless; therefore I must learn to please others in order to survive. There are still more destructive core beliefs, such as, others who say they love me actually hurt (or abuse) me.
These core beliefs provide the narrative structure for the story of our lives. While we live at home our parents or guardians have a good deal of influence over what happens to us, but when we get out on our own, say in our twenties, we unconsciously attempt to replicate the surroundings of our earliest years. A person with healthy core beliefs will establish a household conducive to positive personal growth. But negative core beliefs have no less an effect. I had a client whose experience as a child was having his most fundamental needs ignored. As an adult he came to me with the complaint, among others, that his wife and twelve-year-old son ignored him. I have had clients--whose core belief that those who say they love them actually hurt them—who have been involved in one abusive relationship after another.
Our self-narratives, whose underlying assumptions are established at an early age, have a tremendous influence on the way out lives unfold, both for good and for ill. As psychotherapists we respect a client's core beliefs. After all, these beliefs have helped the client to survive up to this point. We undertake the challenge of identifying which core beliefs have interfered with the client's growth and endeavor to help the client alter these self-sabotaging beliefs. Several therapeutic techniques are available to us in helping clients alter their life story.
1. Adlerian Therapy
Adler writes that an individual's memories "represent his 'Story of My Life'; a story he repeats to himself to warn him or comfort him, to keep him concentrated on his goal, and to prepare him by means of past experiences, so that he will meet the future with an already tested style of action. … A depressed individual could not remain depressed if he remembered his good moments and his successes." [Ansbacher and Ansbacher, p.351]
I ask clients to share ten early memories, beginning with the earliest, while I take verbatim notes. (I have found it helpful to position the client near my computer, since I can type a good deal more rapidly than I can write, with generally more legible results.) For each memory I ask the client to identify which part of the memory was most vivid, and then ask for the feelings associated with that vivid part. I then ask the client to describe, if possible, what there was in that most vivid part that provoked those feelings.
Later I try to extract the potential core beliefs for each memory, focussing especially on what the client described as most vivid, and remembering that this was what the child needed in order to survive. Taking the stories as metaphors, I inquire what feelings the child learned that would carry all through his or her life.
Gathering all the potential core beliefs together, I try to identify common themes that would allow me to complete the following sentence stems on the client's behalf: I am …; others are …; the world is…; therefore I must … At the next session I will try out these potential core beliefs on the client, who will respond, "Right on," "Not quite accurate" (in which case I try to alter the phrasing to produce a core belief that the client acknowledges), or "Not me."
Later we will take up one of the client's early memories and I will ask the client to revise the memory in any way that makes it better. Then we take up the core belief associated with the original memory and I invite the client to rewrite the belief in light of the revised memory. I find it helpful to do a guided meditation with the client in which I help the client hear a supportive, reframed version of the core belief.
2. Narrative Therapy
"Stories from the past, whether they are told or not, influence the development and maintenance of present interactions in ways that may not be known to the current protagonists." [Eron & Lund, p. 54] Narrative therapy helps clients to recognize self-sabotaging stories and encourages them to reframe the "data" in a way that makes a more positive story.
In helping clients who suffers from depression, I will urge them to discard the image of themselves as "depressed people" and instead imagine themselves as healthy people under siege from depression. I will ask whether they have ever been successful in warding off the incursions of depression and will help them build on these successes, rare though they may seem at first. "Once the problem is seen as separate from a person, the person is in a position to see the relationship she has with the problem and to see the possibility of resisting, protesting, or renegotiating that relationship."[Freedman & Combs, p.283]
Narrative therapy encourages clients to focus on what is strong rather than what is wrong. Clients who can look upon depression as a formidable opponent, whom they have occasionally defeated, stand in a better position than those who see themselves as helplessly in the thrall of depression. Narrative therapy helps clients to see that they can adopt the powerful role of author of their life's story. In the language of narrative therapy, this process is called externalization. "Externalizing conversations make it possible for many people to experience themselves as choosing responsibility for the first time. … Instead of being the problem, the person has a relationship with the problem." [Freedman & Combs, pp.63, 66]
I have had good success using visualizations that engage the client in actively combating depression instead of regarding themselves as powerless victims. "Narrative solutions occur when people envision the past, present and future of their lives in ways that confirm their strengths and preferences." [Eron & Lund, p.270]
3. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
In popular usage, the word "trauma" is usually associated with a cataclysmic episode such as military combat, a tsunami, or a sexual assault. EMDR therapists broaden the term to embrace any experience that overwhelms one's capacity to process it. Thus trauma would include witnessing a violent dispute between parents, experiencing bullying or humiliation, or suffering a grievous loss. These traumatic experiences get locked away in our brains with all the images, emotions, thoughts and body sensations still connected with them. When we recall such an incident, "many of us find that we still feel the flush of the emotion, or the thought that was there at the time automatically arises." [Shapiro, p.3]
Moreover, traumatic memories become associated with negative self-beliefs, such as "I am inadequate," "I am permanently damaged," "I cannot trust anyone," or "I am powerless," beliefs that clearly interfere with one's sense of self-worth and mental health.
EMDR, a technique pioneered by Francine Shapiro, brings unprocessed memories in touch with the part of the brain that can heal the trauma. Specifically, alternately stimulating the left and right sides of the brain, while the client holds in mind the image associated with the most distressing part of a traumatic episode, takes away the distress of the memory, and replaces the negative self-belief with a positive one, such as "I am worthy," "I can be healthy," "I can choose whom to trust," or "I am strong."
In all three therapeutic approaches, the client becomes empowered to tell his or her story differently, to recognize that "the story of my life," created well before one has the ability to verbalize it, need not be regarded as final. Even late in life, one can seize authorial control and lead the story in a happier direction. As Jerome Bruner writes, "It is through narrative that we create and re-create selfhood." [Bruner, p.85] By gaining artistic control over our own stories, we can make that a healthier self.
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Ansbacher, Heinz L. and Ansbacher, Rowena R. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections from His Writings." New York: Harper & Row.
Bruner, Jerome (2002). Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Eron, Joseph B. and Lund, Thomas W. (1996). Narrative Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Freedman, Jill and Combs, Gene (1996). Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. New York: W. W. Norton.
Shapiro, Francine (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. 2nd edition. New York: The Guilford Press.